No Room Under The Stars
April 16, 2012 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Combination astronomy/National Parks filter: Okay, I can't stay IN Yosemite Park in August, but I can stay near it. Can I still enter the park at 3 am to watch the Perseids? Or: what's another good but possibly lesser-known national park where I can stay and watch?

I had romantic notions of staying for a couple nights in the Tuolomne Meadows lodge over the weekend of the Perseids so I could sneak out before dawn and get a great show. But just about everything in Yosemite is totally booked up solid through summer already.

However - I have stayed once before at a hostel/campground a half-hour's drive away. So if I were to stay there, would they let me in the park to watch the shower during the wee hours even if I wasn't staying at an in-park lodging?

If not - is there another spectacular spot to meteor-watch where I could stay for cheap? Assume very limited camping experience (no backcountry experience), but also comfort with no-frills (the "tent cabins" at most national parks would be just fine, and I regularly stay at youth hostels) and a willingness to drive a bit to get from my hotel to the view spot.
posted by EmpressCallipygos to Travel & Transportation around Yosemite Valley, CA (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This book might come in handy. Some of the author's posters.
posted by lukemeister at 6:49 AM on April 16, 2012

I'm unclear as to if you're ok with parks that are further away, but assuming that you are I don't see why Yellowstone wouldn't be a great option. You can stay just outside the park and drive in whenever (though I don't know why you'd go with that option) or you can stay in the park at either a hotel/cabin or tent-camp in the front country (with some amenities) or hike a mile or less into any one of hundreds of backcountry campsites that have bear poles but are otherwise mostly primitive.

The cheap factor is going to be a bit hit or miss if you want to stay in a place with a bed, but I suspect this would be the case wherever you went that was near an awesome National Park. State parks or National Forests might be another option. Have you considered those?
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:50 AM on April 16, 2012

And I wouldn't necessarily expect YNP to be booked solid but I'm also pretty sure that the front country campsites have some aspect of 'first come first served' to them as well. My parents had no trouble getting a site when they came to visit and they didn't reserve anything.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:51 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: I'm unclear as to if you're ok with parks that are further away...

I'm fine with any place at all that would afford a great view and nearby cheap lodging. If "Biff's Taco Emporium" in Virginia would work, I want to hear about it.

I'm leaning towards the more "natural parks" type of places, though, for the low-light-pollution aspect.

I wouldn't necessarily expect YNP to be booked solid but I'm also pretty sure that the front country campsites have some aspect of 'first come first served' to them as well...

I was basing that on the availability calendar at Tuolumne Meadows lodge on their site. The only thing I can get is a "heated tent" in Curry Village, which is do-able; but would they let me drive within the park after hours?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on April 16, 2012

Aie, my apologies for the confusion. YNP, to me, means Yellowstone National Park.

So, yea, if you're ok with going anywhere in the country then, really, it just means that you're trying to A) get away from light pollution and B) maybe see a cool park while you're there. A LOT of places fit that bill. That about right?
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:03 AM on April 16, 2012

If you're asking if the gates are open after hours - yes, they are. In my student years, we relied on that fact to get into parks for free. As recently as 2005, I drove into Yosemite at sunset in August (so: after 6 or 7), drove to the valley overlook to take night photos, took a nap in my car, and took sunrise pictures up in the Tulomme area.
posted by notsnot at 7:06 AM on April 16, 2012

I'm not sure about Tuolumne specifically, but campgrounds in Yosemite generally have a bunch of sites that are first-come-first-served and are not available for reservation. Supposedly they fill up pretty early in the morning in Summer though.

I'm leaning towards the more "natural parks" type of places, though, for the low-light-pollution aspect.

Well, if light pollution is your concern and not actually having to be in a national park, there's really not much development anywhere around Yosemite to the north, south, or east, and outside of the national parks, there's all sorts of national forests and other areas with campgrounds; those places won't have the Curry Village/Tuolumne tent cabins though. If you must have a NP, Sequoia/Kings Canyon is fairly close by. But really, it's not like there's a bunch of development and then there's Yosemite and the development stops. You'll be ok for light pollution just about anywhere around there. Maybe just go stay in June Lake, Mammoth, or Lee Vining (on the other side of the mountains) for a while?
posted by LionIndex at 7:12 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another notion: if you don't have set California plans and just want to get the fuck away and see some awesome stars/meteors, consider going to southern Utah. Natural Bridges national Monument has the darkest skies in the country - the Milky Way is so bright you have to scrunch your eyes closed to get any sleep out there.
posted by notsnot at 7:13 AM on April 16, 2012

Chaco Canyon NM would also be good ($10 first come first served camping)
posted by jeffch at 7:22 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Notsnot: How close is Moab to the Natural Bridges site? I could just stay in Moab somewhere and tool around a few other places as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:29 AM on April 16, 2012

If I recall, we left NB about an hour before sunrise, and were in Arches climbing around before the tour buses drove up with Euro tourists. Google Maps says 120 miles. Closer to Natural Bridges is Mexican Hat, which is kinda funky and just outside of Monument Valley. (The road between NB and MH includes the Moqui Gap, which is one *hell* of a road. I swear my dad left octopus marks on the seat of the rental from ass-pucker.)
posted by notsnot at 7:38 AM on April 16, 2012

Seconding Natural Bridges. Or perhaps this list of International Dark Sky Parks is of interest. (For more Googling, the National Parks dark sky guy is a fellow named Chad Moore. He's been interviewed by the New Yorker, Sunset magazine, etc.)

But you're not going to have a bad time looking at the stars anywhere in southern UT/CO or northern NM/AZ. The sky is gonna be AWESOME anywhere around there that is not on the interstate.

I came in to suggest staying at Evergreen Lodge for (relatively, as in, now) last-minute Yosemite lodging, but agree that if meteors are your goal, you might look elsewhere. (Being down in Yosemite Valley is unideal for seeing as much of the sky as possible anyway, right?)

The park should certainly be open after hours. People regularly arrive in the wee, wee hours to climb Half Dome.

Also, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks are not as close to YNP as they look. I recall 5 hours between them.
posted by purpleclover at 8:07 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: It looks like Yosemite is out, actually - EVERYTHING I've looked at in the general area is booked up that one week in August. :-< (I was hoping for Yosemite, actually, as I'd been once before but only for 2 days and that wasn't anywhere near enough time.)

I'll keep looking into/collecting other suggestions, but it looks like Yosemite is out this year.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on April 16, 2012

Also, Yosemite is open 24x7x365 except for the wonderfully named Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station so if you could stay nearby you could come in at night.
posted by mmascolino at 8:29 AM on April 16, 2012

Just one other option. We have had great luck just showing up at the information desk and asking for lodge availability at the national parks. Apparently lots of people book and then do not show up. Once they miss check in by an appropriate amount of time, the lodges release the rooms first come first serve...
posted by NoDef at 8:29 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: Hmm. Now I'm thinking "mini-road-trip," where I include a dark-skies area as part of the itinerary but also have a city or some other place in there too. That opens up the options a bit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:36 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: Ooh! I found an Airbnb option near Capital Reef that may be a very good idea.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on April 16, 2012

I'm not that clear on your timeline or budget, but... there are some great condos you can rent inside (yet outside) Yosemite around 30 min south of Yosemite Valley. You are in the park so you wouldn't need to worry about getting in and out at all. Still a bit of a drive up to Tuolumne Meadows (but everywhere is, really).
posted by maryr at 9:05 AM on April 16, 2012

(And yeah, Yosemite books up super early, it's crazy.)
posted by maryr at 9:06 AM on April 16, 2012

I passed through Capital Reef on my way across the country from San Diego. Utah Highway 12 and the Burr Trail were the most scenic and best-driving roads I've been on in the country, better than California 1 in my book. Especially the Burr Trail. The part in Capitol Reef (as opposed to on state lands) is dirt but I managed just fine in my Pontiac Vibe, which is a Toyota Corolla with a different body.
posted by akgerber at 9:31 AM on April 16, 2012

Definitely southern Utah or southwestern Colorado; Arizona can also fill the bill nicely. As long as you're not too close to Phoenix, there are dark, dark skies out here. My sister lives right next two Mesa Verde National Park and the skies out where she is are simply fantastic. Utah is just absolutely gorgeous, and in southern UT you have fantastic scenery and no big cities to mess up dark skies. If you've never been out that way, I'd recommend coming out and seeing the region.

(Side note - I live in Tucson. We have dark-sky ordinances here. While it's not as dark as it used to be due to the sheer numbers of developments over the last 20 years, I still have a good view of the stars. Phoenix has no such regulations and the light can spill over for 50-100 miles.)
posted by azpenguin at 9:41 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Anything on the eastern slope of the Sierras should be good for dark skies. Check the Lee Vining hotel list, for example, for places closer to Mono Lake.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:58 PM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: Gingerbeer: I think you've saved Yosemite as an option for me.

What's the best/nearest option for an airport to fly into, would you suggest?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on April 16, 2012

If you can get a flight into Reno, that's the least amount of driving to Lee Vining. Any of the three Bay Area airports will be a 5- to 6-ish hour drive. Likewise LA and Vegas. At least, according to googlemaps.
posted by rtha at 2:42 PM on April 16, 2012

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