As I've written before, I love to combine hiking and astronomy. Unfortunately, there are several practical obstacles to doing this.A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a 5-day backpacking trip in California's Sierra Nevada mountains — our first long hike since adopting our daughter. (This doesn't count a modest trek in the Himalaya which was thoroughly enjoyable, but in many ways more of a circus than a serious hike.) Odd to think of 5 days as long; I can remember when a 2-week hike seemed short!
On this recent trip, I certainly wanted to take advantage of the Sierra's famously dark skies and excellent transparency to do some stargazing, but my primary goal was to make the most of the mountains — to see as much as possible and climb as high and steep as possible.Sadly, at age 56, after leading a primarily sedentary lifestyle, there's a limit to my ability to exercise hard all day and then stay up all night. Moreover, there's a limit to how much astronomy equipment I want to carry in addition to tent, sleeping bags, cooking gear, food (in bulky bear canisters), and warm clothing. In retrospect, I wish I had brought my image-stabilized 10×30 binoculars, but in fact I saved a pound (and considerable bulk) by taking my 8×32 monocular instead. The monocular worked OK for picking out climbing routes on the crags, but binoculars would have been much better for astronomy. Another thing that people unfamiliar with mountains tend not to realize is that it's often hard to find a spot with a good view of the sky. In the Sierra Nevada, trees grow well above 10,000 feet, and trees are the worst enemy of astronomy. The second worst enemy are the mountains themselves — the more rugged the terrain, the more of the sky is blocked by nearby mountains. Bare mountaintops have unobstructed views but are extremely inhospitable places to spend the night.
So for our last two nights in the Sierras, I picked out a campsite specifically for its astronomy potential. A high meadow at around 11,000 feet, it had enough trees to provide shelter without blocking too much sky. And it faced south to a notch on the opposing ridge, allowing a nearly unobstructed view of the southern sky — the part that matters most for astronomy.
What stargazing could I do despite my limited equipment and even more limited energy? Quite a lot, it turns out. On the first night, I solved the time problem by taking a nap after supper, then rising toward the end of twilight, cooking cups of cocoa for me and my wife, and then pointing out the sky's highlights to her. After she returned to her sleeping bad, I stayed up for an hour or two observing dark lanes in the Milky Way — a job that requires very dark skies but very little optical aid.The last night we were camping I woke up at 3 a.m. to watch for early Perseids. There weren't many (this was the morning of August 7th, 5½ days before the peak), but the ones I saw were mostly quite bright. Between meteors, I puzzled out the constellations around Sculptor and Fornax, a part of the sky that's hard to see from my home in Massachusetts, and also one that resists easy memorization.
I could not, alas, explore the splendid galaxy fields of these two constellations, due to the limitations of my equipment. But my 8×32 monocular did provide a reassuring view of the big, bright galaxy NGC 253. When all is said and done, it doesn't take a big telescope and lots of time to enjoy the night sky. Even a half hour of naked-eye stargazing is enough to slake my craving for astronomy — for a while.