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Urban Night Sky Inspires Visitors

John Muir National Historic Site

National Park News

During every full moon night in the summer and fall, ranger staff at John Muir NHS gather park visitors – mostly local urban dwellers - at the busy intersection of California Highway 4, Alhambra Avenue and Franklin Canyon Drive.  From there they hike a mile to the 640-foot summit of Mt. Wanda to view the full moon rise and contemplate the beauty and serenity. 

The 326-acre mountain in the city of Martinez was named by Muir for his eldest daughter.  It’s where he took his children sauntering to imbue them with a love of nature.

Mt. Wanda provides today’s digitally connected, urban population with a similar, and rare, immersion experience in nature. On last month’s walk, Ranger Ron Good described the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon. They went in search of lunar knowledge, but really gained perspective about themselves and our planet Earth from the powerful experience. 

By the time visitors reached Mt. Wanda’s peak, they too felt transformed.  The clouds finally broke, an intensely crimson sunset cast alpenglow on Mt. Diablo, and the full moon shown through.  One visitor, chagrined to have forgotten her smart phone/camera, found in the end that she didn’t need it.  The stunning beauty was best experienced in the moment, she said.

Clouds are not the only obstacle to urban astronomy programming.  Ranger Kathryn Daskal led a group recently on a non-full moon night, specifically to get a close look at the stars.  They saw a fraction of the number Muir observed 100 years ago, let alone Galileo 300 years before that.  Half a dozen Harleys on Franklin Canyon Drive drowned out speech, and group member’s red tinted flashlights couldn’t begin to shield their night vision from the brightly lit neighborhood oil refinery.

From a dark sky perspective, Mt. Wanda is not the Australian outback.  It is not a Sierra, Colorado Plateau, or Mohave Desert park.  And yet for urban audience who ventured from their homes and comfort zones, on a remarkably still, warm, and fogless evening, the dividends were palpable.  With a view of eight constellations, a faint streak of the Milky Way, and one exhilarating shooting star, one could almost feel the immensity of space and the urgency to care for our one, small, blue planet.

Today’s night hikes provide a critical link to nature for the community, an opportunity to experience the transformative power of the natural world – and night sky – that Muir fought so hard to protect.  It’s a chance to “get away from it all,” and maybe even learn a little more about oneself.

For more information about John Muir NHS and its programs please visit www.nps.gov/jomu .



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