Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dec 30, 2008 Catching a sunset on Skyline Drive--Naked Creek Overlook

My wife and I had so much fun the previous day (the 29th) that we returned to Skyline Drive on the 30th to watch the sunset (Skyline Drive rangers permitting) and hopefully catch the lineup of Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, and Mercury.

A year ago, we had attempted catching a sunset on the north end of Skyline Drive. However, we had done no planning: our overlook of choice had a nice view of the Massanutten but with a mountain blocking the view to the southwest--the direction of the sunset. So, we did some planning.

First, I fired up my Starry Night software and determined that the sun would be setting along with the planets and moon setting later from the south west. Then we got out a 3-D rendering of Skyline Drive--along with the printed map--and looked for locations and overlooks that appeared to be facing the south west. And, we determined to arrive at our viewing destination at least an hour prior to sunset.

We chose to go south from Panorama (Thornton Gap). Jewell Hollow Overlook was a possibility, but we chose to go further south. Stony Man Overlook was our primary choice. Alas, when we got there, it was completely closed for re-construction. Spitler Knoll was blocked by a mountain, so we kept going south, past Skyland and Big Meadows. Finally, at MP 53, we came upon Naked Creek Overlook, with an unobstructed view to the southwest--pay dirt!

We parked our RV and set up our chairs and tripods. A turkey down at the edge of the field greeted us with his calls. Several people drove through this overlook and asked what was going on--at least one person decided to stay and watch the sunset.

The sky was unusually clear--a cold front had come through on the previous day. As a consequence, we could see 50 miles to the horizon, with a view of the Cowpasture and Bullpasture mountains outside of Monterey, Va., along US Rt#250 west of Staunton.

Skyline Drive closes at 5pm from late November through the 3rd of January each year, to protect the visitors from deer hunters. Local sunset was 5:02pm, so we pushed our time at the overlook. At 5:45pm a ranger drove by, said beautiful sight, and then stated that we needed to pack up and head down the Drive--the Thornton Gap entrance was closed, so we would have to head down to Rt#33 Swift Run Gap to leave the park. However, we did get to see the three planets and Moon.

While driving south, we encountered over a dozen deer, who were surprised to see us. We had also seen a hawk fly in front of our rig during day light hours.

Setting up--it was sunny, in the 20's, with a moderate breeze.

"Classic" view of the Blue Ridge Mountain--ridge after ridge after ridge...

The show has begun

The sun is low, with the Massanutten Mountain in the foreground. The Shenandoah Mountains are on the horizon, on the other side of the Valley.

Still lower

Lower, with yellow light emanating from behind the far mountains

Cowpasture and Bullpasture Mountains, near Monterey, Va.
Venus and the Moon

Jupiter with Mercury below and to the left

Grand finale! Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, and Mercury, from top to bottom

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