The Earth rolls eastward, putting the sun to rest in the Pacific. The shadow of Earth's horizon deepens over eastern San Diego County, plunging its sparsely populated mountains and desert into darkness. The luminous tendrils of the Milky Way currently leap into view amid an ink-black sky studded with scintillating stars.
For almost anyone living amid the glow of outdoor lighting, this natural and magnificent progression from light to utter darkness is either forgotten or undiscovered. Within our county, dark night skies are a precious resource enjoyed only in the most remote regions.
Now through the end of summer is a great time to dust off the telescope that's been packed away since the time of Halley's and head out to the backcountry for a little stargazing. Do realize, however, that it may not get really dark until well after 9 p.m. To take full advantage of these late hours you might consider camping overnight in the mountains or the desert.
Several camping areas in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are ideal for this purpose. Campgrounds such as Culp Valley, Tamarisk Grove, Blair Valley and Bow Willow are far from sources of light pollution and nearly deserted this time of year. They can be hellishly hot in the daytime, but unbelievably pleasant at night when temperatures drop into a moderate register. Facilities at these and other desert campgrounds are often spartan. Call 767-5311 for specific information. One important reminder: wherever and whenever you go in the desert this time of year, take along lots of water.
At the distinctly chillier elevations of the local mountains, campgrounds are often situated amid sky-blocking groves of trees. Observatory Campground on Palomar Mountain (556-0130), and several campgrounds in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area (445-8341) offer reasonably unobstructed sky views.
Cleveland National Forest, which manages the mountain campgrounds mentioned above, also allows "remote camping" (alongside roads and trails) on most lands within its jurisdiction. You must obtain a free permit first; call either telephone number above for information.
If a more abbreviated evening is more to your liking, try heading up the lightly traveled East Grade Road on Palomar Mountain, where there are several dirt turnouts large enough for parking. From these vantage points there's a stupendous view of both the stars and the distant, twinkling lights of North County's cities.
Sunrise Highway, which loops through the Laguna Mountains, has good turnouts as well. Better still is Kwaaymii Point, which overlooks the desert floor from 1/2 mile off Sunrise Highway. The Laguna Mountains rank as the best area for night-sky viewing in San Diego County.
Wherever you go for sky viewing in the backcountry, you'll optimize your viewing by avoiding times when the moon shines brightly. This summer, the most favorable periods of evening viewing include July 4-13, Aug. 2-12, and Sept. 1-11.
San Diego County has not one, but two notable astronomy research facilities. Millions of people have toured Palomar Observatory's museum and 200-inch-telescope viewing gallery (open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily), but far fewer have taken advantage of Mt. Laguna Observatory's summer visitor program. Every Friday and Saturday evening through Labor Day weekend, guests are treated to a slide show in the observatory's Harrington Visitor Center, followed by viewing of planets and stars through a 21-inch telescope. Free tickets for these popular sessions, co-sponsored by Cleveland National Forest and San Diego State University, are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Call 594-1413 for more information.
Twice a month during the dark of the moon, the San Diego Astronomy Assn. hosts free evening viewing sessions at its Tierra del Sol site in southeastern San Diego County. Members and visitors alike set up a wide variety of telescopes. Call 495-1787 for information.
The Oceanside Photo and Telescope Astronomical Society will host its next "star parties" at a privately owned site on Palomar Mountain Aug. 9 and 10. In addition, the group will offer special daytime tours of the nearby 200-inch telescope on Aug. 17. Please call 722-3343 for more information.
If you don't have access to a telescope, don't despair. You can get sensational views of the Milky Way by simply lying flat on your back (don't forget to bring your patio furniture) and taking in the whole scene without optical aid. Binoculars are the most cost-effective tools for extending your vision. For night-sky purposes, the bigger the binocular objectives (front lenses), the better.
Even if you don't want to make the long drive into the mountains or desert, this summer's sky is full of interesting phenomena. The bright planets Venus and Jupiter, and less-bright Mars and Mercury will continue to form compact groupings in the western sky after sundown through July. You won't need any equipment to see most of these planets, although binoculars help.
The solar eclipse of July 11 (partial as seen from San Diego) will eerily darken the midday landscape, but that's one event you must not look at directly. Instead, you can build a simple "pinhole" projector. Or, you can simply stand under a tree: the many narrow shafts of sunlight filtering through the leaves will cause overlapping images of the crescent sun to appear on the ground. For a safe view through telescopes you can participate in Oceanside Photo and Telescope's eclipse-viewing exposition from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 722-3343 for more information.