False Kiva Milky Way

Duke Johnson

After departing Mesa Arch, I arrived at a parking area near the beginning of the path to False Kiva. I surmised that a quick hike to the Kiva would just give me enough time to set up and get aligned. This is probably the trickiest place I have done astrophotography due to the difficulty in lighting the kiva walls somewhat evenly and (most importantly) because the Kiva blocks the entire northern sky from view so that there is no precise way to polarly align my tracking platform. Two years ago, I lucked out and found polar alignment almost immediately…but that was not to be the case on this trip. But…I’m getting ahead of myself.

I walked down the road to the trail and as I neared where I thought the entry point should be, I saw many footprints in the sand. I knew I was entering the trail a bit early, but figured that it had probably seen several groups of hikers in recent days—so I took it. After about 20 minutes of rapid hiking, I got to the edge of the cliff face. There was no way to enter the canyon from there, so I walked to my left, knowing I’d intersect the real trail and just follow it in. Three loops and an hour and ten minutes later, I stumbled across the real trail while hiking back out after having given up. I had to race to get to the proper location and get set up before the moonlight from the waning crescent moon became too intense (it never did). Since my entire hike occurred in the dark (pitch black, except for the stars), I was very thankful to eventually arrive at my destination.

Much to my surprise, the moon was too dim and too low to provide the light I needed on the canyon below—that is until I had been there for another hour. I spent that time taking one test shot after another, tweaking the alignment, and shooting again. It just never seemed to be quite right. It took so long that I then had to move my equipment to maintain the shot…and realign again. Thankfully it went better this time. I shot several singles and this shot which is a series of 5 shots stitched together. Lighting was done with the same 1,000,000 spot light, which was very tricky because some of the rocks in the shot are only about six feet away while others are fifty feet from the camera. By the time I finished, the moon had risen high enough in back of the Kiva that it was nicely lighting the entire valley. 3084_False_Kiva_moonlightThe small stringer of clouds was the only one in the sky and seemed to appear at the most inopportune time, although it did add a splash of color to the scene. Had I been able to get the shot earlier, the whole Milky Way would have appeared farther to the left. Soon after I finished, the galactic core disappeared behind the large formation to the right. Hiking out in the darkness was made slightly easier due to the scant amount of moonlight. An hour’s sleep in my car as the sun rose and it was time to head for home.

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2 thoughts on “False Kiva Milky Way

  1. Beautiful images, Duke! A lot of work has gone into these three images and the results are spectacular. I wonder if you would be willing to give a workshop presentation to our photography club, the Wasatch Camera Club? I took a survey of potential topics for workshops (I manage workshops, competitions, the website and am a director of the club) and astrophotography polled very high. I’d love to have speak to the art and science of it.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Jeff Clay

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