[LEONIDS UPDATE: The Leonid meteor shower will peak after midnight November 16 and before sunrise on November 17. The best viewing times will be after the moon sets about 1:45 a.m. Though not as intense or colorful as 2009's Leonids, the 2010 version might be worth staying up for!]
So, where is a good spot for some star-gazing?
Here is a list, heavy on viewing locations in the Western Hemisphere, where I know best, that I guarantee are among the very best (i.e., darkest) places to watch meteor showers, such as the week-long Orionids,
which peak in 2010 on October 21, the Leonids which climax on November 17, 2010, and the colorful Geminids showers, which will be at their best on December 13, 2010. See a sky calendar for celestial events through 2015, click here.
To wit, my meteor shower viewing favorites:
1. The consensus pick seems to be Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The skies are invariably clear here, and the ocotillo-studded desert is very sparsely populated. Mount Laguna, which overlooks the desert, is possibly even better. San Diego State University operates a small observatory there.
4. In South America, Chile boasts some of the best viewing locations – especially the desolate Atacama Desert. Bring water; it hasn’t rained there in more than 50 years!
5. “Color Country” in southern Utah – the high mountains above Zion National Park, west of Bryce Canyon National Park and north of the Grand Canyon North Rim – are remarkably beautiful viewing areas. The skies are generally pollution-free, and pitch-black.
6. Oregonians swear by the wide open spaces near Bend and Sun River, especially up in the mountains. Sun River even has a small observatory, but in my experience, it is too often closed.
7. Speaking of observatories, CalTech’s Palomar Mountain Observatory north of San Diego, boasts one of the world’s finest telescopes. But the facility is closed to the public after 4:30 p.m., so as not to interfere with ongoing scientific studies. But there is a campground on the darker east side of the mountain, where star-gazers traditionally gather to watch the night skies.
8. Historic Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, is open – and offering several programs around the meteor shower. Hard-core star-gazers also cluster at the famed meteor crater near Flagstaff. Everyone has their fingers crossed for clear skies. (Lowell also operates telescopes in La Serena, Chile, and Australia.)
9. Joshua Tree National Park, north of Palm Springs, California, also offers almost a guaranteed prospect of clear skies and a dark night, far from the light pollution of cities.
10. What is purported to be the darkest spot in the eastern United States is at remote Cherry Springs State Park near Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The park attracts East Coast star-gazers year-round, and a popular annual event here is the Black Forest Star Party.
The sea, at night, can also be an unforgettable location for viewing heavenly delights. Cruise lines advertise expeditions to watch comets, eclipses and northern and southern auroral displays. but in my experience, however, cruise ships keep on way too many lights – all night.
Star-gazing is, to me, the ultimate democratic exercise: Anyone can do it. And when you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are.
September 1, 2010
[Editor's Note: For information on another celestial phenomenon, check out this column on where to watch the Northern Lights. Sunspot activity is picking up after several years of quiet, and some spectacular heavenly light shows should be viewable September-April in these locations in 2010/2011 and perhaps subsequent years.]