Astro 25: Field Astronomy in the California Mountains - Studying the Orion Star Forming Region at Laguna Mountain

Mar 16-18, 2018

Post-Trip Photo Page

Pre-Trip PowerPoint and PDF

Latest Weather Predictions for Laguna Mountain / Pinnacles area


For this section of Astronomy 25, we're going to Laguna Mountain. It's about an hour south of Pinnacles National Park. It has the darkest skies anywhere in Central California, and the site for our observing has an outstanding horizon in all directions. Mid March is wildflower season, and we'll be hiking and talking about planetary processes during Saturday, and on Sunday morning we'll be doing a second shorter hike as well as a solar observation session, studying sunspots and talking about the solar influence on Earth and Earth climate.

The astronomy "cognesceti" at Cabrillo College and alumni, have been to this BLM campground at Laguna Mountain several times over the past few years, and done astrophotography, trail runs, and explorations of the area, with images I'll share below.

Pre-Trip Meeting: Saturday Mar 10 or Sunday Mar 11 (we'll have to discuss this by email!)

We'll meet in room 705 on campus at 10am Mar 11, or 9am Saturday Mar 10. We're settling that by email as I write this. I'll hand out the map packet and schedule, we'll get liability waivers signed, camp meals discussed, and we'll help you get car pools so we can consolidate. Our BLM campground has no camping fee, so you didn't pay extra when you registered for the course - nice! The next time I see you, it will be at Laguna Mountain campground the following Friday...

The long range weather forecast includes possible showers on next weekend, which would make Laguna mtn not a great choice - it would be muddy during the hike, and we couldn't use the hilltop site which has such a great view of the skies. Instead we'd go to where it's dry (most likely - we'll discuss) - namely Red Rock Canyon State Park. And see what other trips we've done at Red Rock in Astro 28. The rest of the description of this course below assumes the weather will improve and we'll be able to go to Laguna Mountain.

Friday Mar 16

Our campground is at Laguna Mountain campground on Coalingo Rd. We'll be at an elevation of 2100 ft so I will want to get up there ASAP on Friday to grab spots. Anyone (Kirk? JP?) wanting to come a little early and help on that are extremely welcome to do so!

Laguna Mountain is, according to the background sky brightness maps, is the darkest place in Central California this side of the Eastern Sierra.


Sunrise. Our site has panoramic horizons

Looking west, from our telescope setup

Visiting professor Chris Kitting and I spent a weekend there 2 years ago for comet photography

Directions to get to our campground.

Drive to Hollister, down Hwy 25 past Pinnacles National Park and turn left at Coalinga Rd. Continue southeast on this winding road as it goes over hills and valleys. Laguna Mtn Recreation Area has several trail-head and campspots so be patient and go on past the Sweetwater trailhead sign, until you see, on your right, "Laguna Mountain Campground". Drive up the short road all the way to the bathrooms at the end. Our campsite will be on the little hill just to your right. We'll try to grab another site or two, but worst case we'll just have the top campsite on the hilltop. Plan to set up your tents mostly further down and not exactly at the top since right at the top of the little trail will likely (stay tuned on that) be our "kitchen" group area and our telescope set-up spot. I'll have camp maps prepared for you to give out at the pre-trip meeting.

Arrive at our campsite by around 6pm; I'll fix you a fine pasta dinner. Volunteer contributions of veges and salad makings welcome. We'll stoke up the campfire (if permitted), fire season has been baad) and enjoy a short lecture around the warmth about what we're going to be observing through telescopes. Then, bring out the scopes and study the galaxies and planets that grace the late Winter evening sky. Venus will be low after sunset. Jupiter will come up late in the evening. The great star formation regions of Orion's Belt will be high in the south as twilight fades, and the brightest star clusters in the sky - the Plieades, Hyades, the Beehive Cluster, and the open clusters of Auriga and Gemini. Bring your chocolate chip cookies to enjoy around the scopes! Our astronomy club members Kirk B and JP Lane are planning on joining us with their monster 12" and 25" Dobsonian telescopes, and probe for distant quasars and some of the farthest objects possible for any amateur astronomer to ever see, BILLIONS of light years away!

My famous French Crepes breakfast on Saturday morning!

Campfire lecture; on stellar evolution on Friday night, and on cosmology and the origin of the Universe and the Big Bang on Saturday night. If we have perfect skies and campfire ban, we'll talk around the telescopes instead. If clouds... we'll gather round and sip hot chocolate around a pretend campfire for astro-talk

March is the best month of the year to see the Zodiacal Light - the slanting column of glow of interplanetary dust forward-scattering light from the sun just after twilight ends



Saturday Plan

7:30am Breakfast: As with all my Astro 25 field trip classes - we begin the day with my famous French Crepes breakfast. I'll get up early and begin the preparations of the batter. Help in carving fruit and we'll make it a communal experience. Breakfast will be leisurely.

10:30am After we clean up Breakfast, we'll pack our lunches in daypacks and do a 5 mile round trip hike to a beautiful waterfall - Laguna Falls - with a big swimming hole at the bottom of the falls (clean, but perhaps chilly!). We'll stop along the way at a several points and have my popular "micro-lectures" on various topics from star and planet formation to the origin of the chemical elements that make up the planets, including Earth. After enjoying the Falls for a while, you can either join me for an adventurous roughing-it go down the stream for the 2 miles back to the trail crossing, or you can take the more tame way - the trail - back to the same place, and then the trail back to camp. Depending on timing, we may do another short hike in the later afternoon, over towards Laguna Mountain itself.

On the hike: We'll do my special "Micro-lectures" - brief stops for 10-12 minutes of lecturing on important topics, followed by more hiking. We'll focus on Earth-as-a-planet, compare/contrast with our other planets, and also give some fascinating facts on climate change - the Central Coast mountains are rich in limestone and marble, and a good setting to study the process of calcium carbonate formation and limestone caverns formation and erosion. I'll connect this to how we can determine the tipping point for the melting of the Siberian Permafrost in paleo climate. Very clever, ingenious idea successfully carried out by by Dr. Anton Vaks and his team 5 years ago. This is a key piece of science showing how serious our current climate change future will be.

During the day on Saturday, after breakfast, we'll do a 5-6 mile round hike to beautiful 50 ft Laguna Falls

Laguna Creek crossing, 2 miles into our hike. We may have an optional boulder-hopping 2 miles from the waterfall back down along the creek itself to the trail/creek crossing, rather than the trail. Optional, only the adventurous need apply! Probably shoes-wet experience. No penalty for just taking the trail. We'll see how that goes...

An overlook, a half-mile up the trail, looking down towards the valley made by Laguna Creek, leading up to the waterfall. The waterfall is just below and in front of the low point in the horizon.

If we can get some rain before March, we should have nice wildflowers

Laguna Falls, our hiking destination. Bring your lunch. The falls has created a large swimming hole.

It'll be shady, rocks to lay about on, we'll have a few micro-lectures along with relaxation.


At the telescope; we'll use our computer-controlled 8" scope to direct us across the heavens' best study objects, and also have JP and Kirk's big Dobs for seeing things at their best.

Saturday evening - Another great campfire dinner, cooked by Chez Nolthenius - an Asian theme'd jasmine rice, spices and fresh vegetables creation.

Follow up with more telescopic explorations of the evening sky. Contrasting galaxy types, as the Leo and Virgo Galaxy Clusters rise in the east, and supernova remnants in Cygnus and Taurus are the best in the sky, and help us understand how the heavy elements in the universe were made. We'll also study the Owl Nebula in the rising Big Dipper, which is a star newly dead - a fate that awaits our Sun in 7 billion years.

Sunday Plan

Another tasty breakfast creation - this one centered around eggs and simmered black beans and vegetables with cowboy toast. Then, we'll aim the 8" scope w/ filter at the sun and I'll lecture on the solar cycles, their relation to sunspots, and to Earth; the aurorae borealis and also climate. We may do one more hike. I'm working on that. It would be short, likely to either Laguna Mountain itself (if we don't do that on Saturday afternoon), or we'll pack up and then drive a few miles east to anothe creek spot with interesting spot on another creek, closer to San Benito Mtn.

Before we leave, I'll hand out the take-home final exams (you'll have ~10 days to finish and return to me). We're only ~2.5 hours of driving from home, so you 'll be back at a convenient time on Sunday.




Camper's Checklist and a Word Document version