Show of hands: who has never seen the Milky Way? That is the question master observer at the Hurricane Ridge Astronomy Program John Goar asks on his sky watching tours every summer. “I will get a great number of people raising their hands when I ask that,” says Goar, “and it makes me really happy to know that I get to show it to them for the first time.”
“We are a fortunate to be in an area that has this dark sky with no light pollution,” says Penny Wagner, public information officer for the Olympic National Park, “and a Master Observer like John to lead people.”
Each summer over the past eight years, Goar has been introducing visitors to the Milky Way and all the beauty and brilliance of the solar systems within. It is understandable that not everyone has an opportunity to experience this; you have to be at the right place at the right time.
The best way to view the night sky is by getting away from city lights and the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center is a perfect spot for summertime night viewing. “It is nice and dark up there which is very important,” explains Goar. “Light pollution is what happens to our sky when light doesn’t shine downward where needed and creates skyglow. That’s why some people have never seen the Milky Way where they live.”
A View Unlike Any Other
“Most of the things in the sky return every single year at the exact same time and the exact same position with the exception of planets, comets and asteroids,” says Goar. “This summer is really cool – we are going to be well placed this summer and I don’t always get to see these, so I am kind of excited this season: Mars’ polar ice caps, Jupiter with the four major moons and Saturn with her rings.”
The Night Sky Program has been growing steadily and this year there are additional volunteers, an assigned park ranger and more telescopes – all to assist participants in learning about the night sky.
To plan your trip, check John Goar’s Olympic Telescope website for the summer Astronomy Program schedule. Know that these are late-night events, anywhere from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. depending on the time of the sunset – the farther into summer, the earlier the program.
If severe cloud coverage moves in, the organizers may cancel. To make sure conditions are good and the event is confirmed, you can call the Hurricane Ridge Road Hotline after 2:00 p.m. the day of your visit at 360-565-3131. Additionally, you can visit the Hurricane Ridge Clear Sky Chart to get a look at the two day forecast.
Though the Night Sky Programs are free, you do need to pay for entrance to the park. You can visit the National Parks Department website to order your America the Beautiful annual pass for $80. Or, if you want to pay when you arrive, you can purchase a $30 per vehicle week-long pass or the annual pass right there at the park entrance. An electronic credit card machine is located at the Heart O’the Hills park entrance, which you will pass through on your way to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center.
What to Bring
Don’t be fooled by the summer season, the elevation and potentially windy conditions at Hurricane Ridge necessitate warm jackets and bundling up at night. The Visitor’s Center is closed during stargazing events, but the bathrooms are accessible. “All you really need is warm clothes,” Goar says, “and your curiosity.”
How to Get There
This is a pretty big road trip at about three hours from Olympia. To get there, take Highway 101 north to Port Angeles. Once in town, follow North Race Street for another 18 miles up to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center. You will pass through the Heart O’the Hills entrance at about six miles where the passes can be purchased, then another 12 miles to the Visitor’s Center. You can find directions here.
A Volunteer’s Reward
When asked what has driven him to build the Night Sky Programs these past eight years, Goar was reflective. “It is deeply satisfying to get to see the wonders of the universe,” he explained, “to get people to a different level of thinking. We can get wrapped up in our personal life and daily grind and now you get to see Saturn’s rings, or a globular star structure. That can be transformative and I get a lot out of that.”
Hikers can also visit Hurricane Ridge for guided Full Moon Hikes. Visit the Hurricane Ridge Night Sky Program website for more details.