Tag: Science Getaways

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.


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Science Getaways: Dark skies

By Phil Plait | June 21, 2012 10:38 am

I got an email recently from BABloggee Mark Sunderland, pointing out this photo to me. It shows the Toronto skyline with the Milky Way and thousands of stars blazing behind it.

I had to chuckle: the picture is obviously fake (and now the caption at Flickr says as much, though it didn’t when I first saw it). There’s no way you could see the Milky Way from a city like Toronto. The city lights flood the air with illumination, lighting up the sky and drowning out faint stars. A long exposure photo of the sky over Toronto would make it worse; the sky would be washed out, with only a handful of stars visible. This is called light pollution, and it’s a serious problem for astronomers. That’s why we build our telescopes far from civilization centers.

To really see the stars, you have to get away from cities, to a place with few lights to to compete with the sky. That’s a big reason my wife and I chose the C Lazy U Ranch for our premier Science Getaways vacation. This is a dude ranch nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where the nearest large town is Estes Park, 50 km to the northwest, and even that’s blocked by the mountains. The skies there are dark.

Science Getaways is a company my wife and I started to add science to otherwise non-sciencey vacations. For this first one we have a geologist, biologist, and me at the dude ranch. Every day there will be science talks followed by short and long field trips (to accommodate different physical abilities) where we’ll check out the local nature, and at night there will be stargazing sessions. I’m really exited about that last bit (duh). It’s been a while since I’ve used a ‘scope under really clear, dark skies — I have an 8" Celestron and just seeing Saturn (which we’ll do [NOTE ADDED JULY 21 - actually, by this time Saturn may be to low in the west to see - it'll be behind the mountains. There might be a location on the ranch where we can get a shot at it, though.]) is cool enough… but unlike that composite Toronto picture, the Milky Way over the mountains will be quite real, and quite spectacular. We’ll be looking at nebulae, clusters, and other objects, too, and there will be plenty visible just to the unaided eye. I’ll have binoculars people can use as well, which to be honest is one of my favorite ways to soak up dark skies. It’s amazing what you can see with a decent pair of binocs.

This Getaway is from September 16 – 20, 2012 — just three months from now. We have about 20 spots left open, so if you’re on the fence about this, now’s the time to decide. The skies are calling.


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Science Getaways: T- 4 months

By Phil Plait | May 16, 2012 1:34 pm

Science Getaways is a company my wife and I started so that science enthusiasts (and you better face it, since you’re reading this, that’s you) can go on a vacation that has extra science added. For me, science isn’t a career or a hobby — it’s a lifestyle. I can’t get enough, even on vacation, so we figured why not put together vacation deals that have bonus value-added science?

The first Getaway is September 16 – 20 of this year, and it’ll be at the C Lazy U ranch, an all-inclusive luxury ranch in the Rocky Mountains. We visited there last year and it’s incredibly beautiful. The views are spectacular, and you’re really out in the middle of nature there.

Which brings up a funny coincidence. This morning I was going through some photos I took, and stumbled on one I took last year when I was up in Rocky Mountain National Park filming a science documentary. When we finished shooting we packed up the gear and headed down the path to the van. As we made that long walk, I looked over to my right and was pretty surprised to see this:

About two dozen elk were just standing or sitting around, casually watching us and other hikers as we stumbled down the path! It was astonishing; they were very calm and satisfied to just watch us walk by, although the male — that’s him with the antlers — was eyeballing us to make sure we didn’t get too close to his harem. He didn’t have to worry. I was too busy trying not to kill myself carrying the big camera tripod over my shoulder; wandering off the path to get a closer look at his wives wasn’t really on my mind.

As I looked at the picture of the elk I started thinking about seeing more of them now that the weather is warmer and we start weekend hiking in the Rockies again. That’s when I thought about Science Getaways — the ranch hands told us that in late summer it’s common for herds of elk to walk across the ranch grounds. Elk are big — like horse-sized deer — so that must be quite a sight (check out these photos of elk at the ranch in the winter). And that’s not all we’re likely to see; there are mule deer, pronghorn, eagles, and more — maybe even moose. Biologist Dave Armstrong will be with us to point all that out and tell us about what we’re experiencing, too.

I’m really looking forward to the nature hikes. That area of the Rockies is surpassingly beautiful (you don’t have to take my word for it; here’s a family who wrote up their experiences at the ranch). Of course, once the Sun goes down, the reins of science will be passed from biology to astronomy. I think of all the things about this, that’s what I’m most excited about: clear, dark, crisp skies, and unfettered access to telescopes! I’m bringing my Celestron 8", and there will be other ‘scopes there too. The views will be amazing, whether you’re looking out over the mountains, or up over the mountains!

If you’re interested, take a look at the site we’ve set up for Science Getaways. Also, my friend Maria at Skepchick interviewed me about this, too. If you have questions please drop us a line!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Science
MORE ABOUT: Science Getaways

Science Getaways: Update

By Phil Plait | February 7, 2012 9:36 am

I love science. OK, duh, but I really do. And when I go on vacation, I can’t help but see science everywhere, and in every case it makes the trip more fun for me. Seeing local geology, biology, how the stars might look different at a different latitude… it adds to the vacations, makes it better.

That’s why my wife and I started a company called Science Getaways. We figured there are lots of other folks out there like us who would really enjoy taking a vacation that has bonus science added in. Our first planned trip is to a gorgeous Colorado dude ranch called C Lazy U. Besides the usual amenities of such a place — horseback riding, great food, spectacular views of the Rocky Mountains — we’re adding SCIENCE! And scientists: we have a geologist, a biologist, and an astronomer — hey, me! — who will be on hand to give talks about the local nature scene, and then we’ll take hikes to put that new-found knowledge to practical use. I’ll be running a stargazing session every evening with my new 8" Celestron telescope, and I’m hoping to do some solar observing during the day as well.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We’ve negotiated a special rate — the price we’re offering is actually less than the usual ranch rate. We’re hoping to have the entire ranch for our group, but if we don’t have enough reservations by March 1 we can’t guarantee it. Space is limited, so please book now if you plan to come.

By the way, we’re also on Facebook and Google+ if you’d like to add us.

I hope to see lots of BABloggees there!


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Science Getaways

By Phil Plait | December 7, 2011 7:00 am

I am very pleased to announce the grand opening of Science Getaways, where you can take a vacation with your brain!

Science Getaways is a new travel company, started by my wife Marcella and me, for science enthusiasts who want to do more than just take a vacation: they want to feed their brain, too. Over the years I’ve been to a lot of cool places, but I’ve always found my experience is enhanced a lot by learning about the science of the region: the geology, the biology, the connection to other sciences. Heck, when we visited the Galapagos Islands a few years back the whole thing was nothing but science — and it was the vacation of a lifetime (as you can read here, and here, and here). Trips like this are becoming popular enough to get written up by the New York Times.

So we decided we wanted to do this too. Voila! Science Getaways, where we do all the work for you: find cool places to take a vacation, then bring along fun, outgoing scientists eager to show you the natural wonders of the region*.

Our first getaway is Science Ranch 2012, September 16 – 20, 2012, at the C Lazy U Ranch in Granby, Colorado. This is an authentic western ranch where you can ride horseback, fish, hike, mountain bike, and eat gourmet food (trust me on this; we sampled the food there and it was fantastic). We visited a lot of Colorado ranches, but C Lazy U was clearly the place that fits our needs best.

And we made it better: we added SCIENCE to it! We’ve invited Holly Brunkal, a geologist, and Dave Armstrong, a biologist and ecologist, to come along (we have their bios online). Both scientists are experts in the Colorado version of their fields, and have experience with tours. They’ll be taking us on hikes in the valley where the ranch is located, so you can peruse the local rocks and biota, and they’ll give talks beforehand to familiarize you with everything.

I’ll be the third scientist; I’ll give a couple of short talks and run a stargazing session every evening it’s clear — the skies in that part of Colorado are dark dark dark. When we stayed overnight at a ranch a couple of months ago, we went outside at around 10:00 p.m. and Marcella was stunned at how many stars she could see. It was magnificent.

If you read my blog — and I see you there, admit it! — then I suspect you love science and nature as much as I do. Science Getaways is a new way for me to bring the fun and wonder of the Universe to folks, and have a really great time while doing it. I hope to see you in September at C Lazy U!


* Just to be clear, this is something I’ll be doing as well as writing this blog and everything else. I’m having way too much fun writing to stop now!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Geekery, Science
MORE ABOUT: Science Getaways
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