Photography, Outdoors, Oklahoma

Driving 17 hours to the OK Panhandle for Dark Skies

September 12, 2021

A photo of the Milky Way and thousands of stars above the horizon.

17 hours seems like a very long time to drive while you’re looking at Google Maps. When you're actually in the thing, under sail and past a point of convenient return, it starts to feel indefinite. "This is my life now" drives are immensely freeing, sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, and very demanding on the mind and body. As ever, there’s no great art without moderate self-imposed back pain. Here's my trip to Black Mesa State Park and Nature Reserve in the far western Oklahoma Panhandle.

Black Mesa State Park & Nature Reserve is 1,100 miles from my house. It’s the closest best area for viewing the night sky. I’ve been to very good skies within six hours (Northern Michigan), and great skies within 13 hours (Nebraska Sand Hills), but for truly black night skies (after factoring in other help like a new moon and good weather), Black Mesa is the closest I’ve been able to find on a map.

It’s sad that you need to travel about a third of the way across the continent to see the world as it should be. But if you’re inclined toward road trips, it does make for a great adventure.

  • It took about 24 hours of travel to get there, including five or six hours of sleep at a rest stop near Lothrop, MO about 30 minutes outside KC. Ballparking, I've crossed the Mississippi River about a dozen times this summer.

  • It takes so long to drive across Kansas. But I realized that despite spending many hundreds of hours driving around farm country in the midwest, I had never seen wheatfields before, only corn and beans that are more typical between Pittsburgh and Chicago. Woohoo; amber waves of grain.

  • Black Mesa State Park is only about two miles from the New Mexico border, so I was able to take an hour's drive into a new state for me. The mesas surrounding the highway are stunning, massive, and you feel transported into a postcard as soon as you cross the border. I also stopped by Black Mesa proper, the highest point in Oklahoma (but sadly didn't climb because I was unprepared).

  • I intended to swing up through Colorado, drive to the summit of either Pikes Peak or Mt. Evans, and head home on I-76/I-80 via Denver, but the best route from Black Mesa involved 25+ miles on a dirt road. It turns out rural areas are rural.

  • These were the darkest and most incredible night skies I have ever seen. With no moon and no other lights, you could see well enough to walk around from starlight alone. The feeling of connection to the universe around us is more than worth the effort.

  • The campground and surrounding area was incredibly beautiful. Black Mesa State Park and Nature Preserve surrounds Lake Carl Etling, formed by a dammed creek that flows through the area. As you drive west through the panhandle, dusty flat land gives way to rolling hills, big horizons...and extremely few people. However it is full of mule deer, birds, the odd black bear or mountain lion, and tarantulas (and f you hate spiders...there's a photo of one below).

  • Speaking of dusty, flat land, I was in Cimarron County, Oklahoma -- the exact center of the Dust Bowl in the 1930's, one of the great disasters of the 20th century USA. To this day it remains largely desolate, stark, and barely farmed.

A road in the rolling hills of rural Oklahoma

A hiking trail above the campsite

The crescent moon about to set at night with Venus

The Milky Way above the horizon

The Milky Way above the horizon

The Milky Way above a well-lit tree

A view of my campsite

Sunset over Lake Carl Etling

A tarantula standing on some rocks

The Milky Way above some trees

The Milky Way above the Oklahoma skyline

A road in rural Oklahoma

An abandoned structure near Black Mesa, Oklahoma

Mesas along the highway in New Mexico

Wheatfields in southwest Kansas

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