A winter cosmic theatre for stargazing in Lake Tahoe

The following post comes from Tony Berendsen, Star Guide, poet, author, and owner of Tahoe Star Tours. He leads stargazing snowshoe adventures on select evenings during the winter, and during the summer, his company provides stargazing experiences at Northstar and The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. All photos courtesy of Ryan Berendsen.

Just beyond the slopes of Lake Tahoe exists a cosmic theatre that you can't just find anywhere on the West Coast. After finishing your day on the slopes with après-ski, trade in your skis and fire pit view for snowshoes and a cosmic view into the stars and constellations.

While the world is full of so many wonderful places to visit where you can step outside on a dark night to view the cosmos, Lake Tahoe is one of the best. During winter, Lake Tahoe is a cosmic pedestal, highlighted by millions of bright stars sparkling like diamonds amidst the immensity of the winter Milky Way shimmering above. While the sky above Lake Tahoe is beautiful anytime of year, it's especially beautiful during those clear, crisp winter nights. That's because we are looking away from the center of the galaxy this time of year, so that the nearby stars shine brighter, and the winter Milky Way is just a subtle whisk of light passing through the constellation Cassiopeia.

So to make the most of stargazing around Lake Tahoe, follow my stargazing tips below. 

Lake Tahoe Stargazing Tips

   Dress warm, with multiple layers, and wear warm shoes and a knitted cap that covers your ears.

   Step away from your fire pit and any other lights for the best viewing experience. Furthermore, new moon evenings are the best nights for viewing, since bright moon-lit nights can overshadow the stars and that subtle winter Milky Way.

   Bring your smartphone loaded with the SkyPortal app, set on night mode, to help you find your way around. SkyPortal is great for identifying and learning about what you're looking at in the sky.

  Bring binoculars if you have them. While the Lake Tahoe night sky is so beautiful to view even with just the naked eye, there are some amazing star clusters and nebulae that you'll often be able to view with the help of binoculars.

What To View This Winter

The constellation of Orion is rising in the southeast with the blazing red (and giant) star of Betelgeuse at the hunter's right shoulder. For reference, if it was where the sun is, we would be inside of it! But luckily for us, it's 640 light years away.

Below the Belt of Orion (the three stars in a row below Betelgeuse), there is a vertical row of dimmer stars, known as Orion's Sword. Within the sword lies a winter stargazing treat, a cosmic nursery! Just visible to the the naked eye, the glow of a nebula becomes easier to see in binoculars, as well as a few newborn stars within it, located 1,500 light years away.

Next, above Orion to the south is another giant red star, not quite as big and bright as Betelgeuse, for example, but still a stellar constellation, called Aldebaran. It's the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus, marking the eye in the mighty bull. Look to the right of the star for a "V" shape of stars, where you'll find one of the closest galactic star clusters to earth, the Hyades. Point your binoculars at it to see some of the hundreds of stars bound in a giant gravitational web, located approximately 150 light years away.

Finally, for a customized, guided tour of the solar system, join us for one of our snowshoe star tours at Northstar California. We take groups out for an evening stargazing trek on several nights during the winter (December 21 & 28, January 14, and February 11). We start at the Northstar Nordic Center and end at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe for telescopic viewing and hot chocolate and cider.

The sky above Lake Tahoe is amazingly transparent, providing a literal window to the universe, and one of the best places on the West Coast to enjoy a winter cosmic show. Hope to see you this winter at Lake Tahoe's cosmic theatre.