Thursday, May 16, 2024

Milky Way over Ojo Oro Arch

 This stands out as perhaps one of my strangest and most memorable Milky Way experiences to date! I've mentioned my goal of "a Milky Way photo a month", and this is my post for the May 2024 Milky Way. The plan was for my friend Mitch to join me, but something came up and he couldn't make it. So it would be me, hiking solo, in the middle of the Joshua Tree Wilderness Area for an over-nighter in hopes of getting some decent Milky Way photos.
I had decided to use Ojo Oro arch as the foreground, with the Milky Way rising above the arch. Ojo Oro is a bit remote and not well known, but I've hiked to it several times. It doesn't get many visitors, but I have seen a few really nice photos of the Milky Way over Ojo Oro. Then a couple days before my scheduled visit, my friend Mark tells me he was out in the same general area with a buddy of his and they spotted a mountain lion! Mark's friend got a close enough look at it to know it was a mountain lion, and not a coyote or fox or something else. It spooked them enough that they didn't stay for the Milky Way but instead hiked back to their car and left the area. Smart move! They also told the Park Service about it, and shared the GPS coordinates for the location where it was seen. 
So here I am, a couple nights after the mountain lion sighting, hiking solo into the same area to spend the night. Strange indeed, but there's more strangeness to come. My original plan was to try and keep my pack a little lighter by not packing my tent and just "cowboy camping", but after hearing about the mountain lion I decided I needed that tent!
4:41PM. A little cloudy, but hopefully the clouds will blow away by Milky Way time (around 1AM). Stay positive!
I call this one "tiptoe arch". A cool arch, but not oriented correctly to be used as a Milky Way foreground. 
A big, fat chuckwalla lizard!
The rock formations in this area are simply amazing! The way they erode creates alcoves, arches, and all kinds of weird shapes. The bushes at the base of the rocks are about 2-3' high for size perspective, so these are huge boulders!
After hiking about 2.5 miles, I finally find Ojo Oro arch.
Ojo Oro close-up.

View from the "back" side of Ojo Oro. 

Using the arch as a picture frame!
5.10.2024; 6:43PM. I get my mountain lion proof tent sent up.😉 Wow, look at those clouds!! I'm highly doubting I will see the Milky Way tonight with clouds this thick moving in. Unbelievably, I feel a few big drops of rain!! It only lasts for a few minutes. I'm thinking about what to share for my blog post if I can't get a photo of the Milky Way, and I smile at the thought of an AI-generated image of the MW over an arch. Here you go:
Yuck, that's terrible. But I'm not giving up yet!!
7:27PM. I'm eating my "dinner" (PB&J sandwich), facing the arch, and on a whim look behind me and see this view! The sunset is behind the mountain, but I'm still able to catch a little bit of it. Here's what it looks like through my telephoto lens:
It looked even better in person. It reminded me of a volcano erupting, with molten lava flying into the air. I literally whooped out loud after taking the photo!
8:13PM. If anything, the clouds are getting heavier. If by some miracle the clouds part and I can see the Milky Way, the photo above will be my foreground. My camera will not move from the tripod for the rest of the night. Then I can blend the two photos together, and have not only sharp focus and better light on the arch, but also sharp focus on the Milky Way. Well, that's my plan anyway!
I manage to stay awake until about 9PM or 9:30PM. I set my alarm for 12:15AM. There's nothing to do, and it's dead quiet. No cell service so I can't use my phone. It's just me with my thoughts and I let my mind wander where it wants to go. Relaxing and therapeutic.
I'm surprised when my alarm goes off. I actually managed to fall asleep! (I usually can't sleep when camping). While sleeping, a miracle has occurred: I can see the stars!!!👏 It's not a super-clear night, but I should be able to manage some Milky Way shots. Here's where things get weird. Below is my first photo (not a blend), taken at 12:26AM, 5.11.2024.
But wait, what is that red tint?? Even the rocks have a red tint. The red tint is not visible in the sky. Very odd. I take another photo and get the same results. Change the ISO and exposue: Same result. May be my headlamp as a red indicator light? Remove my headlamp, take a picture: Same result. I'm starting to feel discouraged and wondering if there is a problem with my camera sensor. Since it's not visible with my naked eye, I figure it must be a technical glitch of some kind. I decide to crawl back in my tent and try to sleep for an hour. The Milky Way will be a little higher in the sky, and may be another miracle will happen (the red tint will be gone!).
5.11.2024; 1:41AM. I stumble over to my camera and tripod and take a photo. Dang, no miracle. I still have that pesky red tint. I take a couple more photos with different settings, but the red tint is always there. I give up and go back in my tent, frustrated, and try for more sleep.
I get up around 5:30AM, pack up my gear, hike back to the car, and drive back to my desert house. I notice I have two messages waiting for me from Mitch.
Message 1 (from last night): "If you are still out there and have a signal, I hope you see this. Shoot to the north and you might get the red northern lights."
Message 2 (Saturday morning): "Facebook is awash with aurora pix from phones locally!"
Message 2 actually comes to me as I'm typing a message to Mitch to let him know last night was a failure, and I think my camera sensor died resulting in a weird red tint on all my photos. But I don't send it yet. Did he say red northern lights? I thought they were green!? I do a quick check on Facebook, and sure enough, there are boatloads of people posting red aurora skies (unheard of for the high desert or anyplace this far south). Some of the photos even resemble my red "tint". It finally dawns on me that my camera isn't broken, and the red tint is actually the aurora borealis (aka northern lights). Yippee!!! My mood quickly changes from frustrated to elated when I realize how lucky I was to get a photo of the Milky Way that also includes part of the aurora. Talk about dumb luck!!! My camera was pointed E/SE, but with my wide angle lens, it picked up a section of the sky to the NE, so you can actually see the interface between the aurora (to the north) and "regular" night sky to the east. How cool is that??
After just a bit of editing and blending of the foreground, this is what I came up. I'm so incredibly lucky to have gotten this image. A very strange night indeed, and one I will never forget. Oh, and no sign whatsoever of the mountain lion!
Thanks for stopping by!!
Linking with Skywatch Friday,


  1. Incredible shot of both the milky way and the northern lights! You risked death by mountain lion and rattlesnakes to get these to us and it is amazing. I'm sure glad that you didn't delete your photos in disgust.
    Me, I didn't get either one.

  2. Wow, such incredible shots! You truly captured a prize picture.

  3. From disappointment to euphoria!
    The final image is one for the memory book. Not to mention a deserving wall.
    Simply outstanding work!

  4. ...these are fabulous, thanks for sharing!

  5. I didn´t get to see Northern Lights. Too much ambient light. Bummer.

  6. Maravillosas fotografías, si tengo que elegir una, me quedo con todas.
    Cada toma tanto de la Vía Láctea como de la aurora boreal, son como el postre de tu recorrido.
    Fotos para coleccionar.
    Abrazos y besos querida amiga/o

  7. Dearest Peter,
    WOW, that was after all not a bummer or a scary mountain lion encounter but a DOUBLE LUCKY event captured so well. Did you apologize to your camera...?

  8. I still like the whole journey of photography included here

  9. I liked all the photos; sorry you weren't satisfied. Your photography always amazes me.

  10. I was wondering if you got images of the aurora. You got one that's even better.

  11. This is thrilling! Especially for someone who doesn't walk more than a couple of miles here in town.

  12. What an extraordinary adventure!
    Your perseverance paid off.
    Capturing the Milky Way and the red aurora borealis together is amazing.
    Your story of turning a seeming glitch into a stunning discovery is so inspiring.
    Bravo for sticking it out despite the mountain lion scare .
    A memory and photo to treasure forever!

  13. Would a tent really be of help, I wonder?
    That lizard sure had a big meal! Wow.
    Wonderful formations in the desert.
    I prefer your pics over AI.
    At first I thought... oh! no cell service - dangerous! But then, 1999 in the Outback of Australia... same and yet here we are, huh.
    WOW on the red tint! What a lucky night and supergreat outcome!!!
    Thank you for sharing this, will show Ingo!

    1. Your right, Iris. A tent wouldn't do anything, but somehow it seemed to help my piece of mind!

  14. You were lucky indeed! And without knowing it.
    We were not able to see this powerful Northern Lights here in the very north because of too long daylight. 🙄

  15. Very beautiful shot. How lucky you were to see the Aurora borealis and even luckier not to see the mountain lion.

  16. wow amazing clicks. Great experience.

  17. Great shots and a wonder that you can see northern lights so much south.

  18. I recently discovered, partly rediscovered, that thing about sensors seeing more colour that we do. I picked up very red skies that night although it was just plain dark to me. It's odd that the sensor sees more colour but less light range.

    Do you use a fixed lens so that the zoom stays static throughout the night? I would think that even using a lens cap might alter my zoom.

    BTW that second sunset photo is a good one, my fave, I think. Serendipity.

    1. I use a zoom (17-35mm) almost always set to 17mm for Milky Way photos. You're right, it's easy to mess things up (and I've done it) by accidentally changing your focal length. The red aurora sky was so perplexing. Since it wasn't visible to my eye, I just assumed a camera sensor malfunction. Live and learn!

  19. You were so lucky with the sky shot and the read about how you got it was compelling. Also, lucky not to meet up with the lion.

  20. I prefer you photo of the Mily Way above the AI version, Peter.
    But what great you saw the aurora over the desert. I took some shots of it near my home.
    Greetings from the Netherlands

  21. Wonderful story, fabulous photo!

  22. WOW just WOW. We had hoped to see the Northern Lights, but no luck. We went to Alaska even at the wrong time. But the idea of the Ojo-oro arch was fantastic. I have never been good with a camera, but I can tell when someone else is, and of course you are. That reminds me of what a friend said about piano playing, I cannot play a note on the piano, but I sure as heck can tell when someone else can. LOL I sotra envy your over night hikes. I can still dream... The best to you and yours.

  23. I am always amazed by your landscapes, but today's post is particularly striking. Exciting!

  24. O wow you got the northern lights as well awesome, I've always wanted to see them here but keep missing out.

  25. We got clouded out of the Northern Lights (surprise!) but, from all the TV coverage, I knew exactly what I was looking at when I saw your red tint. Wow, you hit the jackpot. Totally awesome.

  26. A.M.A.Z.I.N.G!!! I absolutely love night sky pictures!

  27. What for a random luck! You were at the right time at the right place for breathtaking photos.
    My first thougts were: this must be northern light!
    By the way: we had northern lights here too, green and red, but my small old camera is not made for such a job...

  28. Peter in my mind, every photo from go to woe, are absolutely marvellous except for that dreadful AI image. What a fabulous night it turned out to be! Your final mage is amazing!

  29. Such an other-worldly landscape.

  30. Wow...I mean WOW! The red Northern lights. How incredible. You were out there at the perfect time to get something that most people will never get to see. I love your photos and I'm happy for you!

  31. Wow! is right ~ what photos you got ~ don't like the AI image at all ~ Yours are better ~ thanks,

    Wishing you good health, laughter and love in your days,
    A ShutterBug Explores,
    aka (A Creative Harbor)

  32. Fantastic end result! And the rock formations are great.

    The AI image is funny. Add a mountain lion and see what you get! 😆

  33. How exciting! That final image is great. You are very lucky to have seen the lights. From where I live in the middle of the city, there was too much light pollution. However I did see a few photos taken from desert areas. This was quite an adventure!

  34. Omg how incredible. And also you have so much patience to wait for the right moment. And it definitely paid off. The lights with the milky way... such a rare sight. Loving it.

  35. What a great experience with a wonderful surprising finale! I love sharing these milky way-hunters nights with you, Peter.

  36. Perhaps I'm just naive, but I'm not sure I would be scared of a mountain lion sighting. I know they have attacked humans in rare cases, but I have always assumed they were provoked, cornered or had young nearby. I would also assume that they would most likely hear me and be gone long before I ever saw them.

    Nice picture by the way!

    1. My thinking too, Ed. They are incredibly rare and elusive. They want nothing to do with humans. The National Park Service estimates there are only 6 mountain lions in all of Joshua Tree National Park (over 800,000 acres).