Finding True Darkness in the Desert

Great Basin courtesy National Park Service

Great Basin courtesy National Park Service

People drive to Las Vegas to see the famed neon lights. Me? I want to drive as far away as possible to see celestial lights from above, not one you can see from space (I’m looking at you, Luxor). Just more than 300 miles north is Great Basin National Park, where the night sky is mercifully unsullied by light pollution.

One weekend a year, Great Basin holds its Astronomy Festival, where the telescopes come out and planets, nebula rings, constellations and more are a hair’s breadth from your eyeball. A park ranger described the sky over Great Basin as primeval, which means it is the same sky that the earliest human beings were looking at—the darkness has largely been unchanged by artificial light. When you look up, it is absolutely shocking how bright the stars are. And that white spume across the sky? That’s the Milky Way, a sight most adults vaguely remember from their childhoods, and kids nowadays do not know at all.

To get there, we drive through a whole lot of desert, which, at night, seems unremarkable, unless you really pay attention. The quality of darkness gets richer and more velvety as you get closer to the little town of Baker, which is at the foot of Great Basin. During the day, Baker is not much to look at save for a couple of hipster-ish gems: the Magic Bean coffee hut, which looks like it came straight from the Pacific Northwest, and the LectroLux Café, which has an impressive wine list for a town with a population of 20.

When you get to the park itself, the 12-mile Wheeler Peak scenic drive is all about the journey and the destination. You reach an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, and it feels like you’re driving in the clouds. The views are stunning during the day; at night, you can (almost) pluck the stars with your hands. The very much alive Lehman Caves offer another way to commune with the dark. Stalactites, stalagmites and helictites millions of years in the making are just as beautiful as the stars above.

Handy Apps: SkyView and Wunderground

If you’re an astronomy novice and can’t tell a constellation from an asterism, SkyView is a handy app that’ll make you sound almost as awesome as Carl Sagan. Because of the elevation change, you want to be on top of the weather at Great Basin, especially if you’re camping. I used Wunderground to track the temperature and weather patterns, and it helped me decide if I should bother with the rainfly or not. And of course, I used every parent’s lifesaver on long car trips: Siri, who answered all of my kid’s questions, including that ol’ favorite, “Are we there yet?”