Camping was never going to be an easy sell. I had to throw in stars. Aliens? The rings of Saturn? Sound fun yet, guys?
I brought a slackline, bought new flashlights, vowed to make s’mores, and got a pile of those pocket hand warmers.
Enter Pine Mountain Observatory.
It’s about 30 minutes outside Bend, actually. Especially once you drive up the dirt road to the top of the mountain, where you get a sense there’s a city off in the distance but never quite make it out. These people are serious about their stars.
And that’s what brought us out here. It was Pine Mountain (untaggably off-grid, even according to Facebook, which believed we spent the weekend in Georgia) or Sun River (read: human soup tourist trap) observatory, which I’d heard was more child-friendly in a circusy way. Sun River is about 20 minutes south of Bend proper, in a resort community. They have daytime sun viewings, so technically, you could check out both facilities in a single trip.
But Pine Mountain had the big, “real,” university scopes and real astronomers directing the show. No, they aren’t any better trained in teaching or people skills than anyone who’s spent ten years of their life aspiring to expert status in the study of stars. My children were sold on the “real”ness of this experience in spite of the more sedate presentation. The astronomers were celebrities to them…one day, they aspire to work at the university. I considered this (slight) brainwashing part of my duty. If your children are already cranky and ready to fall asleep by the time the sky gets dark enough to see anything except Saturn, you may want to consider Sun River, with the circus-happy-touristy docents instead. We liked Pine Mountain because the tent is right across the parking lot and you can crash THE SECOND YOU GIVE UP AND THROW IN THE TOWEL.
Camping atop the mountain is free. Free! Do they even have free camping anymore?
(Confession: “Free” may well mean you throw in the camping towel and blow $250 on the Oxford Hotel back in Bend when you realize nighttime temperatures on the mountain are in the low 40s).
The boy scouts were there while we were (a crowded, new moon weekend with no clouds) so campsites were scarce, and reservations don’t exist. But a nice couple offered to share with us, and if you don’t have such luck, pitching a bit off-site doesn’t seem like such an issue up here. There aren’t facilities at the sites anyway, other than a fire ring. Other campers use pull-offs and make fires (!) on the sides of the road. Single mom alert: I’m not one of these people; I’ll stay by the crowd, even if they are boy scouts and we look a lot like queer atheists.
A nice tent-show with a powerpoint presentation full of pictures tells you all about the universe while you wait for darkness to settle. It was a little over the kids’ heads, but the tent was open and informal, and everyone listened and asked to hear the talk a second time. Smaller kids (five and up; I wouldn’t bring a sleepy pre-schooler) were just fine. While it’s still daylight, you can also walk to the summit and count your steps from the sun all the way out to the far reaches of the solar system.
The views are superb:
I’ve been on a lot of highways late at night, out away from the city, but I’ve NEVER seen the sky open up like it does near Bend. My first experience of this was at Black Butte resort near Sisters, Oregon, about an hour from Pine Mountain. Both of these nights will stay with me forever — the galaxies upon galaxies look like someone sprinkled glitter across the sky. This is truly the place to inspire the kids to become tiny astronomers, or at least to appreciate their own smallness in nature with people who really care about helping you learn what you’re looking at. They can tell you about iridium flares, incubators where stars are being born, and some Roman mythology to boot.
And while you’re there, consider staying on the mountain.
The Pine Mountain website led me to believe gypsy travelers could stay in their cars, but bikers and campers and astronomy nerds alike were actually a sort of community during the weekends, and there’s nothing more convenient than visiting the telescopes already wrapped in your sleeping bag…