Most people go camping for the scenic bauty they see in the daytime. But camping when it's dark - especially when it's really, really dark - can reveal even more spectacular sights during two meteor showers this winter.
The Geminids and the Quadrantids meteor showers will send shooting stars blazing through the heavens and local stargazers say camping can be one of the best ways to watch the cosmic action.
For stargazing, it's best to get a light with a red filter or dimmable white light because strong white light limits your night vision.
"You're generally away from the lights so you can really see," says Ed Sunder, vice president of the Chattanooga-based Barnard Astronomical Society. "You may encounter one of those things that's just a spectacular show."
Astronomers say the Geminids will be visible from Dec. 6 to 19, but the peak will be between midnight and 2 a.m. on Dec. 13 and 14. At the peak, stargazers in the darkest areas could see as many as 60 meteors per hour.
The Quadrantids is not quite as prolific - only about 40 meteors per hour at the peak - but less light from the moon during the shower's peak on Jan. 3 and 4 could make it a better show than the December shower. In October, Sunder camped at the Gee Creek Campground in the Cherokee National Forest and said the darkness was a bright spot. "They have fantastic dark skies over there. It was really, really good," he says.
Sunder says getting out in the dark away from cities is key, but stargazers also look for areas with clearings and "wide horizons" avoiding tree cover and valleys.
From where they live, more than two-thirds of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way with the naked eye because of light pollution.
David Dundee, an astronomer at Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, Ga., says state parks like Cloudland Canyon or Amicalola Falls are generally great places to check out the cosmos. "If you want a safe, dark site I would head to one of those parks," he says.
David Fields, an astronomer at Roane State Community College, recommends using red LEDs or red filters on flashlights. He said be patient to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. "Give yourself 20 or 30 minutes to darken up," Fields says.
The astronomers say they usually lie in clearings on blankets so they can see the whole sky and don't strain their necks. But Dundee offers one piece of advice for watching the Geminids and Quadrantids that doesn't apply to summertime showers. "Bundle up," he says.
Gee Creek, Cherokee National Forest
Near Delano, Tenn. ' 423-263-0050
Amicalola Falls State Park
Dawsonville, Ga. ' 706-265-4703
Cumberland Mountain State Park
Crossville, Tenn. ' 931-484-7186
Rock Creek Campground
Wartburg, Tenn. ' 423-346-6294
Buck's Pocket State Park
Grove Oak, Ala. ' 256-659-2000
Chatsworth, Ga. ' 706-276-6050
(closed in winter)