I will fully admit right now, I am not an astronomy buff.
I only know the name of a few stars. However, I do know that when the sky is clear and the area is dark, looking up is an experience. What you take from a night sky experience will vary from person to person but if you can stay up late enough, you can (and should) find out for yourself!
First Taste Of The Sky:
I moved to San Francisco, CA back in August 2016 from Philadelphia, PA. While it is possible to find a great night sky experience on the Northeastern side of the country, you will have to leave the cities and really anything close to the cities in order to truly have a night sky experience.
“Season Of The Milk”
I knew I wanted to dedicate time to finding a beautiful night sky and that seemingly elusive, Milky Way. Fast forward to April. The “Season of the Milk” is upon us. Again, not an astronomy buff so we are going to go with that as the technical term instead of looking up the correct term. I gathered up my photo taking friends and started to plan where we should go and when. The end of April worked with all of our schedules. Because we live on the California coast, we always have to plan for fog. I learned that after moving here.
Chosen View Points:
Our main plan was to drive down the coast to Bixby Bridge and post up until sunset and get some light trails. We could stay there until the Milky Way came out but that would mean we would sit idle for a few hours. We planned to then drive north to the famous “Shark fin cove” and continue on to Pigeon Point Lighthouse. Our backup plan would have kept us inland and away from various state parks and some darker valleys outside of Monterey, Ca.
As the day of travel approached, the weather prediction apps were showing a nice clear night. As previously mentioned, the fog does not care about your weather prediction apps. We started off on the journey and headed down I-280 south out of San Francisco down past San Jose. A quick stop for coffee and Redbull for the remainder of the trip would not be complete without the In-N-Out next door. There is no need to explain In-N-Out, either you know or you want to know. If you know, then you just know.
$10.50- Gated Community View
Back on the road, we decided to check out Monterey a little bit and since I had never done the 17-mile drive we drove towards that. The 17-mile drive has a gated portion of the coastline where if you aren’t interested in seeing an expensive real estate or golf courses you can drive past it. Oh, and it costs $10.50, cash only. I should have kept those two-quarters for the parking meters. After leaving Monterey, we stuck to CA – 1 better known as the “Pacific Coast Highway” as it hugs the ocean all the way down to Bixby bridge. The traffic becomes pretty light as we pass the bright flashing signs that Ca -1 is closed a few miles past Bixby Bridge. Something to do with another bridge being completely wiped out in a landslide during the much-needed rain that came to Northern California this past winter.
After leaving Monterey, we stuck to CA – 1 better known as the “Pacific Coast Highway” as it hugs the ocean all the way down to Bixby bridge. The traffic becomes pretty light as we pass the bright flashing signs that Ca -1 is closed a few miles past Bixby Bridge. Something to do with another bridge being completely wiped out in a landslide during the much-needed rain that came to Northern California this past winter.
As we drove over the Bixby Bridge, we spotted the vantage point that we want to take our pictures from. After parking the car and making sure we had all the camera gear that we needed, we headed toward the hill. I asked a few trusted photographers that I know, about going up the hill from the back way. They told me to crawl up the path and look out for the poison oak. I am 6’2 and the friend I am with is 6’6, so we aren’t crawling. There will be no crawling! My friend and I decided to take my other photographer friend’s word for what was poison oak. Into the brush, we went! Yup, right into the poison oak. It was safe to assume
that it was probably on my jeans and my coat so I was trying to purposely not touch my pants with my hands. That lasted all of about 5 minutes till I needed my remote trigger from my pocket. Not being the outdoor sportsman myself, I was relying on my buddy to keep me positive. Such things like, “Yeah man don’t worry, there wasn’t that much poison oak there.” Instead, it was more like “Oh damn, is your eye itching yet?” Literally no help!
May the Astro Beggin!
As the day rolled on, the skies were so clear that the sunset was plain jane boring. However, the marine fog layer held off and gave us the hope we needed. A clear night on the coast was upon us. The sun dipped and the darkness grew in the sky the shutters started clicking. After a few light trails driving across the bridge, the stars started popping out, 100 by 100. Soon, the sky was filled with white dots like someone poured sugar on a black tabletop. The challenge now was to make them show up on the camera. We cranked the ISO up and the F stop down. (6400 and 2.8) There we have it, STARS!
Shark Fin Cove:
We were south of the bridge so we knew we could not get a Milky Way picture with the bridge in it from this vantage point. At this time, we still had another hour or so until the core of the Milky Way would be visible and instead of waiting around at Bixby Bridge, we moved north the famous shark fin cover. We arrived and saw the dirt parking lot was pretty full with what looked like other photographers getting ready to create their own version of the Shark Fin Cove photo. The lookout itself is maybe a quarter mile from the parking lot, thus blocking any light coming off the road. As we walked up the path and got out over to where the cover was, we set up our cameras, even though we could barely see
the rock with our eyes with how dark it was.
Unexpect the Unexpected:
On our way to Shark Fin, we passed either a small accident or a broken down car that had some emergency vehicle activity happening around it. Once we were set up and facing the correct direction, we could see the red flames that were burning literally on the horizon in the exact spot the Milky Way would be rising. I gave it a few test shots but the flares were overbearing in the photo. Not knowing how long they would be burning, we decided to move north.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse:
The lighthouse is about a twenty-mile drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. On the way, we passed through the town of Davenport. We pulled over to take a photo on the unused rail tracks with the night sky over top. The walk from the parking lot to the track is about fifty feet down a small hill to the track. We walked on the track for about 30 seconds and I immediately turned around for a noise that sounded like a horse’s “neighing”. I was like, “Yo man did you hear that??!!!” He did not but said there could be mountain lions out here. No other words were needed.
In awe of the view:
The return trip up the hill to the car was a lot faster than down the hill. The mystery will continue of what made that noise. Back in the car, we continued north. A few miles into the drive, I looked in the side mirror saw a cluster of stars faintly in the sky so I turned around and found a small turn off on a cliff with the ocean about two hundred feet under us.
Hopping out the car, there it was right in front of us.
The Milky Way with the naked eye right over the road. I had never seen it so pronounced. I just stood there for a few minutes before remembering that as the Earth moves, so does the Milky Way, with respect to the position over this road that I want in my photo. After a few attempts at standing in the empty road and getting the Milky Way, we were happy with the shots. But curious to see if the lighthouse could top this.
As we arrived at the lighthouse, we saw that about one hundred other cars had the same idea. It was about 2 am by this point and Red Bull was giving us wings. We both left the car and became speechless. When we turned around to face the lighthouse, the light from it lit the sky up just right. The Milky Way was bright and crisp to the naked eye. We found a spot next to the other one hundred or so people out there taking photos and started our exposures. After moving around to a few different places to grab a few different angles of this amazing sight, we decided to pack it up and head north again.
Half Moon Bay:
We headed north to Half Moon Bay when my buddy decided he wanted to go on Highway 92 and take pictures from atop the mountain ridge. By this point it was about 330 am and the Red Bull’s wings were losing feathers by the minute.
There are a number of reasons why going this route turned out to be a bad idea, but the main three reasons are that
1. we had to drive up a mountain pass with switchbacks on the road while insanely tired,
2. We did not have many places to pull off the road and
3. since we drove into the woods, we lost the Milky Way in its entirety which was the whole point. When we got to the other side near Interstate 280, there a huge lake that may have been the savior of the failed trip over the mountain. By this time it was about 430 am and we had been awake for close to twenty-two hours. We pulled over and hopped out to look at it and the sleepiness hit. I looked at the Milky Way starting to dip back under the horizon and just couldn’t muster the strength to even the camera on the tripod. It was at this point that we decided to call it a night and got in the car and drove the thirty minutes back up the highway to my house.
When we got to the other side near Interstate 280, there was a huge lake. By this time it was about 4:30 am and we had been awake for close to twenty-two hours. We pulled over and hopped out to look at it and the sleepiness hit. I looked at the Milky Way starting to dip back under the horizon and just couldn’t muster the energy strength to put the camera on the tripod. It was at this point that we decided to call it a night and got in the car and drove the thirty minutes back up the highway to my house.
Until next time…