Stargazing in Bryce Canyon
Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce seem to be the big hitters in this region. It’s a wagon train of RV’s between these three parks and the cricket hopped right along with them. Now that school’s out, I’ve noticed a huge increase in college kids and families and less snow birds (retired folk). The latter have better sense than I to avoid these popular parks which are completely mobbed now. The Grand Canyon gets over 6 million visitors a year, Zion 3 million, and Bryce 1 million. Each is like a city with the Grand Canyon (south rim) being New York, a huge international city with lots of public transportation. Zion is a bit smaller, like Boston, it too has its global visitors and developed transportation. Finally there’s the smaller Bryce, more like Denver, lots of people and it’s own bus system.
Because of their popularity, camping inside the parks seemed impossible but luckily I could camp just outside parks for free on either BLM or in National Forest. I had never camped in a campground in my life before moving to the East coast. To me camping was finding a nice quiet spot (for free) in the woods were no one else was around. Just you and the outdoors. Not some overcrowded campground where you pay $15-40 for a picnic table, fire pit, toilet and 500 sq ft you get to call yours for the night. But just like the buses, I realize these campgrounds are necessary to dampen the impact that these millions of visitors can have on the environment. The buses were actually kind of nice, making me feel I was going to work everyday. I’d ride the bus to my location first thing in the morning, do my hikes, and then ride it home at the end of the day with all the other commuters.
Bryce Canyon is one of those driving parks, as Alexis would say. Where you drive from one scenic view to the next, snap some shots and move on. Like the Grand Canyon, very few people actually seem to hike down into the amazing voodoos. I ran into less than a dozen tourists on a Sunday afternoon while down there.
Just by chance, I arrived at Bryce the last day of their 16 annual astronomy festival. Bryce is suppose to be one of the darkest places in the United States. The other “darkest places” we visited – Badlands, Death Valley, and Big Bend were all around a full moon, which was nice, but made for poor stargazing. Not that I’m big into stars, I’m lucky to find the little dipper. But I do love to see a sky loaded with twinkly lights.
So at 10:30 pm I’m standing in line for a bus that transports hundreds of people to a dark location outside of the park. This was a whole new crowd of people for me, or should I say dark figures, because I never really fully saw anyone. I just listened to them talk about galaxies, constellations, and use terms like star A467. There were volunteers with green lasers that shot up way into the sky, pointing out any consolation people questioned about. Even then, I failed to see Hercules, Scorpio or Cancer. I just saw stars, lots of them.
Imagination failing me, I decided to get a closer look. There were about a dozen volunteers who brought their high powered telescopes, which were focused on different objects. I could wait in line to see Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its two bands and three moons and of course the red planet. These telescopes were all bigger than anything I’ve even seen. And then there were a few BIG telescopes. I mean, transported by horse trailer BIG. These of course had the longest lines but I felt I may never view the stars like this again so I waited and waited for my opportunity to glance through one of these. And when I did, I got to see the Sombrero Galaxy 65 million light years away. I was looking at light emitted at a time the dinosaurs roamed our planet. I thought the Grand Canyon seemed old.