Few places in the world dazzle guest and visiting experts as does Death Valley Night skies. Designated as one of the worlds Dark Sky landscapes, visitors are greeted nightly with dazzling bright lights seldom seen in other parts of the world.
Visual stimulation is so overwhelming for beginners as they see the planets, star systems and colors never seen before in the corner of the world.
“At Death Valley the sky literally begins at your feet,” said Tyler Nordgren, Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Redlands (Calif.) and International Dark-Sky Association board member. “When my students and I look up at night from our southern California campus, we can usually count 12 stars in the sky. However, less than a five hour drive from Los Angeles there’s a place where anyone can look up and see the universe the way everyone could 100 years ago.”
International Dark Sky Park
Death Valley National Park harbors some of the darkest night skies in the United States. That dark sky is key to its certification as the third International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. National Park System (International Dark-Sky Association.)
To qualify for the dark sky designation, the park improved external lighting at facilities in the Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells areas, reducing energy consumption, sky glow,and glare. The designation requires the park to sustain its efforts to protect night sky resources and visitor education. Implementation of the park’s lighting guidelines will improve the natural character of the night and leave the stars untarnished in other areas of the park.
Best Places to View in Death Valley
- Harmony Borax Works is located close to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and provides a great place to see the stars with little obstruction from the mountains. There are also historic buildings and a mule cart for night photography, which will make for an interesting foreground.
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is located close to Stovepipe Wells and is a great spot for seeing A LOT of sky. Unobstructed views can be found here, but the close proximity to the highway means the potential for light pollution from headlights.
- Badwater Basin is located 17 miles south on Badwater Road. Milky Way viewing can be somewhat obstructed from the mountains, but seeing the night sky from the salt flats is a unique, other-worldly experience! Not to mention that the salt flats are great for the foreground of a night shot.
Beginner Tips for Viewing In Death Valley
- Visit during the new moon — this is when the moon is not visible which means the sky will be darker and you can see more stars.
- Visit a Moon Phase Calendar to Plan Your Visit
- Review a Night Sky Map to know what is in the Sky on your Visit.
- Avoid light pollution — pick a place to view the night sky away from developed areas. Ubehebe Crater has some of the darkest skies in the park, but the stars can be just as spectacular at Harmony Borax Works.
- Stay out long enough — it takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the night sky to see the most stars.
- Use a red light —or put a piece of red cellophane on your flashlight. This will minimize the effect of the light on your adjusting eyes.
- Look at the horizon — Death Valley has large, towering mountains. If you pick a low place to view the night sky, like Badwater Basin, some of the stars could be blocked by the mountain ranges. Pick a large open area with some elevation to see the most stars.
- Bring binoculars — a simple pair of binoculars can be a great way to get a closer look!
What You Will See
Plants: Typical Plant Visibility by month
- January – Mars: Southwest after sunrise Jupiter: Southeast before dawn Venus: Southeast before dawn Venus, Moon and Jupiter gather low in Southeast before dawn
- February – Mars: West after sunset Venus: Southeast before dawn Jupiter: Southeast before dawn Saturn: Southeast before dawn Jupiter, Moon, Saturn and Venus gather low in Southeast before dawn
- March – Mars: West after sunset Jupiter: Southeast before dawn Saturn: Southeast before dawn Jupiter, Moon and Saturn gather in Southeast before dawn
- April – Mars: West after sunset Jupiter: South before dawn Saturn: Southeast before dawn
- May – Mercury: Fairly close to the Sun. Visible around sunrise and sunset only Venus: View just before sunrise. Very Close to the Sun, try to get a good view of the Horizon. Mars: View after sunset. Jupiter:
Most of the night until sunrise. Saturn: View in the early morning. Neptune: View before sunrise. Use binoculars
- June – Mars: South before dawn Saturn: SW before dawn, late June: low in SE after sunset Jupiter: South after sunset Venus: Low in west after sunset Venus: NE Twilight before sunrise
- July – Mars: Low in SW before dawn; Very low in SE after sunset Saturn: SE after sunset Jupiter: SW after sunset Venus: Very low in west after sunset (with crescent moon July 15) Uranus – Best E Twilight early morning Neptune Best S SE Twilight 4 am
- August – Mars: SE after sunset Saturn: South after sunset Jupiter: Low in west after sunset Mercury– Best E NE 5:30 am before sunrise Uranus Best SE 4:30 am Neptune Best S 2:30 am
- September – Mars: SSE after sunset Saturn: South after sunset Jupiter: Low in SW after sunset Uranus Best S early morning Neptune Best S Midnight
- October – Mars: South after sunset Saturn: SW after sunset Jupiter: Early Oct: Very low in SW after sunset Uranus Best S 1 am Neptune Best S Just after 10 pm
- November – Saturn: Low in Southwest after sunset Mars: High in South after sunset Venus: Low in East before dawn Jupiter Best SW sunset Uranus Best S 10 pm Neptune Best S evening
- December – Mars: Southwest after sunset Venus: Southeast before dawn Venus and Moon are close before sunrise: Dec 3 Mercury Best ESE sunrise Saturn Best SW sunset
Take along these simple items to make your stargazing event spectacular.
- Binoculars or Telescope
- Blanket or chairs to sit
- Snacks and water
- Flashlight or Red Colored light
- Night Sky Map (Literature)
- Layer of Clothing to keep warm from night air (Varies on time of year)
- Camera + Tripod – Try your hand at night photography or Video
Starters Guide to Night Time Photography
- Equipment – DSLR camera and tripod. Although todays cell phones and go pro cameras can capture some star and night sky activity, we recommend basic DSLR for beset images
- Shoot RAW – Make sure you set your camera to shoot RAW files. These photo files are huge, and you will need a good amount of storage to upload them, but it’s worth it because you will be able to recover tons more light and color during editing
- Manual Mode. – Make sure your camera is set to Manual (‘M’) mode so you have full access to change the settings
- 2-second timer – Using a 2-second timer gives your camera extra stability on the tripod. This way, there won’t be any shake from your finger pressing the shutter button down. Simply press the button, step back, and two seconds later, your long exposure will begin.
- Focus to infinity – What does that mean? Make sure your lens is set to manual focus (MF, not AF. The button is on the left side of the lens.) Then twist your lens until the line from the infinity symbol is matched up to center line on the bottom )
- Start at ISO 1600 – This is where you can start to play around with your settings depending on lighting conditions. So start at 1600, then see what works best for you on that specific night.
- 500 Rule for Shutter Speed – To capture the most of the night sky, you want to use the widest lens you have available
- F-Stop below 4.5 – This is were most adjustment comes. Play around with until you find right spot for your camera and ISO settings.