Joshua Tree National Park Night Sky Festival

Driving into the desert to switch off and stargaze

by Andrew Maness

Joshua Tree National Park lies just 140 miles east of Los Angeles, an easy two and half hours of cruising on the interstate without traffic, or a miserable slog that can take upwards of five hours if you happen to depart at the wrong time—especially on a Friday. At the helm of a 2017 Range Rover Evoque Convertible, equipped with adaptive cruise-control, either scenario is a pleasure. (Drivers familiar with managing acceleration and braking during the miles from downtown LA to San Bernardino will understand.) Once the traffic faded away, the excitement returned, for this was no ordinary weekend escape, we were on our way to the second annual Joshua Tree National Park Night Sky Festival.

Accompanied by ace automotive photographer Raz Krog—who had visited the park a few times before, and whose knowledge of certain areas would prove very useful—the festival was going to be a well-captured adventure. Though we had no idea what to expect.

We rolled through the south gate of the park around 10PM and headed into the darkness, leaving just the Evoque’s LED running lights on to illuminate the road ahead. Stargazing etiquette is no joke, and the last thing we wanted was to be the people showing up late, splashing bright white light all over the place, thus spoiling the perfect viewing conditions for everyone else. Living in a sprawling city with heavy light pollution, many of us forget what it’s like to stare up at the heavens in a place unspoiled by the ambient glow of civilization. The Milky Way sadly remains hidden from the majority of Americans.

On this clear night in the Colorado Desert there was nothing to hinder the view of the glittering tapestry of stars that stretched as far as you could see in every direction. Never has the sky felt so big, as it did in Joshua Tree. If the naked eye isn’t enough, there were also telescope viewing opportunities at Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center in Twentynine Palms on the north side of the park. Viewing deep space through their 14″ telescope is just one of the many activities that you can take part in, for free, during the festival. There are also night hikes with wildlife biologists where you might catch a glimpse of some of “the locals,” a three-day astronomy fair that takes place at Oasis Visitor Center (with talks from astronomers, authors and night sky photographers).

To commune with nature in this way, by gazing out into the vastness of space, is humbling and reassuring. Spending time in wilderness, over 84% of Joshua Tree National Park is managed as such, reminds us that for all the amazing technological advances humanity has made throughout the course of recorded history, we’re still drawn to the unspoiled spaces on the map.

In our noisy world, the importance of these kinds of moments cannot be understated, and they are certainly worth protecting. To learn more about light pollution, and a whole lot more about our night skies, visit Dark Sky online.

The Joshua Tree Night Sky Festival is free—the only money visitors need to spend is the $20 for admission to the park, and that’s good for seven days.

Images by Raz Krog