It has been a great summer for me and my dark sky quests with my final destination being Valentine, Nebraska. I chose this location because it was the nearest Bortle Class 1 location from Pittsburgh, PA! A mere 2,000 miles one way.
Since my first true dark sky experience just over a year ago at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, PA, I’ve not stopped thinking about visiting a darker place. (Cherry Springs is rated a Bortle Class 3)
I made up my mind to drive to Valentine a little later in the summer than I wanted. Things change in the night sky quite a bit starting around mid-August, mainly the Milky Way starting to thin out a bit and not being as visible after midnight. Still, after weighing the pros and cons I decided it was worth the trek and took a chance on the weather.
I truly enjoyed most of the 3 day drive, taking my time and stopping at small towns or scenic areas. The last leg of my journey of approximately 250 miles on route 20 was particularly nice. I left from PA after dinner Saturday and arrived on Monday, the 29th around 10pm.
It was cloudy with some partial clearing. I had already been on the road for 12 hours but couldn’t resist driving a few miles outside of town to take a look at what’s up there. Within minutes I could see stars so pulled over and star-gazed for about 20 minutes until the clouds took over.
“Scroll to the bottom of the page to view full screen photos”
It was spectacular! Valentine has a population of about 2,700 and just 2 miles outside of town I was in a Bortle Class 3 dark sky. From my home in Butler, PA I have to drive 3 hours to find such darkness.
Tuesday evening I headed down route 83 South for about 30 miles which took me into the Bortle 1 area. There aren’t many roads so I took the first one I came to, Goose Creek Road, which headed East. The side roads are narrow, not made for two way traffic, but they are flat and well maintained for the most part. There seems to be only ranches on these roads, measured in distance by miles! There is almost nothing but land, cattle & hay.
I drove for about 2 miles and stopped to set up the camera and take in the stars. Unfortunately, this night was rather cloudy, about 50%, but there were enough large patches of clearing in the night sky to make for a nice evening. At times the clouds against the Milky-way and thick star coverage created a unique scene. The clouds were black and just looked like someone painted swaths of paint across the sky.
While on the road, I encountered 2 vehicles from 10:30pm-11:30pm. They both stopped and asked if I was OK. Both were women, which shouldn’t be odd, but coming from Western PA I can pretty much much say nobody would stop let alone a woman on such an isolated road! I thanked them both for their concern and they wished me well on my night photography. I was there until 3am and did not encounter any more cars.
Wednesday evening I headed down 83 again but this time a little further, taking Brown lee road and heading East. This night there were few clouds but the atmospheric conditions were only average. Still, it was a spectacular evening. I was lucky and fortunate that it didn’t rain as this was my last chance to hang out in a Bortle 1 area.
I found a nice area with a few trees and set up. It was pitch black. Beautiful night sky! So many stars, so bright! It is dead quiet in this area. I started to hear strange gurgling sounds, deep and almost growling. I knew it had to be cattle but I could see nothing. It was a bit unnerving after a few minutes so I got my flashlight and was startled to see I was pretty much surrounded by cows! They were fenced, however there were dozens if not a hundred of them! At this point any abstract idea I had in mind that cows probably sleep and snore became a vivid and factual realization to me! I wasn’t bothered by any noises the remainder of the night.
“Scroll to the bottom of the page to view full screen photos”
About 1am the Milky way started dissipating and the fog was rolling in so I headed home, taking Brown Lee road all the way across (about 25 miles) to Route 97 North which leads to Valentine and my hotel. I stopped a few times along the way just to get some final glimpses. It’s a long drive when top speed is 25 mph for miles of stretches at a time.
Reminiscing, the most noticeable difference I could see between a Bortle 3 versus a 1 is that in the darker area the stars are closer to the horizon. You don’t have to look straight up to see a lot of stars. Also, the Milky way seemed to have more density to it along with a thicker cluster of stars straight upwards in the Bortle 1 area.
I will be going back to a Bortle 1 location again, Lord willing. I can only imagine how intense it would be in June or July and on a good night rather than just average and hazy like the nights I had. I probably would only travel that far again for a Bortle 1 in June or July, maybe the first week of August at the latest, just for the sake of seeing the Milky Way in it’s full grandeur from a United States perspective.
I go stargazing for the relaxation and fascination. The photography comes second and I do it for fun. While my camera shutter is open for 20 or 30 seconds, then processing for the same amount of time, I look up! So, between shots I have a minute to gaze. It works out well for me. I’m not interested in using a telescope. It’s the whole “naked eye” experience that gets to my soul. I get lost in the night doing this, especially in June and July when it’s nice and hot outside.
The one annoyance I have to point out from my Nebraska visit is the fact that you will be eaten alive by bugs if you don’t have spray! I do not like using spray as it’s very irritating to me but it was impossible to enjoy myself without. I am rarely bothered by insects in PA. I visited Spruce Knob mountain in WV and never needed bug spray.
I think the fact that I was basically among cattle for hundreds of miles might have something to do with it. The area I was in is on top of the massive Ogallala Aquifer. That dampness in the ground could perhaps bring out the bugs. Whatever the reason, be warned if you enter into the area I was at that you should have bug repellent with you!
I didn’t do much of anything while in town. I slept all day and went stargazing all night! Most of my daylight experiences were on my way to and from Valentine, driving. I had two fantastic steak dinners while visiting, both at The Peppermill Restaurant. I highly recommend it and please, order a steak! You’re in the heart of cattle country!
There is an annual Star Party at the Merritt Reservoir in July near Valentine if you are into that type of organized stargazing with telescopes and guides who can point out planets and constellations. I saw a lot of boats and kayak’s in the area and in the parking lot of my hotel so I imagine there must be outdoor water recreation to enjoy during the day. I know there is a state park and the Merritt Reservoir is part of that. You need to purchase permits to enter the parks, much different from in PA, so be sure to check into that if you intend to hike or use the parks.
Check out my visit to the Clown Doll Museum, Stuart’s White Horse Museum grounds and my trip to the town of Brownlee, population 17! All this and a dark sky, it was a fantastic trip!
“View these photos on maximize or full screen for more detail!”