Milky Way and Wupatki National Monument—July 2019

A few nights ago I had an opportunity to photograph the Milky Way under exceptionally clear skies. I wanted to do two things: One was to replicate an image I shot a few years ago and the other was to get a Milky Way/landscape composite with a moonlit foreground.

I headed out to Wupatki National Monument (an International Dark Sky Park) and set up in a dark parking lot with a moonlit landscape. The Moon was still well above the horizon and I took several long exposure images to get a good foreground. After the Moon had set, I shot the Milky Way (using a star tracker to eliminate star trails). Back at home, I would then merge the two images. The result is the image below showing the Milky Way aligned above the distant San Franciso Peaks with mesas rising on either side of the shallow valley.  What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.

The Milky Way stands above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

After completing this set of images, I moved to my next location to take my final shot. This is a single, 30-second image at high ISO (ISO 3200) with the tripod carefully centered on the stripe down the middle of the road. Comparing this shot with the one taken a few years ago indicates that the older image was blessed (if that’s the right word) with airglow in the lower part of the image giving it a much more interesting character. The newer image lacks this airglow but does have a more interesting horizon.

Road to the Stars II.

And now the North American Monsoon has begun to ramp up across the southwest and clear skies will be a rarity for the next few months. Time to start photographing storms and lightning!

Milky Way, Moon, and Mercury

It’s that time of year when the Milky Way is visible through much of the night. It is best observed when there is no Moon in the sky—and from very dark skies away from areas of light pollution. I wanted to capture both the Milky Way in a very dark sky and to capture Moonlight gently lighting up the still partially snow-covered mountains. So I headed out to Kendrick Park for some midnight sky photography.

The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.
The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

The result is this composite of two images. The first was taken of the San Francisco Peaks as the moon was low in the west at around 1118 MST. This was a bit more than an hour before moonset (0030 MST). An exposure of 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/8 was used.

The second image was taken at 0047 MST shortly after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was also 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/5.6. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.

This is similar to images taken in the past of Cathedral Rock and Wukoki Pueblo with the Milky Way rising above. Also present low in the photograph is airglow (or nightglow).


Last week the two-day old crescent Moon (only 3.7% directly illuminated) provided a photo opportunity as it set over Upper Lake Mary. During the months of May, June, and July, the thin crescent Moon lines up with the long axis of Upper Lake Mary. This results in nice reflections of the Moon on the waters of the lake—but only if there is little or no wind. A bonus this month was the small planet Mercury was also setting in the northwest.

A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.
A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.

The image also shows the unlit part of the crescent Moon illuminated with Earthshine, also known as Da Vinci Glow. Yes, that Leonardo Da Vinci. Mercury can be seen just above the treetops on the far right side of the image.

New Years winter storm

A band of clouds envelops the San Francisco Peaks.

A very cold storm system moved across the southwestern states on the last day of 2018 bringing snow to both the usual locations but in the lower elevations and the desert as well.

I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.

Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.
Clouds and fog clear away shortly after sunrise to reveal the San Francisco Peaks.

I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.

Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.
Rime ice glows in morning sunshine.

As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.

Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.

The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.

Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
Natural ice sculptures in West Fork Oak Creek.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.

Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
Sunlight reflected off canyon walls and then reflected again on the ice.
West Fork Oak Creek.
West Fork Oak Creek.

On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!

Mormon Lake with Fog, Snow, Rime, and a Glory

A winter storm in late February brought hope again of getting some photographs of the San Francisco Peaks covered in snow. So I departed before sunrise one morning to head out towards Mormon Lake. Because of the warm winter up through mid-February, most of Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary remained mostly ice free. With very cold early morning temperatures it was no surprise that there was fog over the relatively warm open waters of the lakes. When I left my house, the temperature was about +3°F. When I reached Lower Lake Mary, the temperature had fallen to -10°F—and there was considerable fog.

A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.
A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.

It was the same over Upper Lake Mary. I debated whether to change my plans and shoot photographs of the fog over this lake but after viewing the scene I chose to continue to the Mormon Lake Overlook. As I approached the overlook, I could see a layer of fog. Luckily, the overlook was just high enough to be above the fog.

It was a beautiful scene with a shallow layer of fog covering the lake bed and snow on the distant San Francisco Peaks.

San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.
San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.

After getting a few quick photos I set about to capture a panorama. I shot 12 images: 2 rows of 6 shots. The resulting image is huge and clocks in around 190 megapixels. I can make a print of this that’s 8 feet wide. But I probably won’t because I don’t have a wall large enough for something that big.

It was obvious that sometime during the night the fog layer was much deeper as all the grasses, bushes, and trees were covered with rime ice.

Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.

The rime created needles that pointed in the direction of the light wind that had been present during formation. As the sun rose above the horizon, the rime caught the light and sparkled brilliantly.

A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.
A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.

So we had fog over the lake bed, snow on the mountain, and rime ice on the grasses. What else? Well, a glory became visible as the sun rose high enough to illuminate the fog layer below me. And a short segment of a fog bow was also visible in the fog layer.

Not a bad day for photography.

And, finally, we have some weather

It has been a very dry autumn and early winter around these parts—but that finally changed as a winter storm moved across the area yesterday and today. On Tuesday afternoon clouds began to increase across the area and there was a cap cloud draped across the San Francisco Peaks.

Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.
Clouds cover the San Francisco Peaks as a winter storm approaches Arizona.

Most, but not all, of Arizona received precipitation including Flagstaff. We have been without any significant precipitation since September 27 when 0.07″ of rain fell. Since then, we’ve had 0.01″ on November 17 and a Trace on December 21. That’s it. It’s been the driest period on record and the second latest first snowfall of the season. And it’s been warm.

Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.
Water vapor satellite image of the winter storm approaching Arizona.

Rain began to fall around 7:30 P.M. Tuesday evening then switched to snow around 10:15 P.M. as the cold front moved across the area. Prior to frontal passage we had several rounds of thunderstorms. At least one of these thunderstorms exhibited extreme right-mover characteristics as well as some weak rotation suggesting it may have been a supercell.  With this winter storm Flagstaff received ~5″ of snow and 1.19″ of total water.

Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.
Location of lightning strikes as the cold front advanced across Arizona.

Although it was still mostly cloudy this morning, there was a gap in the clouds along the eastern horizon allowing sunshine to briefly illuminate the peaks shortly after sunrise.

San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
San Francisco Peaks wrapped in early morning clouds.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.
Mormon Mountain and Mormon Lake at sunrise.

The San Francisco Peaks are almost completely wrapped in clouds with only the summits visible. A few minutes later, the sun had risen high enough that it was above the clear gap and everything turned gray again.

This will be a short-lived episode as the forecast indicates a quick return to warm and dry conditions across the southwest.