Last night my husband and I drove out to Natural Bridges National Monument for the twice-a-week ranger led astronomy program they offer each summer. We had gone once before, but it was in 2009 when we first moved here, so I’ve been wanting to go again for quite a while now.
I think the fact that the programs don’t start until about 9pm and have been held on weeknights for the past couple years, and that it’s a 1 hr 15 min drive to Natural Bridges from Monticello (meaning we have to drive 1 hr 15 min home after the program ends at about 10:30 or so) is what has kept us from going back sooner. It’s an awesome program, and is definitely worth going if you’re camping out there, but I’m usually in bed by about 10:30, so it’s been hard to get myself to make that drive on a weeknight!
When we went to the program in 2009, we were also camping at Natural Bridges. We had driven out there really early in the morning to try to get a campsite at their very nice but small (Only 13 sites!) campground, and had plans of doing the 8.6 mile loop hike along the bottom of the canyon that takes you past each of the 3 bridges.
When we arrived at the campground it was just before 9:00am and there were only 2 campsites left. Usually we kind of circle the campground and try to figure out which site we like best, but this time we just pulled into one, and it was a good thing we did- right after we parked, about 3-4 more cars came through looking for sites!
Once our campsite was secured, we headed out on the loop hike, which was amazing, but I’m going to have to save that for another blog entry! Anyway, the point I was trying to make is that the first time we attended the Astronomy Program, we were camping at Natural Bridges, and it was a really nice way to spend the evening while camping. PLUS you don’t have to drive home afterwards!
I called yesterday afternoon to confirm that they would be having a program that night. The person who answered the phone told us the program would begin at about 9pm in front of the Visitor Center, and he also reminded us to bring chairs or a blanket to sit on during the program. Currently (for the summer of 2012) Astronomy Programs are being held every Wednesday & Thursday evening from May 9th-the end of September, but it’s always a good idea to call ahead and confirm before you make the drive out there.
When we arrived at the Visitor Center at about 8:50pm, the ranger already had the telescope set up and was chatting with a couple who was already there. As we set up our chairs and got settled, a steady stream of people continued to arrive. By the time the program started, I think I counted 21 or 22 people- not bad! It was definitely more people than I was expecting.
The ranger started the program by giving us some of the history of Natural Bridges. He told us that in 2007 Natural Bridges became the first International Dark Sky Park certified by the International Dark Sky Association. He also told us that the skies at Natural Bridges are in the top 5 darkest night skies in the United States. I was trying to look this up online to verify it, which I was unable to do, but in the process I found a really cool interactive google map that shows city lights around the world. If you zoom in over the United Sates, you can definitely see that there isn’t much light pollution in southeast Utah. Here’s a LINK to the map…
Unfortunately, just like the last time we went to the Astronomy Program, the moon was close to full, so we couldn’t see as many stars as you would be able to see if you were there closer to a new moon. The ranger used a laser pointer to show us different constellations, stars, & planets. There were some people there who definitely knew a lot about astronomy… I was not one of those people. Despite my dad’s best efforts when I was growing up, the only thing I can identify is the Big Dipper. I guess that’s better than nothing though, right? :)
We started by looking at Saturn, first at a lower power, then at a higher power. The first time I ever looked at Saturn through a telescope was at the first Astronomy Program I’d attended at Natural Bridges and I remember being completely blown away by it. I’m really not that into stars and astronomy, but it’s SO cool to be able to see the rings around Saturn! The view was just as good this time, and you could tell which people were seeing it for the first time- lots of gasps and ‘wows’ as people took their turn looking through the telescope.
After that we looked at M-13 (Messier-13) a cluster of stars in the constellation of Hercules. I think the ranger said that this cluster is visible to the naked eye, but I don’t think I’d be able to find it on my own… maybe if I could identify Hercules I’d be able to find it that way… maybe…
And finally we ended by looking at the moon. The ranger put a filter on the telescope because he said it would be way too bright to look at the moon without it. It was a much closer view of the moon than I remember seeing last time, you could really see a lot of detail in the surface- the craters and what looked like mountains and plateaus. Like I said before, I’m really not that into astronomy, but you can’t help but be impressed when you get the opportunity to see something so close-up like that.
This last picture was taken by a Japanese friend of mine who came to visit a couple years ago. She is very into astronomy and has quite the set-up on her camera for taking pictures of the night sky. Although this picture wasn’t taken at Natural Bridges, it was taken nearby, so I thought I’d include it as an example of the view of the night sky you’re able to see around here.
Directions: Natural Bridges is located about 39 miles west of Blanding on Hwy 95. There is no entrance station, but you are required to stop at the Visitor Center to pay or show your pass.
Distance from Natural Bridges to lodging in San Juan County, Utah:
- Blanding: 39 miles/63 km
- Mexican Hat: 43 miles/ 69 km (via hwy 261)
- Monticello: 60 miles/97 km
- Bluff: 64 miles/103 km
- Monument Valley: 66 miles/106 km (via hwy 261)
- La Sal: 100 miles/161 km
For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386
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