Night Light of the North Coast: Pandemic Stargazing at the Parks

Foggy skies aglow over Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a few minutes drive north of Orick. My buddy Ryan is seen photographing a safe social distance down the fence line. Obviously, one is never guaranteed clear skies… Check the weather before you go. May 27, 2020. Humboldt County, California.

“Ah, look at that, man. The GREAT outdoors!” — Tom Skerritt, Up in Smoke

With COVID-19 jumping from person to person around you, the great outdoors in all of its purity is all around as well, and it is waiting for you. Social distancing is still necessary to protect our loved ones, but outside options are opening up as lockdown lightens and California State Parks unlocks some areas for limited parking and solo activities. Remember, though, with everyone eager to get out, your favorite destination may well become too crowded at peak times. But I have the solution.

Might I suggest stargazing at the local State Park? The Parks are generally unpeopled at night, and far enough from the glow of city lights to provide great stargazing opportunities. We are fortunate here on California’s North Coast, rich as we are with State Parks and skies that are still relatively dark.

There are people living in cities for whom a starry sky is nothing more than a few dim points of light between skyscrapers barely seen in a night sky blasted out with city glare. I could never live like that; my insides shrivel and hurt to think of it. Even so, it is all too easy to take the night sky for granted when one lives with it. My heart is warmed remembering times with city friends or family when they have visited and beheld the grandeur of our brilliant night skies: “I can’t believe how many stars there are!”

Remember that the parks are not fully open yet. Their facilities are closed, some areas aren’t open at night, campgrounds are closed, and visitors centers are closed. What has opened is limited parking. Check with your local park before you go out to see if it is open and what visitor guidelines there are.

Find your local State Park for park-specific information on its availability at this index: https://www.parks.ca.gov/ParkIndex

There are numerous advantages to stargazing at the Parks during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • • No people, so no COVID. I rarely see anyone while I’m out.
  • • No people also means more parking (of course, check first to be sure your park of choice is open).
  • • See the stars. I mean really see them. If you give your eyes twenty or more minutes in the dark, you’ll begin to see the faintest stars. Go. You must.
  • • Find your night vision: you’ll even find that the surrounding area you thought was “pitch black” turns out to have detail you can see after a while.
  • • Hear new things — listen to the quiet, the call of an owl, the bark or cough of an animal, the breeze in the trees. Sound travels far at night.

When you go out to stargaze, I recommend bringing a few things:

  • • Bring a buddy, it’s safer for all kinds of reasons.
  • • Flashlights: bring more than one, and some spare batteries. Make sure one of the flashlights has a red light option; you’ll want to use the red light exclusively most of the time because the red light allows you to see without blinding your night vision for minutes at a time. Headlamps often have a red light option.
  • • I bring bear spray — just in case. But I had an accident with bear spray the other week (see last week’s story, “Isolated Thoughts and Silver Linings”), and I now recommend bringing with you at least a gallon of water in case you, too, have an accident with it. You should bring more water than you think you should bring.
  • • Drinking water. I usually don’t bring snacks, in case it would attract big critters with sharp teeth.
  • • Cell phone. But don’t keep looking at it, because it ruins your night vision. But you might try getting a star gazing app for it to help you identify stars and other celestial objects you’ll see. Some apps even identify the satellites you’ll see in the sky. There are too many such apps to list.
  • • First aid kit.
  • • Face mask in case you get mixed up with people.
  • • A trash bag: any trash you bring with you, take it back out with you, too (pack it in, pack it out). Otherwise, stay home. You probably won’t appreciate the stars.

California State Parks general COVID-19 pandemic statement:

“As of May 21st 2020, California State Parks will be increasing access to all state parks in the North Coast Redwoods District. Limited parking will now be available in state parks in Humboldt, Del Norte, and Mendocino counties. Campgrounds, museums, visitor centers, and other facilities remain closed at this time. Please keep in mind the following guidelines when visiting the parks: 

·    Stay Local: Stay close to home. Walk or bike into the park. Parking is very limited. Do not take road trips to parks and beaches or to neighboring states.

·    Stay Active: Keep walking, jogging, hiking and biking. Watch for one-way trails.

·    Stay Safer at 6 Feet: Maintain a physical distance of 6 feet or more. Gatherings, picnics and parties are not allowed. Visitors will be asked to leave if there are too many people at the park, beach or on trails to allow for the required physical distance.

·    Stay Clean: Be prepared. Bring soap/sanitizer and pack out all trash.

·    Stay Covered: If your county health orders require it, please be sure to wear face coverings when you cannot maintain a safe 6-foot distance from others.

Thank you for your patience and continued support of California State Parks as we work to limit your risk for exposure to COVID-19 in the outdoors. For more information, please visit parks.ca.gov/FlattenTheCurve .”

State Parks COVID-19 Resource Center page: http://parks.ca.gov/?page_id=30350

The Eel River glides between Redwood-covered hillsides beneath a magical night sky. This is a composite image: the sky was exposed for about 25 seconds, but to capture the dark foreground I left the shutter open for about 4.5 minutes. July, 2019. Humboldt County, California.

To read previous entries of “Night Light of the North Coast,” click on my name above the article. For current photography or to purchase a print, visit and contact me at my website mindscapefx.com , or follow me on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx and on Twitter @davidwilson_mfx .

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