Finding Dark Skies Close to Home

If you’re like me and have an interest in astrophotography, you know that one of the biggest obstacles to stargazing is finding a dark sky. You need a really dark sky. I’ve mentioned some resources I use in my previous Milky Way post — DarkSiteFinder and LightPollutionMap.info — but it can be pretty discouraging to find that your closest blue or black region is several hours’ drive away. Fortunately Arkansas has plenty of rural areas, but I live in the capitol, which is smack dab in the middle of a huge swath of intense light pollution. And then there’s the weather to consider– as accurate as many forecasts are these days, there’s nothing worse than driving several hours, hiking in the dark, setting up a shot, and then having clouds obscure the sky.

With all that considered, I’ve been trying to find some decent Milky Way viewing spots that are a little closer to home for me, so I don’t have to make a long drive every time I want to shoot. This is surprisingly harder than you would think– besides the light pollution issue, many promising spots either don’t face the right direction for the Milky Way, have too much tree cover, require 4WD, aren’t open throughout the night, etc. etc…

But this past weekend I had a couple of spots picked out that I wanted to check out, so I enlisted my cousin Cate to come with me and we headed out at sunset to do some recon.

I thought the most promising spot would be Crystal Vista, so we headed there first. Crystal Vista (also sometimes called Crystal Mountain) is an overlook on the Winona Scenic Drive, a long dirt road (but suitable for cars) that winds through the Ouachita National Forest between highway 9 at Paron and highway 7 near Jessieville (click here for a Forest Service brochure about it). There are many places to stop along the way, and is a great wildlife viewing area. Crystal Vista is at the top of a .2 mile spur off the main drive, suitable only for high clearance 4WD vehicles. Cate and I parked at the bottom and hiked up in the dark.

And of course, when we got there, it was so cloudy and hazy you could barely see a thing. During the day time, the view is expansive, offering panoramic views of Lake Winona and the surrounding forest. The clouds were so dark you couldn’t even see any sky reflecting off the faraway lake. It had already taken over an hour to get there, so we settled in to wait and see if any clouds dissipated.

That was when we started to see lights. A few times we saw what looked like a flashlight beam reflecting off the clouds nearby, and then off some trees at the edge of the clearing. Cate and I fell silent and just tried to listen– we didn’t hear a sound. No one approaching or talking, no cars. It was also pitch black. I couldn’t help but imagine some psycho hiding out in the trees silently, waiting to murder us. I knew we were probably freaking out for no reason, but we agreed we both saw the lights– somebody was around. As the clouds still hadn’t lifted, we decided to call it quits and get the heck out of there. (This is why I carry travel-size mace… still haven’t used it, but hope I never have to!)

As we hiked quickly back down to the car, we listened intently, still not hearing anything other than the cicadas. Once we got down to where the spur meets the main road, we noticed a car parked a little way down from us– with all lights off and seemingly no one in it. That just spooked the crap out of us and we threw our gear into our car and sped off. For the life of us we could not imagine what that person/people was doing– the only place to go from the parking area was Crystal Vista, where we had been, and we hadn’t seen a soul. Gulp.

By some miracle, or sheer luck, we managed to get off the Winona Scenic Drive in one piece AND the stars had finally come out! Cate and I finally calmed down, and decided to stop at the other location on my list– Sleepy Hollow, an access point on the Maumelle River near Lake Maumelle. As opposed to Crystal Vista, which requires a looong drive down a dirt road that has some iffy parts, Sleepy Hollow is right off highway 10 and only about 30 minutes outside Little Rock.

I thought it might be a bust, but man, what a sight we were treated to. A little floating dock was positioned perfectly to face out towards the calm water, and the Milky Way was arching almost directly overhead. Cicadas chirped, frogs bellowed, and even a couple of barred owls hooted above us. I definitely know where I’ll be headed next time I want to shoot the night sky close to home– no dirt roads required, and hopefully no creeps!

Milky Way in dark sky over Sleepy Hollow on Maumelle River

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