Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Joshua Tree National Park, December 31, 2023

The last hike I took last year, but my first post of 2024. I got a very late start, partially because I worked the night before, and partially because the main goal of this trip was going to be astrophotography.

As a result, I wanted a really short hike, so I wouldn't feel too tired to make that night drive back into the park. Since I was planning to stay in Twentynine Palms, the obvious short hike choice was 49 Palms Oasis. It's outside of the main roads of the park, so you don't actually go past an entrance kiosk to get to this one. Instead, to get to the trailhead, you head north off of CA-62 on Canyon Road, which is about two miles west of the Stater Brothers shopping center in Twentynine Palms. At Canyon, there's a VCA animal hospital just east of Canyon, which may serve as a landmark, in addition to a brown NPS sign pointing the way.

This road is not super smooth, but fine for passenger cars. Just pay attention, especially after a storm, as sand and gravel will wash over the road, potholes may appear, and the edge of the pavement may suddenly shift inward, leaving less than two car-widths of pavement.

As I approached the parking lot, I saw numerous cars parked on the shoulder of the road, indicating the lot was full, earlier. By the time I got there (near 3pm, as I recall), however, there were several spaces available.

Although just three miles roundtrip, the trail itself did not feel that crowded, though it still required a few moments of waiting for oncoming hikers and slowdowns until I could pass other hikers.

The trail is well-defined, so sticking with the trail, if that's your goal, is easy. There's a good climb and descent both coming and going, so it can be a good workout. The more cardio fit will run the trail, both ways. Not me, though.

The end of the trial is obvious, with several signs indicating you should not be tromping down among the palms, although people do. I heard no running water this trip. Also, probably because of the temperature and the season, I heard no amphibians croaking.

On my return, it appeared the clouds were building. It was still comfortable, and the lighting was nice for photography. But my hopes for the night were not optimistic. Yet, surprisingly, after dinner and a walk around the motel, I did see Jupiter and numerous stars among holes in the clouds, so I wound up packing my astro gear and heading back out into the park.

Was considering the Sky's the Limit compound, but the gate was closed and locked. So the next paved parking area I knew of from the North Entrance is White Tanks. That's the trailhead to hike to Arch Rock, and also the California Riding and Hiking trail.

When I got there, there was one camper van, who were obviously planning to illegally camp in the parking area. But they were pretty dark, and I set up with my car between them and me. Also, during setup, I kept my car's dome light on, to see what I was doing. Didn't need to worry about anyone else's astrophotography or astronomy because no one else was out there doing that.

I set up my 80mm f/7 Astrotech refractor, which I bought a year ago, June. Paired with a .8x focal reducer, it yields a 448mm focal length, and an f/5.6 focal ratio, which is a fair telephoto length, and pretty fast for the focal length. My "good" camera is a Nikon D780. Used this set up only a few previous times, including when we were visited by Comet ZTF. Besides that, only one other effort, which was a pretty unsuccessful astrophotography session. So I was really looking forward to giving this set up another try.

I used my Orion Sirius Mount. It's a goto mount, but for this sort of thing, I just tried to visually line it up on Polaris, and used the tracking function only to compensate for the earth's rotation. It's all unguided, and, because I don't know how to stack images, they're just single frames, typically between 30 seconds and 120 seconds, and ISOs of between 800 and 1600. The shots are then uploaded to my phone and processed in Lightroom for mobile. Some shots are cropped and/or rotated.

My astrophography subjects, in order of posting, were the Flame/Horsehead Nebula complex, in Orion, the Orion Nebula (M42), the Pleiades (M45), and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31). From an objective point of view, they're pretty mediocre. But, for me, I'm pleased with the results. Will try taking slightly longer exposures in the future, especially on the Flame/Horsehead Nebula complex. My goal is not necessarily to go much deeper into astrophotography. To get serious would be to go down a rabbit hole of exposures, stacking, and processing techniques, and once it starts getting too much like work, it's no fun. Fortunately, the equipment and software available to the general public, including my dslr, is (figuratively) light years ahead of where it was when I was younger, so I can get reasonable results with only moderate effort, and I can settle for trying to improve on the margins.