Ever dream about stargazing by train? The Great Basin Star Train takes you to a dark place in north-central Nevada to see what our ancestors saw before light pollution wiped out most Americans’ views of the night sky.
The ride starts at 7:30 p.m. in the tiny town of Ely, about four hours north of Las Vegas, one of the brightest cities in the world. Rangers from nearby Great Basin National Park board the Nevada Northern Railway Museum’s historic train to serve as astronomy guides.
The train travels about 11 miles east and climbs 800 feet along a mountain ridge to catch views of the sunset. It then returns on part of the route and stops at a place where rangers set up telescopes outside for visitors.
“Usually they can see a couple of constellations,” said Mark Bassett, the museum’s executive director. “Jupiter and Saturn often pop out.”
What you see in the sky varies, depending on clouds and atmospheric conditions, Bassett said, but rangers (also called the Dark Rangers) know where to point the scopes for best viewing. The train returns to Ely about two and a half hours later.
The Star Train is sold out for 2019, but tickets for 2020 rides are on sale now. Tickets cost $41 for adults 13 and older, and $20 for children 4 to 12 years old. Reservations are recommended to make sure you get a seat.
It’s a little less than a four-hour drive from Las Vegas to Ely, where the excursion begins. Those who want to stay overnight can sleep in the railway’s bunkhouse or train caboose for $60 a night.
In the U.S. and Europe, 99% of people never experience a natural night sky, according to a 2016 report. The Star Train aims to show visitors what our ancestors saw when they looked up every night.
For those who want to continue stargazing in the area, Great Basin National Park, about 65 miles east of Ely, is a perfect spot. It was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2016, and hosts astronomy evenings and an annual Astronomy Festival, this year from Sept. 26 to 28.
The International Dark Sky Assn., which works to protect the night skies from light pollution, has designated 70 such parks worldwide. Forty-seven are in the United States, including Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks in California, and Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona.