Science Ranch 2012

By Phil Plait | October 11, 2012 11:01 am

Science Ranch 2012 has wrapped up, and it was way, way too much fun.

Quick background: my wife Marcella and I started up Science Getaways, where we create vacation packages and add science to them. We figured we love learning about the places we visit; their natural wonders, the geography, biology, and more, so why not make it official and put something like this together for other science lovers? At Science Getaways we take vacation packages and add exploration hikes, talks by scientists, star parties… y’know, SCIENCE. The point was to get like-minded science afficiandos together and have them get even more out of their time off; that’s why we call it a "vacation with your brain".

Our first venture was to the C Lazy U Guest Ranch in Granby, Colorado. Nestled in a valley in the Rockies, it’s a stunning setting with lots of natural beauty. We invited geologist Holly Brunkal and biologist/ecologist Dave Armstrong to come, with me pulling astronomy duty. In September, a group of science lovers descended upon the ranch for four days of fun, relaxation, and… SCIENCE.

I know I may be a wee bit biased, but I think everyone had a lot of fun. The ranch itself boasts a lot of outdoor activities: horseback riding, a ropes course, biking, and more. Marcella and I had to laugh; when we first organized this Getaway, we asked folks if they’d like to ride horses, and only a few said yes. But once everyone got there, nearly every single person went for at least one ride! It was a great way to get out into the hills without a lot of effort – helpful in the rarefied air at 2500 meters (8000+ feet) elevation!

The science was, of course, amazing. We learned a lot about the local flora, fauna, and geology of the region. Did you know the Rockies we see today are actually the second Rockies? There used to be a range here in Colorado hundreds of millions of years ago, and they eroded away. Eventually, a new mountain range pushed up, forming today’s Rockies.

Driving the lessons home, we went on several hikes to explore the natural world ourselves. At different times during the week we saw moose, bear, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, and chipmunks. At one point we had a handsome young fox poking around nearby too, probably looking for lunch.

Probably the highlight of the hikes was when we all went to a stream bed near the ranch. Over the years it’s wandered a bit, exposing rock washed down from the hills. Within a few minutes, one of our guests found a fossilized leaf imprint dating back to the Creataceous Era, more than 65 million years ago! Not five minutes later another guest found a lovely specimen of petrified wood. We all started poking around in earnest after that; I found some fascinating samples including anorthositic rock, and a lovely layered sedimentary rock that got baked by a lava intrusion, turning it black as coal.

Of course, there was astronomy. Oh my, was there. The first night we walked outside from the main lounge room, and even before our eyes had properly adjusted to the dark we could see the Milky Way blazing overhead. I had my new Celestron 20 cm (8") telescope, generously donated for the occasion by Celestron, Inc., and we took it a few hundred meters out from the lights of the ranch to observe. We saw a dizzying variety of celestial favorites: globular clusters, planetary nebulae, binary stars, open clusters, galaxies (M 31, the Andromeda Galaxy, was amazing and easily visible to the naked eye), and more. It was chilly, but we still had a lot of folks stick around for hours while we observed. I usually observe from my home where the skies are decent, but being out where it’s truly dark makes a world – ah, a Universe – of difference.

One of the most fun times, I think, was just everyone asking questions while I answered them. We did that combined with a naked eye tour of the night sky; me with my green laser pointer showing folks how the stars rise and set, how the planets move, and even our location halfway to the edge of the galaxy. With a little ingenuity and a laser pointer, it’s actually pretty cool what you can learn under the stars.

The last night at the ranch was wonderful. It had clouded up just before sunset, so we all gathered in the main area where the ranch set up a campfire. We talked, laughed, and generally had a great time socializing. It was truly lovely.

Thus endeth Science Ranch 2012. But that’s most certainly not the end of Science Getaways! Marcella’s been hard at work getting the next one set up, and we’ll have an announcement about it very soon. Stay Tuned!

Image credits: leaf fossil by me; horseback pic by Jon Sager; campfire shot and Milky Way by Jason Bechtel.

Related Posts:

Science Getaways: Dark skies
Coathook to the stars
Science Getaways: T-4 months
Science Getaways


Comments (11)

  1. Jerry Jobe

    It was an awesome time of learning and fun! (Even if I didn’t get on a horse.) Can’t wait to hear about the next one.

  2. Steve

    I’d love to to this one year.

  3. Jamie

    Careful with that green laser. The pilots flying overhead don’t take to kindly to green light being shined into the cockpit.

  4. Jeff S.

    I knew your sky viewing would be amazing, I myself have conducted them from as remote a location as Dry Tortugas 30 years ago ( why is the time passing so fast?);

    but to me, I am really impressed at your palentological skills, and that leaf imprint , impression fossil, is amazing.

    A great idea for folks to get out in an amazing location and do some science. What always impresses me is, all I got to do is get my eyes off my computer screen, take a walk outdoors, and everything is different and natural, refreshing. Humans are too into this artificial world they’ve created.

  5. DrFlimmer

    Ah, finally. I was already wondering, if you would ever post about it, and if it actually took place at all. ūüėÄ

    It seems to have been a great week. Maybe in the very far future I can attend, too. But for that I first have to move to the US, and this seems unlikely for now. ūüėČ

  6. Peter Eldergill

    Maybe if you have one…in Chile…during our summer, I could attend.

    Non-summer bookings aren’t so good for teachers…


  7. Eden Keeper

    An idea to consider for Science Getaways would start with dropping children off at Space Camp in Huntsville, AL, then doing a mountains to sea tour of various science venues across the state from Russel Cave National Monument to Dauphin Island Sea Lab. Some highlights could include the world class biodiversity, the Wetumpka Astrobleme, and the only meteorite to hit somebody. Getting to certain places might involve canoes rather than horses while rope work is possible underground. A good place to start research would be Bartram’s Travels with Part III Chapters V, VI and VIII being most relevant.

  8. “With a little ingenuity and a laser pointer, it‚Äôs actually pretty cool what you can learn under the stars”

    You betcha!

    I wanted to be there but it was not possible this time. Maybe in the not so distant future… (and hopefully before Andromeda mixes with us…)

  9. Brad H

    A friend and coworker of mine was there with his new wife for their honeymoon (I’m sure that identifies them for you in a hurry!). I am so damned jealous… Hopefully I can join in on one of these myself some day. It sounds like it was a great experience!

  10. Wow! I have to admit, I never paid that much attention to the Science Getaways posts, but that sounds awesomely fun! Like science camp as a kid but without the mean counselors making you go to bed and get up on time ūüėČ

  11. Jay29

    How does the laser pointer help, exactly? Do you see the beam off dust/water vapor in the sky? Surely you can’t get an actual dot on the blackness of space!


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