Moon shine in the mountains
April 15, 2014
Some think the day ends with apres, the period in the afternoon after skiing where you loosen your boots and unwind for the night. Others know that exploring the great outdoors doesn't have to stop when the sun sets. Nighttime hikes and activities abound here in the mountains, with many options to experience the nightlife of the natural variety, not just the kind that occurs at local watering holes. As the ski season nears its end, one might feel they've done all there is to do here in Eagle County for the winter. If you've made the most of your days, then there's still one more thing to cross off the bucket list: make the most of the moonlight.
This week will be especially ideal to try a nighttime nature activity. A lunar eclipse will occur in the wee hours of Tuesday, meaning you have to plan on staying up late tonight. A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon is fully in the earth's shadow, creating a shinning red copper ring around moon. John W. Briggs, astronomer in residence at HUT Observatory in Eagle, said this lunar eclipse is one of four of its kind occurring during the next year and a half, all of which will be visible in the United States. In our time zone, the moon will begin to enter the dark center of the Earth's shadow tonight at 11:58 p.m. MST. The total eclipse will begin at 1:07 a.m. and end at 2:25 p.m. MST.
Briggs said many people don't realize that when they gaze into the night sky that they are viewing a piece history.
"Here we are, in the Rocky Mountains, and we tend to think of the earth's geology around us as something ancient," Briggs said. "But the age of the surface features of the moon are vastly more ancient than anything in normal human experience. The earth's geology is changing at a relatively quick time scale compared to the surface of the moon. (The moon) is truly ancient; that's actually a pretty cool and profound thing."
Our night sky isn't often used as a selling point to visitors coming to the valley, but maybe it should be. Briggs said the best night viewing globally is a mountain setting near the ocean, as in-land mountain ranges tend to be cloudier. However, this is one of the best places in the U.S. to view the Milky Way.
"Anyone can see the full moon back home in the big city, but to see the Milky Way in all its splendor is really more rare," Briggs said.
The best time to see the Milky Way is on a new moon, and the next one will be the early morning on Tuesday. As we head toward summer, the Milky Way will be increasingly easier to see, so mark those moon cycles on your calendar as well. There's more than one way to enjoy the mountains at midnight. Here are some bright places to hike in the moonlight this weekend, or dark spots to stargaze toward the end of the month.
Skin up Meadow Mountain
The Meadow Mountain trailhead starts just south of the Holy Cross Ranger Station off U.S. Highway 24, as you head into Minturn. Previously an old forest road, the trail is perfect for snowshoeing, hiking or skinning on telemark or alpine touring skis. Skinning allows you to walk up the hill without sliding, and then ski down. Many skin Meadow Mountain during the day, but trying it at night during a full moon can be even more fun.
For more information about the trail, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov.
Do a backcountry hut trip
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association rents out 34 backcountry huts, most of which are between Vail and Aspen. Huts will be available to rent until the end of April. Reservationist Peter Essig said doing a hut trip during the full moon is must-do mountain experience, especially if you rent one in an area where you can downhill ski at night. The huts near downhill skiing areas are further into the backcountry, so for first-timers, Essig recommends Shrine Mountain Inn, Broome Hut or Sangree M. Froelicher, all of which have approaches of three miles or less, he said.
Huts range from $30-$40 per person per night plus tax. To make a reservation, call 970-925-5775 or visit http://www.huts.org
WALK around Sylvan Lake
The trail around Sylvan Lake is a relatively easy mile and a half, perfect for families and those looking for a shorter nighttime hike. Located 10 miles past Eagle, the full moon's reflection off the lake provides a picturesque backdrop that's so bright you don't even need a headlamp.
"You have the full moon and the stars all around you," said Erica Haller, interpretive ranger at Sylvan Lake State Park. "It's a chance to (escape) the city in a really special way."
Haller said during this time of year, it's best to bring both snowshoes and boots, as conditions can change daily. For more information, call 970-328-2021.
Stargaze along Shrine Pass
To gaze at the Milky Way, the Shrine Mountain or Shrine Pass trails have quite a star-packed sight. Lara Carlson, community programs director at Walking Mountains Science Center, said when attempting a night hike on the new moon, it's best to seek a high elevation and a place with little tree cover. Located east of Vail off I-70, the Shrine trails are well away from city lights and can give you a 360 degree view of the nighttime sky. Carlson said in the winter constellations like Orion are more visible, whereas it's easier to see the Big Dipper in the summer.
"The later into the evening you go, the more stars are going to be visible and the more you're going to see what a true astronomer might be going to look for." Carlson said.
For a map of the Shrine Pass trails, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov. Carlson said there's a cool new mobile app for stargazing called Stellarium, which helps you identify different constellations relative to your location. To download, visit http://www.stellarium.com
If you want more information on astronomy in the area, the Eagle Valley Astronomical Society meets every second Thursday of the month at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.walkingmountains.org.
Dine at Tennessee Pass
The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse is located off of U.S. Highway 24 towards Leadville. The Cookhouse just closed for the season, but it re-opens in June. There are sleep yurts available for rent if you wish to stay the night. Jay Jump, an employee at the Cookhouse, said the restaurant offers a view of the Sawatch Range you can't experience anywhere else.
"The sky is just as clear and awe-inspiring as it can be," Jump said. "That's the real attraction at night."
For more information about the Cookhouse, visit http://www.tennesseepass.com.