Capturing the Christmas Star

Typical Washington: when something exciting and astronomical happens, we get clouds in the forecast for days. So I started planning for where we should quickly head to photograph the Great Conjunction—or Christmas Star as it was becoming known as, because of how close to Christmas it was going to be viewable. The Great Conjunction, if you do not know, is when Jupiter and Saturn are so close in the sky that they almost look like one bright star. It happens about every 20 years, but this one was special as this was the closest the two planets have been since about 1623, when Galileo was still around. Knowing the last time this happened was about 800 years ago, I had to capture this amazingly rare event!

So the planning started. I looked up the weather forecast for my usual go-to locations in my state….No go; too many clouds. How very Washington of it. So then I peaked at Oregon since I can pop over there pretty fast. Nope, more clouds. California? Nope, still clouds. So I went out to find where I could drive in a day that would have weather I could actually work with. And then I found it: Utah! The choices were Bryce or Arches. Surprisingly, they are the same distance from where I live, even though they are opposite sides of Utah. After some planning and really thinking about it, I chose Arches National Park. Now came the travel planning during COVID. We made sure to pack a bunch of masks and most of the food we would need as we were out. The plan was to drive all the way to Arches, photograph the Great Conjunction and then head back home before the holidays. We made plans to not need much outside of our car, except for some fry bread. If you are going anywhere in the South West, you gotta stop for fry bread. It is a very strict family rule. Making sure to charge everything and get it all packed, we set out for our fast 5 day adventure. Do note: I would normally say you need far longer than just one day to really enjoy Arches and the surrounding Moab area, but we were on a timetable. 

Finally, travel day had come! We had to wake up bright and early to load up the car and hit the road. It was pouring rain and stormy for miles. Seriously, it was all clouds all the way through upper Utah. In fact, the clouds didn’t break until we were about an hour out from Arches. As we were driving into the area at sunset, the valley just sang with color. You could see the Belt of Venus ahead of us, and all the buttes and mesas were glowing in the golden light. Finally, we found some clear skies.

Onto scouting & planning: we traveled up into Arches National Park and got to exploring to find out where we could catch the Great Conjunction. We scouted a few areas and tried to catch where the planets were that night to figure out where we should be. After some stunning night hikes and some great shots of Orion about the Window Arch, we headed back to our base for the night. 

On the next day, we headed to the visitor’s center to ask the ranger where they would go or what places we should check out for the best views. You should always ask rangers for suggestions! They know everything you need to know about the area, as they see it every day. I asked how the path to Delicate Arch was and if that would be a good spot to catch it, and she informed us it was still a little icy from the previous snow and they would be worried about the Great Conjunction being blocked by the landscape there. She mentioned that she was actually going to be going up to Canyonlands to view it. I totally forgot that Canyonlands was just 30 minutes away, so we hopped in the car to scout it out.

Going into Canyonlands, we found the perfect spot, and it was just jaw dropping! You could see forever from where we were—you could see the Green and Colorado rivers cut through the land over millions of years, the road tracks from mining areas long gone, and the layers of sedimentary rock showing decades of the Earth's crust.

Finally, when sunset hit, we couldn’t believe how otherworldly it looked. The yellows and purples stretched across the land, and when you could see the planets shining bright over the landscape, it felt like we were looking across the surface of Mars. It is crazy to think how wild the Canyonlands area still is from the day it was first made a National Park. This entire area was so rugged and still is as wild as it was back in the 1600s. Viewing an astronomical event that looked something like this way back then must have been truly inspiring.