Jack Nichols Photography
Night sky and landscape photographer in Seattle, Washington


Night Skies in Central Oregon

If you want dark skies, you've gotta be willing to drive!

That was the motto for a weekend trip to Central Oregon in early August. Nate (of Wiggin Outside Photography) and I piled into my old Forester and headed south. Originally we were planning to do something a little closer to home, but the weather wasn't cooperative. Instead, we hatched a plan to hit up some awesome night sky destinations in Central Oregon.

Dee Wright Observatory

Our first destination was Dee Wright Observatory, at McKenzie Pass, just northwest of the town of Sisters. If you haven't been here yet, it's incredible and well worth the drive. My wife Lauren and I discovered this spot by accident about six years ago on a road trip in the area, and I had been itching to get back ever since.

The observatory itself is built out of volcanic rock, and serves as a great place to see all of the nearby volcanoes. At night, the skies are dark and it's a stunning place to shoot. I experimented with a variety of angles on the observatory, and with lighting within it. Nate bought a couple of toy lightsabers too which were pretty fun to play with. :)

Besides Milky Way, I also set up one of my cameras for about four hours to take star trails. I pointed it at the observatory to see what I would get. During the four hours, we had a bunch of people come and visit the observatory, and their headlamps made for some really interesting patterns. Of course quite a few of these are us too!

Crater Lake

Nate had never been to Crater Lake, and it had been years since I had gone, so we made it our second night's destination. Of course it helped that they have some really dark skies there too. On the way down, we swung by Sparks Lake to have lunch and enjoy the view.

About a week before we arrived at Crater, a fire started on the West Rim which closed the West Rim Drive. So, after making camp at beautiful Diamond Lake, we headed up to the overlook where the West Rim Drive starts, and sat and watched. A huge thunderstorm had developed east of us, and according to some folks we talked to stretched all the way to Idaho, as far north as Bend, and as far south as northern California. We sat for a while and tried to shoot lightning, and then eventually turned our attention to the lake itself and the people experiencing it.

Crater Lake really is an awesome place. It's the kind of place you can sit for hours and just watch, which is exactly what we did. Good thing, too, since the sunset was one of the most incredible sunsets either of us had seen. That thunderstorm we were watching earlier hung around long enough, and combined with smoke and clear skies to the west made for some incredible color.

Just awesome and such a treat to witness. The amazing thing was that almost nobody was there to see it - just Nate and I and a handful of other photographers, but not as many as you might expect.

Later, we returned to the rim to shoot Milky Way. This is actually a tough time of the year to shoot Milky Way at Crater Lake. The new moon makes the skies nice and dark, but the lake is really hard to see. As well, some snow really helps define the lake at night. I'll have to plan a trip back in the late spring with a more favorable moon.

Pine Mountain Observatory

Our next destination was actually unplanned. Originally, we had intended to go to Painted Hills, but our experience with the super dark skies at Crater Lake helped us determine that Painted Hills would not be optimal for night sky due to a lack of definition in the landscape. Instead, we did some scouting on the map and the internet while having lunch at Smith Rock in Bend, and decided to check out Pine Mountain Observatory.

Pine Mountain is an awesome little observatory run by the University of Oregon. There's even a campground across the street. On Friday and Saturday nights during the summer, they have a public observing program. On clear and dark nights, they basically just open up their big telescopes for public viewing (they also have a few more portable scopes on offer). This is really cool because a lot of telescopes at observatories are not set up for visual viewing, but two of the big ones here (the two on the right) are. 

After exploring the area and enjoying the sunset, we headed up to the observatory to join the observing session. The staff on hand estimated it would be a busy night with 30-40 people showing up. In actuality, I think we had closer to 300, due to clear skies, the Perseid peak, and even a meetup that was apparently organized for that night. Consequently the place was quite busy, but in a good way - it was awesome to see so many people enjoying dark skies! I decided that the essence of the place was capturing the people, the domes, and their relationship with the night sky, and so got to work shortly after dark. 

The observatory staff and volunteers were really fantastic. Besides just being awesome humans, they were really helpful and informative to everyone (including us!) and did a great job sharing their passion for the night sky. One of the scope operators in the bigger dome was there almost as late as Nate and I were (we were the last guests to leave), showing a couple of folks a bunch of super interesting targets. 

Pine Mountain is well worth the trip, and I would argue was probably the highlight of the weekend. It's only about an hour outside of Bend, and the dirt road isn't really that bad. I'd advise getting there on the early side as parking looked to be a challenge for those driving up for the evening. It's also suitable for families, but bundle up as you're at around 6000 feet. Don't forget to bring a couple of bucks in cash too - these folks rely on donations from the public.

There are lots more destinations to explore in Central Oregon, and all over the Pacific Northwest for that matter. I hope to get back to the area in August of next year for the solar eclipse too!

Jack Nichols