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Milky Way and Jupiter over Death Valley

[photos: flickr – Death Valley snow, stars, Ballarat]

[photos: flickr – Death Valley jets]

I bought myself a new wide-angle lens for my birthday this week and it was a new moon phase, so I used it as an excuse to go out to Death Valley again and make photos of stars last weekend. A storm was passing over central California on the way out there, which resulted in blowing snow flurries through Tehachapi and fresh accumulations of powder at higher elevations in the park. Fortunately the clouds had almost all cleared out by the time I got to Stovepipe Wells around midnight.

I set up at Mesquite Dunes for a while but got tired of the cars driving by and headlights getting in my shots. I wound up driving over to the actual stovepipe well site and spent the night there taking photos over the valley. I was sort of surprised at how low on the horizon the Milky Way was, but it started rising and I was able to get good photos of it. The 16-35mm lens does a great job of capturing a huge swath of sky at once.

What I wanted to try was getting photos of geostationary satellites. I had seen a couple of people do it, they should appear as stationary specks against star trails. I aimed south, eyeballed the elevation, and took several photos with around a minute or two of exposure. I’m still not sure if it actually worked, I can’t tell if I actually saw some or if they were just sensor noise, even compared to frames with the lens cap on. I for sure captured some LEO satellites on north-south orbits, they appeared as regular streaks running perpendicular to the star trails. Still need to do some more homework on this.

Snow at Towne Pass

Sunday morning I headed up to Towne Pass. There was still snow everywhere on the vegetation, it looked like giant cotton fields. I wasn’t the only one with this idea, several other people pulled over on the side of the road to play in the snow and take photos. I drove out to Wildrose and the charcoal kilns, there was still snow on the ground up at the higher elevation although it was melting off quick. The road up to Thorndike was gated off after the kilns. The wind would occasionally pick up and kick up snow off the trees which made it felt like it was snowing all over again.

After this I went to find somewhere quiet to go take a nap. I practically pulled an all-nighter Saturday night and wanted some zzz. I wound up going part of the way to Grotto Canyon after figuring out where the road was. In the evening I wanted to out to the Racetrack to take more night photos. The road out there proved to be way rougher than the last time I went, so I turned around after a couple of miles. It was so much bouncing around I lost the whip out of my screwdriver antenna somewhere along the way. The weather wasn’t cooperating either, yesterday the forecast said it would be clear, but clouds had rolled in. I drove back down to Stovepipe Wells for dinner and camped out there again. By 4-5 AM the clouds had cleared off but I was too cold and sleepy to be bothered.

Panamint Valley radar site

Monday I was hoping to go photograph some jets. They weren’t flying over Stovepipe Wells nor Panamint Valley at the time, so I pondered just driving home. I wandered down to Ballarat, I hadn’t really ever explored this side of the valley. I thought it was a complete ghost town but it turns out there’s one dude who lives there, and he has a little general store and lot for RV camping. Otherwise there was still old buildings and vehicle ruins around. From here the Barker Ranch where the Manson family hid out wasn’t too far away, but I didn’t attempt the trip. Along the road was a radar site, presumably to support China Lake activities. On the way out I heard the roar of jets coming from the end of the valley so instead of going home via the south, I headed up to Father Crowley overlook.

F/A-18 Hornet in Rainbow Canyon

There were many people standing along the ridges above Panamint Valley and at the overlook. I hadn’t heard anything flying around, but after 30-40 minutes of waiting one jet flew down through Rainbow Canyon. After another hour or so, two more showed up and were flying overhead. The pace picked up a bit after that, I think I saw about 12 passes going through the canyon or overhead. The ridge next to the rest area had great views of the jets flying through the canyon down below. Several people were there with their long lenses and many others stopped by to watch. It was pretty exciting, the jets were loud, up close and personal. I had a 200mm lens which did a good job after cropping the images.

After 5 PM I packed up and went down to Panamint Springs Resort for dinner, I’d never been there and wanted to give it a try. They make a tasty grilled cheeseburger, even better than what I get over at Stovepipe Wells. It was pretty nice there, a good view with plenty of outdoor seating to watch the landscape. I left and got home around 1 AM, not too bad.

Panamint Springs Resort

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