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A meteor streaks past the Milky Way to the north of this ancient Bristlecone Pine in Great Basin National Park. Bristlecone Pines are the oldest non-clonal living things on Earth—the oldest specimen discovered so far is more than 5,000 years old. Trees in this particular grove approach 4,000 years of age. As civilizations have risen and fallen, this Bristlecone Pine has remained, a silent sentinel, slowly growing, under an alpine sky that remains as nearly dark as it always has been.
We spent a long weekend in August 2019 camping in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park under quite literally the darkest night skies in the continental United States. The whole experience was surreal. The amount of detail in the night sky was breathtaking, dizzying even. Upon arrival, we stopped at Mather Overlook on our way to the campsite and immediately saw a large meteor pass through the core of the Milky Way. We had timed our arrival with the night of the new moon and the tail end of the Aquariid Meteor Shower, which peaked earlier in the week.
The lack of moonlight allowed us to photograph the night sky without having detail washed out by moonlight. The elevation of the park—7,000–13,000 ft—meant we were looking through less atmosphere and therefore the light had less distortion. The desert location meant the air was clear and dry, again contributing to better seeing conditions. And because Great Basin National Park is so remote—located in one of the least populated areas of the country, hundreds of miles from major cities—the lack of light pollution meant the band of the Milky Way was so bright it literally illuminated the landscape. For reference, the park is located in northeast Nevada near the Utah border, approximately a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and four hours north of Las Vegas. These combined factors afforded us stunning views, like the one we captured in this image.