Deep in the Mojave, researching the night sky

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Photo: Global Eyes Media

Research by WISDOM interns help us understand the quality and the importance of the Mojave Desert’s dark night skies. Last fall a cohort of three college women began monitoring the night sky quality in the western portion of Mojave Trails National Monument. Their research will help the Bureau of Land Management in its effort to work toward International Dark Sky support for the National Monument. Our latest interns have begun the second half of this research project, this time in the eastern portion of the 1.6-million-acre monument. Learn about the significance of each of the eight locations we’re monitoring in the words and photos of Stacey Yoon and Analisa Brown.

Sheephole Valley Wilderness

In 1994 the Sheephole Valley Wilderness joined the National Wilderness Preservation System. Within its 187,516 acres are the Sheep Hole and Calumet Mountains. On our first visit to this location, we found a snake coiled up, enjoying the shade of a creosote bush. Creosote bush scrub can be found sprinkled across the land with a distinct and sweet smell lingering around it. At the lowest point of the valley are two small dry lake beds where pickleweed, inkweed, and saltbush can be found. Bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, coyote, black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, quail, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, and lizards consider this part of the Mojave Desert their home. — Stacey Yoon

Left: A snake enjoys the shade of a creosote bush. Right: The night sky as seen from Sheephole Valley Wilderness. Do you see the shooting star? — Stacey Yoon

General Patton’s Camp Iron Mountain

Built in 1942, Camp Iron Mountain was used to prepare troops to fight in the North African campaign in World War II, and is the best preserved of the Desert Training Center Camps. It became a designated California Historic Landmark (№985.6) and in 1980 was listed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Bureau of Land Management due to its environmental and historical significance. Today the remnants of the Catholic and Protestant chapels can still be found here connected by walkways made from rocks. There are fences put up around the camp by the Bureau of Land Management to preserve the camp’s natural and cultural resources. — Stacey Yoon

Left: Remnants of two chapels still stand at Camp Iron Mountain. Right: Some sky glow can be seen from Camp Iron Mountain. — Stacey Yoon

Mojave Trails National Monument border farm

From a dirt road we see the silhouette of large wooden fences and a wooden ramp. This former cattle farm is located on a dirt road that requires 4-wheel drive between State Route 62 and Interstate 40, heading towards Fenner. The large ramp and wooden fences that were used to transport cattle or other large farm animals stand empty. There are no clear road markings or signs. Here, rabbits and kangaroo rats, and sometimes a fox cross the road in front of our trucks, constantly making us brake. — Stacey Yoon

Left: Using citizen science apps to record data. Right: The night sky as seen from the farm. — Stacey Yoon

Little Piute Mountains

The Little Piute Mountains are a part of the Mojave Desert that is covered with creosote bush scrubs. The mountains range from 2,000 to 4,132 feet in elevation. Wildlife such as coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, quail, roadrunners, lizards, and rattlesnakes consider this land their home. As we walked through the land, animal droppings and various flying insects were found more frequently than any of the other locations we visited. We suspect there must be a water source nearby. Our rugged journey to this site often had us imagining that we were riding along with Indiana Jones on one of his adventures. — Stacey Yoon

The night sky as seen from Little Piute Mountains. — Stacey Yoon

Piute Mountain Wilderness

All our stops are in the Mojave Trails National Monument on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We stop at the Piute Mountain Wilderness with an elevation between 2,000–4,000 ft. The Milky Way is so beautiful under these dark sky conditions. Night critters we’ve seen in the area are jackrabbits, lizards, tarantulas, and kangaroo rats. We’ve even seen a fox twice. There are signs of cattle and cow pies. After we collect our data and photos we head to our next stop, Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness. — Analisa Brown

Piute Mountain Wilderness — Analisa Brown

Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness

At Bigelow Cholla Garden Wilderness we all jump out, admiring the night sky. This area covers about 14,600 miles of beautiful desert wilderness. One of our overnights happened during the Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots of shooting stars. The absence of light pollution made the meteor shower spectacular that night. We log our dark sky data and head to Clipper Mountain Wilderness. — Analisa Brown

Bigelow Cholla Garden — Analisa Brown

Clipper Mountain Wilderness

Clipper Mountain Wilderness is about 4,600 ft in elevation and our stop to take our readings is a short drive from I-40, overlooking the freeway. Clipper Mountain itself reaches 4,625 feet up and it overlooks Fenner and Clipper Valley. The dirt road has been marked by lines of rocks on each side and I can make out the smoke trees in the dark. A section of road has been impacted by intense storms during the summer monsoon weather we recently had and is washed out and extra bumpy. The wilderness area covers about 33,800 acres and is in Critical Tortoise Habitat. After taking in our views of the night sky and recording our data, we head to our last stop, Trilobite Wilderness. — Analisa Brown

Clipper Mountain Wilderness — Analisa Brown

Trilobite Wilderness

At Trilobite Wilderness we take our last measurements of the dark sky. This wilderness area covers about 37,300 acres of Mojave Desert and rises approximately 7,900 ft. It’s so quiet and the visibility of the stars is amazing even as dawn approaches. We take our last readings for the night, set up tents and get some sleep, though I prefer to sleep without a tent, enjoying the stars all around me. — Analisa Brown

Dawn at Trilobite Wilderness, July 2021 — Analisa Brown

Learn more about all of our locations and outdoor ethics by visiting the Bureau of Land Management’s website for Mojave Trails National Monument.

Women in Science Discovering Our Mojave (WISDOM) is an MDLT internship program in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that seeks to engage women from underserved communities studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). This internship program is made possible through funding from Southern California Edison International.
Learn more about this year’s interns here.

The women mapping the Mojave’s dark night skies