Experts agree — stargazing at Lake Tahoe unlike any other location in the world
Special to the Sierra Sun
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This story is adapted from the summer 2019 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a specialty publication of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. The magazine, which is packed with plenty of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe-Truckee summer has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to tahoemagazine.com to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today.
It’s no secret the lack of light pollution in the Tahoe Sierra makes it ideal for stargazing. It’s also a quiet, peaceful environment to connect with nature, whether you’re on a quiet sandy beach watching the light reflect off the lake or on top of a mountain looking up at the vast sky.
Many people come to Tahoe to go hiking, boating and mountain biking during the day, but there are adventure companies and astronomers who offer plenty of natural entertainment, too.
At Northstar California, Tahoe Star Tours (tahoestartours.com) Owner and Lead Astronomer Tony Berenden gives tours of the sky on Thursday and Saturday evenings, June-September, at the Dark Skies Cosmoarium.
Located in the Castle Peak parking lot at 6,400 feet, stargazers have the chance to look through high tech Celestron telescopes at constellations, planets and galaxies that are literally in another world.
“The lake is an awesome place to go see the stars,” Berenden says. “(Living up here) it’s so easy, but a lot of people who visit from Chicago, the Bay Area … major cities with a lot of light pollution don’t ever get to look up and see the stars. The neat thing about doing star shows outside is looking through these high-definition telescopes. You can get a great look at the moon and planets, see the details. You can look at deep space, into other galaxies, look at crispy spiral stars that are millions of light years away.
“People think there’s a sticker on the lens because the images are so vivid. You can see craters, mountains, shadows.”
He says one group came on a Tahoe Star Tour from South Korea and one person was so captivated by what he saw through the lens that he started crying.
“There’s a lot of light pollution (in Seoul) and in places like San Francisco,” Berenden says. “In San Francisco, you see a handful of stars, but up here you see close to a thousand, and counting the Milky Way, it’s more than that.”
Making for an unbelievable trip
Tahoe Star Tours has also teamed up with the Tahoe Adventure Company (tahoeadventurecompany.com) to give sunset tours on the lake and full moon paddles June-September.
“They supply kayaks and we go out there before twilight for an hour and then I’ll set up telescopes on the beach. I’ll do a talk, a poem and give information about what we’re looking at,” Berenden says.
One of his own favorite stars includes Achird, located within the Cassiopeia constellation, which is about 19 light years away.
“It’s a binary star and unique because it’s in the same spectral class as the sun, so it’s yellowish,” he says. “So, if you went 19 light years into space to it, that’s what the sun would look like to us.”
The Scorpio constellation is also another favorite, especially its gigantic red star in the middle that marks the heart.
Berenden says that some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the night sky is thinking that all of the stars are the same distance away.
“Also, people love to see meteor showers, but all that is are pieces of debris getting sucked up into the atmosphere, not falling stars,” he says.
As a stargazing destination, Berenden says that combining Lake Tahoe’s many outdoor activities with the dark skies creates a whole unique, memorable experience.
“People don’t just come here for the dark skies, they can come and stay at a 5-star hotel, go hiking, skiing,” he says. “When you combine what Tahoe has to offer with the dark skies, then that can make a Tahoe trip unbelievable. We’re very lucky on this planet that we have a very transparent atmosphere so when the sun goes down in the night sky you get one heck of a view.”
A different perspective
Whether it’s mountain biking, hiking in the backcountry, rock climbing or kayaking, Tahoe Jack’s has guides who are eager to give people a memorable adventure out in Tahoe’s wilderness.
As an adventure company that has been around for seven years, the outfitter employs about 6-10 guides whose sole mission it is to take people out to have a good time. In its “Moon and Star Adventures” packages, Tahoe Jack’s (tahoejacks.com) showcases the Tahoe nightscape to patrons through an overnight camping trip, or takes them out on kayaks in the calm water to get a panoramic, unfiltered view of the sky.
“We’re basically out there to take people out and show them a good time,” says Tahoe Jack’s Founder/Managing Director Chad Tranberg. “We throw out facts on Lake Tahoe, the natural history, talk about the wilderness (on the overnight hiking trips), point out different trees, talk about how Lake Tahoe was formed.
“When we go hiking further into the backcountry you can see the stars better.”
On the “Howl at the Moon” kayak adventure, Tahoe Jack’s typically launches from Cave Rock or Sand Harbor. On a clear night, Tahoe Jack’s guests can look up and see constellations like Orion’s Belt and the Big and Little Dippers while getting a little bit of a paddling workout in.
“There’s not a lot of light pollution out here because we’re not near any major cities, so we can see a lot more stars here. Most of the light pollution (in Tahoe) is coming from South Lake and even that’s not that bad compared to Sacramento or the Bay Area,” Tranberg adds. “The best part about going out at night is that no one else is out there — there are no boats flying by you, it’s really peaceful.”