When it comes to astrotourism, visitors to Southern Oregon enjoy an array of options. Light-pollution maps show large swaths of gray and black in the region, especially in the Oregon Outback. That’s good. Dawn Nilson, dark sky preservation director for Rose City Astronomers, describes the ideal stargazing locale as dark, high, dry and open, with broad horizons and accessible by vehicle. “Clear and dark skies are the quest of an avid stargazer,” says Nilson. “That’s why high deserts and mountaintops are popular for amateur observing and scientific observatories.”
The skies in Lake County are among the most pristine, and Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is an ideal spot that checks all the boxes. Remote, high and very dark, it’s located atop a fault block overlooking the Warner Valley. Primitive camping is available at the Hot Springs Campground; in fact, few experiences beat stargazing while soaking in a natural mineral bath. During the day you can hike, view pronghorn and search for petroglyphs. Nearby Lakeview also offers lodging.
Summer Lake is another choice spot in Lake County. Wildlife watchers frequent the marshes at the Summer Lake Wildlife Area for the outstanding birding, and there are many options for camping and lodging, including Summer Lake Hot Springs, a privately owned resort.
Heading west to Klamath County, Crater Lake National Park offers outstanding stargazing in a stunning setting. Located at the crest of the Cascade mountains, Crater Lake was created when Mt. Mazama blew her top 7,700 years ago, and it is fed by rain and snow. There are many options for camping and lodging nearby, including the iconic Crater Lake Lodge, although you will need to make reservations far in advance.
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (Photo by Kyle Sullivan / Bureau of Land Management) In Jackson County, Mt. Ashland offers a good vantage point for spotting constellations with the added advantage of year-round recreation: cross-country and downhill skiing at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, plus mountain biking, hiking and camping during summer months. Head to Ashland for accommodations and an array of high-quality restaurants. Just east of Ashland is the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, where you can seek dark skies from a number of roads and trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail.
Fire lookouts are ideal for spying stars for the same reason they’re good for spotting “smokes”: They’re located on high points with unobstructed views. Several lookouts in the Southern Oregon region can be rented for overnight stays, including Acker Rock Lookout in the Umpqua National Forest. This lookout is perched on a sheer bluff; during the day, enjoy panoramic views of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide and tour the many waterfalls along the Umpqua River.
Other fire-lookout options include Pickett Butte Lookout, also in the Umpqua National Forest; Drake Peak Lookout in the Warner Mountains; Bald Butte Lookout in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near Paisley; Hager Mountain Lookout near Silver Lake; and Bald Knob Lookout in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Bald Butte Lookout (Photo by Justin Bailie)
Astrotourism is about more than stars. If you time it right, you can also witness meteor showers, lunar and solar eclipses, and planetary conjunctions (also called alignments), which occur when two or more planets appear to be very close together in the sky. With visual aids, you may also be able to spot Deep Sky Objects, or DSOs, which include galaxies, nebulae, star clusters and quasars. Go-astronomy.com offers some good resources for newbie skywatchers, including a calendar of astronomical events so you can plan your trip.
In Southwest Oregon, there are still plenty of opportunities to view a detailed Milky Way, though Nilson says that if more towns and public agencies adopted dark-sky-friendly lighting policies, our skies could be even darker.
“A natural dark sky is an unlimited renewable resource that is only being lost by naive or misinformed lighting choices that waste energy and blot out the stars,” says Nilson. Fortunately, light pollution is also one of the easiest forms of pollution to address. The International Dark-Sky Association can help you learn more about light pollution and what you can do to help preserve dark skies.
Story by Juliet Grable