California's third-largest county is a lot shorter on dark skies than it used to be. Between dust and haze at the west end, industrial energy development in the desert, and brightly lit sprawl in between, Kern County is not precisely a stargazers' mecca.
But the county does still offer a number of places where you can get away from the lights and see the Universe. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Downtown Bakersfield
Yeah, you heard right. It's not as silly as it sounds. Even right downtown, Bakersfield still has darker skies than you'll find in the L.A. Basin: dark enough to see planets and a few bright stars with the naked eye, and even more with the help of optics. And the Kern Astronomical Society takes advantage of that, holding public star parties at a rotating list of local spots, including Panorama Park, a couple of local bookstores, and the zoo at the California Living Museum. Check out the KAS website for upcoming events.
2. Wind Wolves Preserve
This 95,000-acre preserve operated by the Wildlands Conservancy just west of Grapevine closes daily at 5:00 p.m., so you might not think of it as a stargazing spot. But on weekends, if you make advance reservations, you can camp at Wind Wolves and take advantage of the San Emigdio Mountains' relatively starry skies. (You can make those arrangements by contacting the Wildlands Conservancy,) or stay in touch with the Kern Astronomical Society, which holds star parties here on occasion. Weather permitting, the skies here are dark enough that you should be able to see quite a bit of structure in the Milky Way. And if you see a dark spot moving and obscuring the stars as it passes, who knows? It could be one of the local condors.
That didn't take long. Quickly after President Barack Obama was sent a bill to end the government shutdown, Yosemite National Park officials put out word that they were opening immediately.
During the shutdown, which began October 1, the park was closed to visitors. Main roads remained open, but for traveling through only. Now all roads leading to and within, including Glacier Point and Mariposa Grove, are open.
Park rangers didn't sign up for the job so they could turn people away at the gates of national parks. They did it to protect the country's treasures so everyone could enjoy them. But with the government shutdown -- which could actually end tonight -- they've become one of the reoccurring characters in the media's narrative of the shutdown.
And, frankly, they're not feeling the love. To that end, the National Parks Conservation Association put together this feel-good video that's worth three minutes of your time. "[I]t's very hard to make efforts to keep people out when our whole lives we've worked hard to get people in," says a narrator at the beginning of the clip, which uses quotes from rangers, who could only speak under the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the National Park Ranger Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police just put out their own statement through the environmental whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Of note, they challenge the public to find a way around the Anti-Deficiency Act, which carries shutdown instructions. "[W]e urge you to seek legal remedies in court if you believe NPS actions to close park facilities to be illegal," wrote George Durkee, president of the group. "Life would be much easier for us if the parks were open."
The letter in full can be read below:
The Obama Administration today signaled its support in letting states pay to reopen national parks, but California is not poised to jump in on the opportunity.
"Responding to the economic impacts that the park closures are having on many communities and local businesses, Secretary Jewell will consider agreements with Governors who indicate an interest and ability to fully fund National Park Service personnel to re-open national parks in their states," said Interior Spokesman Blake Androff in a statement.
The closure of 401 national park units has left 20,000 employees furloughed translating to an estimated $76 million in daily visitor spending, according to figures released today by the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "These figures are mind boggling," said the group's chair, Maureen Finnerty, a former superintendent of Everglades and Olympic national parks, "and they only begin to capture the full economic shock of locking up the crown jewels of America."
Their analysis looked at several leading parks, including Yosemite National Park, which has lost over 106,000 visitors and more than $10 million in the first week and a half of the shutdown. It has put 5,607 jobs at stake, most which are local jobs in surrounding communities from Mariposa to Mammoth Lakes.
A meteor shower with a reputation for erratic displays just might reward stalwart stargazers over the next few days, and its peak is conveniently just at sunset.
The Draconid meteor shower, so named for its origin in the constellation Draco, is well known among veteran stargazers for its highly erratic peak fireball output. In some years the Draconids offer up no more than three or four shooting stars per hour. But in years when the Earth's orbit happens to intersect a denser part of the cloud of grit left behind by the Draconids' parent comet, that figure can jump dramatically. That's what happened in 2011, 2005 and 1998, with sudden spikes in shooting star frequency. In 1933 and 1946 the Draconids offered up thousands of visible meteors per hour.
It was a postcard-perfect fall afternoon along California's Eastern Sierra, with a cloudless sky, swatches of orange and gold up Lee Vining Canyon, and a crisp breeze blowing off Mono Lake. A line of classic cars -- a glossy black '39 Ford Convertible, for example, and a '55 Pontiac Safari wagon -- cruised down Highway 395, heading for the Fall Colors Car Show in Bishop. At the Mobil station at the base of Tioga Pass business was slow, even for the late season. A dozen or so locals gathered on the lawn clutching a variety of messages hand-written on neon-green posterboard: "Yosemite Held Hostage" and "Parks for People, Not Politics."
Stacey Powells, News Director for KMMT/KRHV Radio in Mammoth Lakes, had sent word through social media that she hoped people would join her Friday afternoon to protest the ongoing closure of Yosemite National Park, attendant to this week's Federal Government Shutdown. The original plan had been to stage a "sit-down protest" inside the park at Tuolumne Meadows. She was calling it "Occupy Yosemite."
There'd been a significant amount of chatter online about whether such a move would actually accomplish anything, or just make things harder for the park rangers, who weren't even being paid. "Horrible idea," wrote Jay Ogawa from Costa Mesa on Facebook. "If you're going to protest the government shutdown, go to the steps of the U.S. Capitol not Yosemite."
"It's going to create a mess for the park employees that have to deal with the crowd and the attention," wrote Andrea Ketchmark of Grand Rapids, Michigan. "The outrage should be focused where it belongs: the members of the House."
"We're not here to make life difficult for the park rangers," Powells announced to the assembled protesters. "They're our families. They're our friends. A lot of people have lost jobs because of this. I ran into a bunch of them yesterday standing in line at the EDD office. We're here to let the people in Washington know that we're done with their shenanigans."
Bystander Edward England, a Republican from Gardnerville, Nevada, on his way to the car show, couldn't help but interject. "Do you know where the order came from to shut the park?" he asked rhetorically.
"From Congress," offered one protester.
"From Obama," said England. "That's who."
"How about the Tea Party?" suggested another protester. "How about Paul Cook?" suggested a third, referring to the Republican Representative for California's 8th District, which runs along the eastern side of the state from Twentynine Palms to Mono Lake and encompasses vast stretches of Federal land.
"It's Obama's fault," repeated England's wife, Pat. Then she laughed and added: "But just in case you want an alternate opinion we brought a Democrat for you."
"They're just trying to get rid of Obamacare," said Barbara Johnson, of Minden, Nevada, and wife of said Democrat. "That's what I think."
"I hope it goes through," said her husband, John Johnson. "Then maybe my insurance'll go down. I'm the only one with insurance, seems like, and so I'm paying for everyone else."
An Occupy Yosemite event took place Friday at the park's eastern end. Now a protest is scheduled for Saturday morning at its western end -- and it's being organized by a former employee.
"We just want to try to be heard and show that [Congress'] inaction is causing a lot of suffering financially for a lot of people," Sean Anderson, who lives outside the park in Mariposa, told KCET. "It's just not good business for the country and local community."
Anderson, a former park archives technician, is planning the 10 a.m. protest with a ranger who is currently furloughed by the government shutdown that began Tuesday. It will take place outside the park at the Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140.
Josh Hart, a front desk clerk at the nearby Yosemite View Lodge, noted that hotel reservations at this time of year tend to slow down, but not at the rate he's seen this week. "Normally we'd have 80 [reservations] a day, now we're down to 30 to 50 a day." He noted that large groups with reservations over the next couple of weeks are canceling.
National Parks in the California desert and in nearby states face threats as a result of the shutdown of the federal government ranging from increased vandalism of park resources to erosion of local economies in gateway communities. Even if the shutdown ends soon, recent years' budget cuts ensure that the parks will take some time to get back to normal, if they ever do. That's according to speakers on a Friday media conference call organized by a parks advocacy group.
"20 percent of lands held by the National Park Service in the lower 48 states are in the California desert," said David Lamfrom, Senior California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, which sponsored the conference call. Lamfrom said that budget cuts from the sequester seriously eroded park services even before the shutdown. The Kelso Depot Visitor center in the Mojave, said Lamfrom, was closed several days a week during what Lamfrom called the "largest Joshua tree bloom in recorded history. The shutdown has made a bad situation even worse," Lamfrom added.
One looming shutdown issue for the Mojave Preserve, said retired preserve superintendent Dennis Schramm, is the opening of deer hunting season on October 12. "Deer hunters have been coming to the Preserve area for decades, but if the shutdown is still in force they'll find that campgrounds and some routes are closed. The Preserve's staff is already stretched thin, and they may have to contend with a lot of angry hunters."
During this government shutdown, it's easy to have to focus on the closure of national parks (and to a degree, some limits to national forests). But in California, we have close to 300 state parks, many of them deserving of national status. And many of them also are near national parks, where vacationers are currently being forced to find alternatives.
Luckily, the people at California State Parks have complied a comprehensive list of nearby options up and down the state. Here's what they recommend:
Republican Congressman Paul Cook represents a lot of public land, from Joshua Tree National Park to Lake Tahoe. And in between, up the Eastern Sierra, are a lot of jobs that depend on the tourism those attractions create. Too bad a government shutdown has closed national parks and raised lots of questions about access to national forests. Although Cook yesterday voted for the Open Our National Parks and Museum Act -- post shutdown legislation to fund national parks -- there's at least person who is ready to vote him out of office, and she hopes to convince a lot of people of the same.
Powells, who is based in Mammoth Lakes, is planning an Occupy Yosemite event this Friday. Participants will enter the park from its eastern terminus in the Tioga Pass and stage a sit-in at Tuolumne Meadows, knowingly risking citation. Highway 120 is one of the few roads open in the park for travel-only purposes. All other activities are considered illegal.