Visitors drawn to Joshua Tree for stargazing

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — Pam Tripp started to explore outer space in 2009. Since then, she has traveled to the moon, has seen Andromeda Galaxy and has beheld the planets Mars and Jupiter. 

Tripp however, is not an astronaut or even an imaginative astrophysicist. She is an interpretative park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park and the lead ranger of their night sky program.

“I had a little bit of background before I started doing this, just my own personal interest in the night sky. I’ve always loved the stars and I knew what the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt was. But even as I’ve been doing these programs, I’ve learned some of the new constellations and what’s in them as far as clusters and nebulas and different things,” said Tripp.

While Joshua Tree is emblemized by the short, twisted-branched trees that scatter across more than 550,000 acres of desert land, 29 percent of its visitors arrive with the intent of witnessing the night sky, visitation research conducted at the park has shown.

During the day, people are seen hiking along a trail or climbing the large boulders that dominate the dry setting, but once the sun sets, there is no where to look but up. The remoteness of the desert shields the park from heavy light pollution, allowing even the dimmest of stars to be spotted.

In recognizing the growing popularity of star gazing in the park, Tripp led the initiative to install an official night sky program at Joshua Tree. The earlier programs were conducted without any training and focused on the current conditions of the sky. Tripp stuck to outlining the visible constellations and the whereabouts of an orbiting space shuttle with a laser pointer.

It wasn’t until a weeklong training session in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah that Tripp and other rangers learned how to effectively present a viewing of the night sky. They upgraded from laser pointers to solar powered GPS telescopes and are now able to identify a variety of galaxies and star clusters for eager stargazers.

“We had to do a 10-minute program for our training where we had to pick one constellation, pick two interesting things about it and do a presentation as if the audience was our group,” said Tripp. “Even with all the fancy equipment, I like to point out constellations to people as they are looking up, and the laser pointer is still the most popular piece of equipment we have.”

Equipment is one key factor for the stargazing programs that is not always reliable. Weather is the other.

“The most stressful thing that has happened is when the equipment doesn’t work right. We joke around that our telescope is possessed. There have been nights where it just won’t align,” said Tripp. “ You just have to realize that this could happen and ask yourself, ‘What will I do if it does happen?’ ”

Tripp has learned that it is important to be flexible in a job where you are unable to control the circumstances. Negative weather conditions, as well as a full, bright moon, have the power to decrease star visibility on a night when a program is scheduled. As a visitor, however, you should not conclude that the night program has been cancelled due to such conditions.

On cloudy nights, Tripp maps out what the sky would look on a clear night so that visitors know what to look for the next time they get the chance to observe the stars. On one occasion, when the light from a full mooned drowned out the stars, she pretended to lead a group of Boy Scouts on a moonwalk.

“I basically said we are going on a trip to the moon. It was a full moon out and so the Joshua trees became the moon trees, which were these seeds that had orbited the moon on one of the space missions and had been planted once they got here. Then we got to a rock formation and I said, ‘now we are at the highest mountain on the moon.’ And so I just changed everything and it was fun,” said Tripp.

“You can definitely do a program about the moon too and point a telescope at it. It’s really bright and that’s the one thing you’ll come away with: the moon shining in your eye,” she added.

Ideal stargazing conditions call for a cloudless night with only a portion of the moon emitting light.

According to Joseph Zarki, chief of Interpretation at Joshua Tree, light pollution has had an increasing effect on visibility and it is another issue that poses a threat to the success of future night sky programs.

When Joshua Tree National Park was established in 1936, it adopted the goals of preserving desert plants and preserving historic and cultural features of the park, but the concern for night skies just did not exist.

“No one was really thinking about the skies in 1936 because Los Angeles was a much smaller place. The night skies were probably fantastic back in those days. But now, 75 years later, LA is this huge urban metropolis. You can’t see the stars at night because of all the lights, so all of the sudden [light pollution] has become a big deal,” said Zarki.

Tripp reminds visitors that while light pollution is a challenge, a threat that they can help undermine by purchasing different light fixtures and turning off lights. 

“Just a small bit to help prevent light pollution can be changing light bulbs to lower wattage and using light fixtures that point the light down and don’t let light escape up. The night sky is the one thing that is 100 percent recoverable,” said Tripp.

Outside of the scheduled programs, stargazing societies such as the Andromeda Society and the Desert Videographers enjoy the sky by organizing star parties and projecting images on screens for everyone to see. Visitors like John and Mike Edwards also observe the night sky whenever they spend the weekend camping in the park.

“I don’t know much about what’s up there, but I can tell when we have a good siting of the Big Dipper. I only read up on a few of the constellations, but it really makes not difference to me,” said Mike Edwards. “The expanse of what’s up there is just awesome.”

Despite the free ability to observe the stars at night, Joshua Tree’s night program draws crowds of about 50 to 100 people. Zarki feels that while stargazing was not an originally key attraction for Joshua Tree, it is certainly developing into a tradition that must be preserved.

“It’s an interesting thing because lying out in the desert looking up at the stars really kind of connects you in a way that makes you feel small. It’s almost a spiritual kind of experience and anytime we do a night time event at the park, we have large crowds, so it has turned out to be pretty important for us,” said Zarki.

If You Go

Joshua Tree National Park
74485 National Park Dr.
Twentynine Palms, Calif. 92277

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