My three year old sitting in a truck bed and looking through binoculars

My Daughter’s First Stargazing Experience

When the New Moon for this month came around last week my husband and I knew that we wanted to take our three and half year old to go see the stars. This was her first time seeing the crushing beauty of the countless galaxies above. Here’s my favorite memories and ideas of what you can do with your little one (or selves) to enjoy the stars! 

New Mexico Dark Skies: Magdalena 

Living in a city like Albuquerque has many advantages, but the one of the biggest drawbacks for me is light pollution. I love to look up at the stars and only getting to see a handful from our backyard is pretty disappointing. That’s where dark skies like Magdalena come in. There are many other similar locations across our state which can be found here. Magdalena is one of our favorites because of its prime location next to observatories like the NM Tech Magdalena Ridge Observatory and the Very Large Array (one of the largest radio telescope installations in the world). It is dark. It is secluded. It is quiet.

We didn’t camp this time around, just set up a stargazing fort at the back of our truck. We parked at Water Canyon Campground which is located just 20 minutes West of Socorro in the Magdalena Mountains (just off of highway 60). We arrived around dinner time, so we had some time to kill before the night sky really came out. Unfortunately for us this time, smoke haze from the many wildfires going on covered the sky. It was clear conditions, but the haze was there. Once nightfall came, and we could see Jupiter and Saturn we were excited to know that stars and planets would likely be visible.  Elfleda was so happy to see the planets. She can see Jupiter from home and always gets giddy when she sees the Jovian giant appear. 

Twilight photo of Jupiter and Saturn emerging. Trees and mountains in the shadows
Twilight view of the Jovian planets: Jupiter and Saturn. This is one of the first and only shots of celestial bodies for the night.

Favorite Moments 

This was Elfleda’s first time stargazing and out in nature at night so there were a number of great memories to be had. We talked about the night ahead of going which helped build anticipation and guide an active toddler through her newest adventure. Some of my favorites included: 

Storytelling Ahead of Nightfall

We obviously had some time to kill and since there were more people around than expected we decided to hang closer to the campsite after dinner. We hiked around some and listened to all the twilight critters emerging. Afterwards, we hopped into the truck bed, made our fort, and told stories. Now, since Ada is a little artist she decided to draw while I told stories. She also played the part of my muse and suggested some unique additions to my stories to keep them interesting. Some favorites tales included Cassandra and the Wind Storm (a lively tale inspired by Greek mythology about a girl in the mountains who prophesied a terrible wind storm and no one believed her) and Skeleton, Ghost, and Spider Go Camping (an appropriately timed Halloween story about scaring your friends). 

Saying Hello to the Astronauts 

Using the Spot the Station tool through NASA we were able to know exactly when the ISS (International Space Station) would be crossing paths with our eyes (starting at 8:34PM that night for three whole minutes). This was great because we got to have something fun to look forward to and count down for. While waiting for the station to travel near, we spotted both the Iridium and Star Link satellites and the super bright flares that bounce off them from the sun. Once 8:34PM rolled around we spotted the station tumbling across the sky and shouted “Hello Astronauts!” and “Goodbye Astronauts!” Ada mentioned how she was going to be in space one day as an astronaut and that she would always say hi to Mama and Dada, however it will be really quiet since she’ll be so far away. 

First Sight of the Milky Way

By Astronomical twilight (or around 9:30PM) we were able to see the Milky Way. Of, course as it becomes later and later and gets darker that beautiful stretch of our galaxy gets even more mesmerizing. When Ada first saw it around 9PM she was amazed. She looked up from her snack after taking a brief break from the sky and said “WOW! There’s so many stars!” She then proceeded to lay between me and Alex and make up her own constellations. She was a little disappointed she couldn’t pull off a “Rock, Paper, Scissors” constellation–we’ll just have to try again next time. 

DIY Stargazing Adventure 

So, how do you make your own stargazing adventure? 

  • Go on Pinterest and gather ideas and then go to the craft store. Make sure your setup for Instagram is all ready. Okay, probably not that. Not even close. 
  • Find somewhere dark and away from the city. Light pollution travels far so the farther the better. Here’s a map of the darkest spots and light pollution in your area. You also don’t want too many obstructions (like being in the center of a dense forest) so you can see them most sky. 
  • Go during a New Moon or as close to the New Moon as you can get. I love you, Luna, but damn girl you are BRIGHT! That’s right, the moon is bright and if you want to see the most going when it is the darkest helps to see the arm of the Milky Way. 
  • Don’t start a campfire! Yes, they are fun and keep us warm and make tasty treats, but if your goal is to see the stars then skip the fire. Bring extra blankets and jackets to stay warm. Plus, it’s safer during drought season to skip the flames. 
  • Pack a picnic or eat dinner beforehand. We opted for something cold and that required the least amount of effort on our part. So, rotisserie chicken, croissants, cheese, and fruit. No wine, since we weren’t camping for the night, and we had a wee little lass tagging along.   
  • If you aren’t camping for the night, make a fort in a truck bed (if you have one it’s great because you are off the ground). Don’t have a truck? No problem, just buy one! Just kidding–don’t do that. Just make the same kick-ass fort on the ground! Pro-tip that we didn’t do this time, but will next: Bring padding. Your back will thank you. 
  • Embrace the darkness and have fun! You don’t need a flashlight or cellphone light to survive. It is weird at first, but your eyes adjust and the night sky will make the world around you glow. Looking at even dim lights from a fire or cellphone screen can kill your night vision and ability to see as many stars as possible.
Selfie of me and my three year old in the truck bed with the mountains behind us. We are sticking our tongues out and smiling.
Obligatory selfie to commemorate our outing!

I had such a perfect time taking my little one stargazing. It is something Alex and I always did pre-baby. Making memories with her was pretty awesome. Plus, seeing her world open up and get excited to learn about space was incredible. BRB while I go search for a telescope, so we can level up on our amateur stargazing.