Jackson's cold, snowy weather this time of year may be beloved by powder hounds and other winter sports enthusiasts, but those chilly temps also are a hit with another type of adventurer: those who love to explore the night sky.
The area's dark skies make it a popular place for stargazers, and winter's clear, cold nights can make celestial exploration even more out of this world. Jackson's night sky is filled with wonders like meteors, planets, and even an occasional peek at the aurora borealis, also known as the famed Northern Lights.
This Saturday, Dec. 13, is an ideal time to take advantage of the excellent stargazing around Jackson, with the peak of the Geminids meteor shower. But if you miss the show, no worries: Wyoming Stargazing, a local nonprofit, offers programs throughout the winter for intrepid skywatchers this winter.
Before you head out to gaze at the night sky, however, be sure to bundle up: “It gets pretty cold, so people should wear lots and lots of layers,” says Samuel Singer, executive director of Wyoming Stargazing, adding that the group does provide some foam pads that help keep toes a bit warmer.
Here's what else to keep in mind—and where to go—to enjoy stargazing around Jackson this winter.
Watch the Geminid Meteor Shower on Dec. 13
See up to 120 meteors per hour during the Geminid Meteor Shower on Saturday, December 13. The shower is named after the constellation Gemini, which is known as the radiant point of the shower. The constellation will reach its highest point for the night around 2 am local time. That may not be ideal for non-night owls, but a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the higher the constellation Gemini climbs into the sky, the more Geminid meteors will be visible. And don't rule out the nights before and after, either, when there will still be a higher number of meteors.
For expert guidance on the spectacular show, Wyoming Stargazing is hosting an event at Rendezvous Park from 7-10 pm. The event offers the chance to view the meteors and other deep space objects through a Dobsonian Telescope, which has a 20-inch primary mirror. The group also brings iPads with apps to help explore the night sky. To join this galactic gathering, meet at the far northwest corner of Rendezvous Park where the old gravel pit used to be. Follow the red LED lights to the meeting spot.
Prefer a more low-key viewing party? Throw a couple of sleeping bags in the car, pack some snacks and a Thermos of something warm and delicious, and drive a few miles out of town (more on that below). Pick a spot to spread out the bags, tuck in, and enjoy the show.
Friday Night Stargazing
If you miss the Geminids shower, don't fret: Every other Friday this winter, Wyoming Stargazing is hosting free public programs on the Center for the Arts lawn from 7:30 -9:30 pm. Bundle up and use their telescopes to sneak a peek at some of the wonders of the universe, from the moon to planets to nebulae and galaxies. (They are taking a short break with Friday programs over the holidays, but they will resume on January 15.)
“Everyone who attends the public stargazing program will have the opportunity to see several objects through our large aperture Dobsonian telescopes, which might include planets, stars, star clusters, nebulae, or galaxies,” says Singer. “Our telescopes allow people to see incredible details on the planets, vivid colors of the stars, the fussy haze of nebulae, and the spiral arms of distant galaxies.”
Gaze at the Stars From an Indoor Perch
This winter, on the second Tuesday of each month, Wyoming Stargazing is hosting free public planetarium programs at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse from 7-8 pm. This indoor virtual tour inside the inflatable planetarium features a trip through the solar system and the Milky Way. During the hour-long program, the group will host three 20-minute programs inside the inflatable planetarium. Bring plenty of questions about the universe and feel free to bring the kids.
Explore the Night Sky on Your Own
Prefer to head out on your own to take a gander at the upcoming meteor shower or other events on the horizon? Start by picking a place far from town. “The reason we have to go so far our of town is because of the light pollution in Jackson,” says Singer. “The sky is dramatically brighter in town, which makes seeing the fainter objects in the sky like the Milky Way Galaxy nearly impossible. "
And where to go? “Anywhere out in Grand Teton National Park is fantastic for stargazing,” says Singer. “I particularly like Antelope Flats Road out by Kelly Warm Springs.”