Stargazing at Joshua Tree- Perseid Meteor Shower 2015

On Wednesday, August 12, 2015 we loaded up the car and took a little road trip to Joshua Tree to watch the Perseid meteor shower. The peak of the shower this year was August 12-13, and it was predicted to be a good one to catch due to the fact that it would be a dark, moonless night.

We’re from Orange County, California, a little over 100 miles away from Joshua Tree, so if we were going to drive all the way out to the desert on a weekday, in the middle of the work-week, it better be worth it. After all, we are only a short 30-40 minute drive away from the mountains, the beaches, and the woods. Each one offering a pretty good view of the stars at night.

However, when I was researching the best spots to go stargazing, I came across NPS’ website-Joshua Tree stargazing page which promised a view of “the night sky in its natural, unpolluted state.” It also promised a view of the Milky Way and hundreds of stars.

The Milky Way as seen from Joshua Tree- photo by Henry Jun Wah Lee (2015)
The Milky Way as seen from Joshua Tree- photo by Henry Jun Wah Lee (2015)

I’ve never seen the Milky Way, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a sky full of stars. We hit the road.

After several hours of dealing with traffic, singing along to the radio, and kids asking “if we’re there yet,” we finally made it to Joshua Tree.

We found a quiet place to set up our lawn chairs, next to a few other small groups of stargazers, and sat down to watch the sky. We were instantly greeted by a fireball zipping across the sky. At first,we thought it was a flare or firework, because we had never seen a meteor like that except in the movies. The “ooh’s” echoed across the desert, followed by clapping and laughing, as all the people were celebrating the amazing display we were witnessing.

We saw several fireballs like that during the time we were there, and we saw several dozen medium and small meteors flying through the sky. Every now and then, there would be some downtime between meteors, but we were still looking around in amazement at all the clusters of stars visible in the sky.

photo by Henry Jun Wah Lee (2013)
photo by Henry Jun Wah Lee (2013)

The site recommended taking binoculars so that you can trace the Milky Way and look at the cluster of stars. Right before leaving, I bought the kids some binoculars and flashlights. They had a lot of fun seeing the shooting stars, making wishes, and learning about the constellations (or should I say-CONSTELLATION- the only one I recognized that night was the Big Dipper. I didn’t see my buddy Orion anywhere so he must’ve had the night off.) It was a fun night, and hopefully we were making some good memories with the kids. Before driving up, we asked the kids if they remembered the last meteor shower we took them too (the Geminids in December)? They said “yeah.” We asked, “did you guys have fun?” They both replied, “yeah, but it was cold!” It definitely was cold that night. That was the cool thing about going to Joshua Tree this week because the air was still warm at night, and we didn’t need any blankets. The December meteor shower, even though we saw it here in the city, required a jacket, beanie, gloves, and blankets.

In fact, it was so cold that night in December, that the oldest kid (age 8) pretended to see a shooting star just so we could get the hell out of there. We were climbing a hill and I was carrying the youngest one (age 5). As I was looking at the path (or trying to, it was dark), the kid was looking up. All of a sudden, his face lit up and he got excited, “ooooh, wow!” I asked, “what happened? did you see a shooting star?” He nodded his head, “yeah.” I saw a fireball a few minutes later, then my wife did. The oldest still hadn’t seen anything but it was cold and he wanted to leave. We said, “we’ll leave in a bit. We just want you to see one.” We stood there waiting in the cold, looking up. He said, “I saw one. Let’s go.” We said, “you didn’t see one. We’re looking at the same sky you are. Plus, you would have been more excited.” Then, with more effort this time, he said, “oooh, I SAW ONE!” Of course, he didn’t, but we decided we’ll go ahead and start walking back. As we were walking, this fireball shot across the sky and he started jumping up and down “I saw one. I saw one!” That’s the reaction we were looking for.

But, to get back on topic, the kids enjoy meteor watching but mostly when it is warm. Going to Joshua Tree this year was definitely a night to remember, and we plan on going back there again the next time there is a meteor shower, but depending on how cold it gets there in December (I’m sure the answer is “very”) we may decide to make it a date night instead of a family night.

There is still time to watch the Perseid’s this year (if you miss it, there’s always next year), along with the following meteor showers this year: 

The Perseids occur every year, usually between mid-July through August, with peaks in mid-August. You can still catch it this year until August 24.

The Leonids occur every year, usually peaking in mid-November.

The Geminids occur every year in December, usually peaking mid-December.

Still not convinced to drive out to the desert? Check out this time lapse video taken at Joshua tree in 2013. Good stuff.

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