Dark Sky and Perseids Meteor Shower (Aug 12)

Susan and I have always been interested in the night sky, especially the various meteor showers throughout the year. This year we were determined to get out to a dark sky location and enjoy the Perseids meteor shower.

The night sky conditions this year were ideal, as the waxing crescent moon would have already set by the time we would begin observing. However, in the days leading up to the peak of the Perseids on Aug 12, the weather was not cooperating, at least in the Colorado areas we were considering.

Dark sky areas are unshaded (courtesy of Dark Sky Finder); Pawnee is the green box at upper right

We have wonderful night skies in Estes Park, but we also have light pollution from the front range. I wanted to stay relatively close and go to either the Pawnee National Grassland area or the Walden, Colorado area. On Sunday, based on weather, we decided to head over to Walden and hoped that the weather forecast for clear skies between midnight and 3am Monday was accurate.

We drove over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky around mid-day and worked our way up to Walden, driving through the Arapaho NWR before going into town to check in to our room at the North Park Inn and Suites. Then we went to the River Rock Cafe at the Antlers Inn to have an early dinner.

When we walked in to the restaurant, we saw our friend Lyn, also from Estes Park! We ran into her recently on the Ute Trail in Rocky, too. She joined us for the rest of her dinner and then left to pursue her own photographic interests near Lost Lake. After dinner we headed out west of Walden to the Delaney Lakes and Delaney Buttes area to explore possible spots to watch and photograph the Perseids.

Delaney Buttes, west of Walden

Cabin ruins just off the dirt road

Storm clouds reflected on North Delaney Lake

Susan captured this crescent moon in the clouds

As we left the area, we enjoyed watching several scattered thunderstorms all around us, and were in a good position to stop and photograph lightning coming from one of them.

Huge thunderstorm south of Walden

As we moved on, we noticed some nice color from the sunset and stopped to shoot that, too. It appears that one of these shots of the color forming over the mountains captured a meteor streaking by!

Nice color in the sky after sunset!

We think the white streak at upper left center is a meteor. How lucky can you get in 1/100 of a second?!

After it got dark, we headed back to our room to try to sleep for awhile before getting up around 1115pm to go back out -- but only if the skies cleared! We slept only an hour or so, then looked out the window, but couldn't tell if it was clear or not. The weather maps were showing that a hole in the clouds might be opening up, so we decided to head out. As soon as we got outside we could see a few clouds, but also a few stars, so we headed straight for Delaney Lakes!

Night sky at North Delaney Lake; light pollution from Walden at left and front range at right

The farther we got from town, it became more obvious just how clear the skies were and we were seeing a lot of stars, the Milky Way, and even a meteor or two just looking out the car windows! Our first stop was the end of the road at North Delaney Lake just before midnight. We got out the camera and tripod, let our eyes adjust to the almost total darkness, and immediately began enjoying meteors all over the sky, but especially from the northeast.

Our car "Tina" poses with the Milky Way and a meteor streaking down from the top

After 45 minutes or so we drove farther west to the ruins of the cabin we'd found earlier in the day. We set up our gear here and continued our observations, and photography.

With the old cabin in the foreground, three meteors in one shot, with Andromeda at upper right; 13 sec exposure

Star trails around the North Star with a meteor streaking through at upper left; 331 second exposure

And attempt to light paint the cabin with my headlamp

Andromeda with a meteor streaking by with white, green and purple colors

Extreme crop of picture above showing detail of the meteor streak

Around 2am we decided to head back, stopping on the paved road near the path of power pylons heading to the southwest. I couldn't resist an "artsy" shot of the tower in the foreground with the Milky Way.

Power pylon, wires and Milky Way

Milky Way

Soon we were back at our room where we crashed and slept until about 8am. After breakfast at the Antlers Inn, we headed back toward Estes Park, stopping at the Windy Gap Watchable Wildlife Site and noted that Lyn's car was parked next to us (though she was off riding her bike)!

Our drive home was uneventful save for a "ram jam" (big horn sheep) high on Trail Ridge. That, and when we got to the east side of the Park we were surprised to see that it had snowed as low as 8,100 ft elevation! That's pretty early, even for Estes Park!

For you photographers, all the night sky shots were made with a Canon 5D Mark III DSLR, Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 II lens, intervalometer/shutter release, and tripod. The best shots here were around 13-15 seconds at about ISO 2000 and f/2.2 or so. I'm mostly happy with the way they came out, but I think they were slightly underexposed, so I'll probably go up to ISO 2500 and maybe 18 seconds next time (or try using histograms). I'd also like to do more star trails and/or some foreground light painting.

We were very pleased with the our Perseids and Milky Way show and we're already talking about where to go for our next dark sky experience. Pawnee would be good, but so would Arches NP, Dinosaur NM, Natural Bridges NM, Great Sand Dunes NM, and many other places we love. Stay tuned!

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