Summer stargazing around 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.

In early June with the last gasp of spring anticipating summer at Lake Tahoe, a hazy band begins to show near the sky's eastern horizon in the early evening. At first, its presence is only noticed by veteran stargazers, but by the arrival of mid-summer, the glorious milky path of our galaxy is undeniable and stretches from the southern horizon across the zenith to Cassiopeia in the northern night sky. It's a shining endorsement for Lake Tahoe as one of the West Coast's best destinations for stargazing.

The immensity of the view of our galaxy fills the heart and mind with the amazing wonder of the cosmos. Carl Sagan once said “We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” You are seeing the visual proof of his statement with your very eyes, seeing the universe in a way that it can't be seen just anywhere when gazing at the Milky Way on a summer night around Lake Tahoe. Big, dark skies with minimal light pollution make Lake Tahoe a great place for stargazing anytime of year, and the summer months are no exception. 

But as mind boggling as it is to wrap our heads around the view of the galaxy’s hazy band, so is the fact that all the single stars we see--everyone of them--are within the Milky Way. The Milky Way is a huge collection of gas, dust, planets, and stars. It is a stellar birthplace and graveyard, so large it would take a spaceship 100,000 years at light speed to travel from end to end. If we were to travel in a spaceship from earth to the Milky Way's center, we would head toward the stars of the constellation Sagittarius just above the southern horizon, pass by them, and continue for another 25,000 years. Yet despite the Milky Way's distance from earth, we're able to catch a glimpse of it from our corner of the world in Lake Tahoe.

I've always been fascinated by what looks like the blinking on and off of stars as seen while walking through the trees around Lake Tahoe at night. And this glimpse of the Milky Way and wonder of the galaxy is an experience I get to share with locals and visitors to Lake Tahoe every weekend during the summer for my Tahoe Star Tours. So with the summer stargazing season kicking off around Lake Tahoe, below I share a few of my Lake Tahoe summer stargazing tips.

1. Dress warmly. Lake Tahoe is more than a mile above sea level with air that is thin and dry, making it perfect for stargazing. However, when the sun dips below the horizon, temperatures can drop 20 to 30 degrees. As such, dress warmly. Warm shoes, a hooded sweatshirt and a blanket are among my favorite items to bring.

2. Plan stargazing around the moon phases. The moon is a beautiful object to view in the sky with or without a telescope. A waxing crescent moon sets early in the evening leaving behind a wonderfully dark sky, while a full moon rises just as the sun sets and brightens the night sky, hiding the Milky Way, meteors and stars. If its stargazing you want to do, plan your Lake Tahoe stargazing evenings around moonless nights.

3. Find the right location. Location, location, location. Pick a location away from lighting and with the best horizon you can find, unobstructed by trees, hills and buildings. Three of my favorite locations are Northstar, Martis Valley and the shores of Lake Tahoe.

4. Download a stargazing app. All summer long there will be awesome things to experience in the dark skies above Lake Tahoe, from glimmering constellations to twinkling stars to meteors to giant planets. A stargazing app, like SkyPortal, can help you find all of these and tell you about them too.

5. Bring a telescope or binoculars. Don’t forget to bring your telescope and binoculars for close-up views of celestial objects. If you don’t have a telescope, then join us at the Dark Skies Cosmoarium at Northstar or The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, where we have amazing large aperture computerized Celestron telescopes you can look through.

The Tahoe Ascent Staff represents everyone from snowboard instructors to ski patrol to chefs and more. They are locals who know the 4-1-1 on North Lake Tahoe, but also experts in their own fields, providing unique, and often behind-the-scenes perspectives of both the area and their areas of expertise.