BEHIND NIGHT'S VEIL: Astronomers share their favorite places and viewing tips for stargazing in Sonoma County

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The best show around doesn't require a ticket or assigned seating. It's a universe away but right within reach by looking skyward. Just ask anyone who stayed up last week to watch the "blood Moon" lunar eclipse.

In honor of International Dark Sky Week, we asked Sonoma County astronomers to share some of their favorite places to view the night sky. They came up with eight.

These rural spots are far from the glare of city lights, where smaller populations and undeveloped land translate to unobstructed views and less artificial light pollution. Couple that with lower humidity levels (which means less haze) and stargazers often find skies so dark they can spot constellations or even the Milky Way.

Professional photographer and wilderness guide Jim Nevill of Bodega is known for his magnificent starry night shots. He has traveled to scenic locations far and wide but captures some of his most beautiful shots right at home.

"I've not seen many night skies that compare to here," Nevill said.

By taking some precautions and heading out during prime conditions, viewers can spot some 2,000 stars even without using a telescope, said Ed Megill, programming director at the Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium.

"They would probably have tears in their eyes," he said. "It is just so spectacular. It is something else."

The best places to see the night sky are far away from city lights and the higher the better. Cooler temperatures are better, because a calmer atmosphere offers the clearest views. (Even a thin haze can reduce the view.)

The sky is at its best a few hours before sunrise, although that can vary. The new moon or a sliver of a crescent moon provide the darkest skies.

Check local conditions at cleardarksky.com/c/SntRsCAkey.html and get more info at sonomaskies.org.

Here are a few places to get great views of the galaxy above, five in dark, remote spots that require planning and precautions, and three for those who prefer more organized stargazing parties.

Those on their own are encouraged to pack water, a compass, a headlamp or flashlight, and to tell somewhere where they're going and when they plan to return. Also wear sturdy shoes and dress warmly enough to be comfortable sitting for extended periods.

1. Bull Frog Pond above Armstrong Woods State Park in Guerneville. This location high above the redwoods is a favorite of Jim Goodenough, a member of the Sonoma County Astronomical Society and co-owner of Wine Country Star Party. Access is via a narrow, winding and steep road about 3 miles from the park ranger kiosk.

2. Carlevaro Way, near Jenner. This is another favorite of Goodenough, located off Highway 1 just south of the entrance to Goat Rock Beach. Once on Carlevaro Way, the road branches into two streets. Take the right-hand branch.

3. The Geysers around the Sonoma and Lake County border. Megill suggests anywhere in The Geysers area, accessible from Highway 128 east and Pine Flat Road.

4. Lake Sonoma, west of Healdsburg. Visit the Lone Rock parking lot on Rockpile Road or, farther up Rockpile Road, the Liberty Glen Campground where there's a large gravel parking lot at Group Site E. Or discover your own special spot around the reservoir.

Lake Sonoma is a favorite of Lynn Cominsky, chair of Sonoma State University's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

5. Meyers Grade near Fort Ross. The top of Meyers Grade is a favorite location of Nevill, who says the higher you go, you'll have less air turbulence interfering with your view. Some of his best shots have come facing south and west. From Jenner, travel 5 miles north on Highway 1, then turn right on Meyers Grade Road.

6. Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa. The Sonoma County Astronomical Society sets up telescopes for a free star viewing from 8:30-10 p.m. Thursday.

Meet in the Oak Knolls area by entering the Newanga Road entrance. $7 parking fee. Event may be rescheduled if the sky is overcast.

7. Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. All the astronomers direct stargazers to this all-volunteer observatory where the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association provides year-round classes, labs and astronomy observing.

"Stargazers are in the company of people who enjoy sharing their knowledge and passion for astronomy," said Colleen Ferguson, whose late father was an avid amateur astronomer who built telescopes and shared his enthusiasm with everyone he met. It's a great place to "put everything in perspective," she said.

Attend a star party at 9 p.m. Saturday at the observatory, 2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood. Admission is $3, free for kids, $8 parking fee. Info: rfo.org, 833-6979.

8. Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium. The 90-seat dome offers a look at the planets, stars and constellations in the night sky. It's located in Lark Hall on campus, 1501 Mendocino Ave. Park in the Bech parking lot off Armory Drive between College Avenue and Steele Lane, and arrive early enough to get a parking pass.

A free First Friday Night Sky program is scheduled at 7 and 8:30 p.m. May 2. Info: santarosa.edu/planetarium, 527-4465.

For more information about International Dark Sky Week, which is designed to promote the beauty of the heavens while raising awareness about light pollution, visit darksky.org.

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