I attended my first Nightfall Star Party this month which was held from Nov 4 - 7 at the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort in Borrego Springs, CA. This star party is hosted by the Riverside Astronomical Society (RAS) in conjunction with Woodland Hills Camera and Telescopes. Nightfall has a long history as their first star party was held in 1993. Nightfall is unique as it is held at a desert resort with full hookup RV sites and hotel rooms on site. The official star party web site can be found here.
Borrego Springs is small city in the southern CA desert which is easily accessible to all of San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside and surrounding counties. It is just 90 miles northeast of San Diego, 106 miles southeast of Riverside, CA, and 150 miles southeast of LA. As expected, most attendees come from locations within a few hours drive but I did run into friends from Santa Cruz and came with a friend from the San Francisco Bay area which is 8.5 hours away.
One attraction of Borrego Springs in November is the weather. While other areas of the country are experiencing cold, cloudy nights with the possibility of rain and even snow, the weather there is warm and dry. Daytime highs are typically in the low 80s but can reach into the low 90s. Nighttime lows are expected in the low 50s. For my visit, the daily highs were right around 90 which was hot if you were in direct sun, but with a slight breeze it was very pleasant in the shade. Nights were generally warm and did not become cool until late allowing for a light jacket even into the early morning hours. Past events had similar temperatures with only a few cloudy nights reported.
Another advantage of this star party location is the lower latitude compared to much of the country and the rest of the state of CA. At 33.25deg latitude a few objects which are typically too low in the sky to be viewed or photographed may be just high enough here.
The Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort has over 140 RV sites with full hookups on level ground and paved driveways. There are 60 hotel rooms spread across 5 buildings for those who prefer to stay in a nice hotel room with air conditioning, a TV and a refrigerator. Some rooms even have balconies to enjoy in the evening. Those without RVs can tent camp in the RV sites or can choose to rent one of the handful of vintage RVs on site. A pair of bathhouses with showers and bathrooms along with a laundry and fitness center are all on site. Telescopes are typically set up at the RV sites or in the designated blocked off parking lots.
The hotel design is a western theme with conference rooms for talks and two pools each with a jacuzzi. The Big Horn Grill is open from 11AM until 8PM and has a modest menu with mostly burgers, fries, shakes, and a few salads. One can tire quickly of the menu but there are other restaurants not far off in town. There is also a bar in the main building along with a small store in case you need nice or forgot your hat, like I did.
You can get a birds eye view of the site and the surrounding desert in this drone video on the star party Archives page.
The Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort sits on the extreme western edge of town away from the few city lights. The Resort works well with the RAS to convert itself into a very accommodating star party site. They substitute red lights for the standard white lights throughout the grounds during the 3 night event and the RAS posts signs indicating that the event requires red lights only. Borrego Springs is designated as an International Dark Sky Community and with a small population spread out over the desert floor the town is fairly dark to begin with. While light domes from San Diego, Riverside and Palm Springs are evident to the north, northwest and southwest, they are not obtrusive. And, with no major cities to the east and south the skies in those directions are extremely dark. I recorded SQM readings directly overhead of 19.96, 19.88 and 19.54 on successive nights. The four nights I was there the seeing was excellent and the Milky Way was very obvious and bright. Speaking with several regulars we had better than typical seeing this year.
On the other hand, do not expect the extremely dark site and adherence to light rules typical of most star parties at remote sites without all the amenities of the resort. The resort still has white lights on the main street which can be seen reflecting off the large palm trees out front. Also, although it was clearly stated and marked, we had a number of inconsiderate folks drive in well after dark the first night with the headlights blasting as if it was not a concern. And even on the subsequent nights a few opened car doors and trunks without any apparent concern for the light pollution they created. At any other star party I have attended there would have been an immediate and simultaneous outcry at the miscreant. And, red lights abound to a bit of excess relative to my experience. Also, if you are set up close to the RV entrance side of the resort, light from traffic coming down the hill into the valley at night sweeps across ones local horizon. Having said all of that, my buddy and I were able to image without any real serious problems from these few light intrusions since our telescopes were pointing up, but I suppose a dedicated visual observer would not have liked the interruption to their night vision. Nightfall is definitely a "relaxed" star party which does have its advantages.
The RAS has multiple events planned throughout the duration of the start party. These include a Friday night welcome reception and scorpion hunt in the adjacent desert field. Saturday brought a morning Swap Meet, and an evening pot-luck barbecue and ice cream social. There were also a number of free talks throughout the afternoon on Friday. The highlight event was the astro-imaging workshop on Saturday afternoon with a number of knowledgeable speakers. All in all, the RAS, along with the hotel, did a very good job of organizing and hosting the star party and all the events.
The center of town is 1.5 miles to the east of the resort. It is an easy walk from the resort to a number of different shops. There you can find banks, a hardware store, gas stations, food and various other stores. Just a mile down the road is "The Mall" which hosts Carmelita's Mexican Grill (had a nice dinner there one night), Kendall's Cafe (ate breakfast there twice), a pizza place, Borrego Outfitters which has all sorts of camping equipment and a small grocery store. Across the street is the larger Center Market where you can find most of the typical grocery items although neither grocery is a "super" market. A bit further down is the center of town where the hardware store is located along with an art gallery and some additional restaurants.
There are a number of things to do in the area, most notably hiking at Anza Borrego State Park which is only a mile away. There are a number of golf courses in the area to occupy your afternoon if you are so inclined, along with a few spas. For unusual art work there is Galleta Meadows which has over 130 large scale free standing metal sculptures spread over 1500 acres of desert.
For those who want to venture a little further away to a cooler climate, the town of Julian is just over 30 miles away at an altitude of 4200 feet in the Cuyamaca mountains. Julian is an historic gold rush town and has a bunch of interesting shops and places to eat.
Overall this was a successful star party as my friend and I were both able to get lots of imaging data over all 4 nights that we were there. Having the full hookup capability for my RV was a real treat. My friend and his wife enjoyed their nicely equipped hotel room. The ability to walk into town for breakfast and/or dinner, as well as, stopping by a few of the shops and the Central Market was a welcome opportunity to explore and get away during the day.
There were a few things that were disappointing. As I mentioned before, the downright disregard for the white light rules by a few people was surprising and I hope not typical of this event. It would be nice if the Big Horn Grill could add of few more items to their menu which would have led us to eat there more often. The biggest disappointment, however, was the steaks at the Coyote Steakhouse down the road, especially given how pricey the place is.
If the event were closer to home I would surely attend every year just because it is so nice to have all the amenities in a place with reasonably dark skies.