Best Places Near Billings to View Perseid Meteor Shower
The Perseid meteor shower peaks every year in August and astronomers are forecasting the best viewing this year will be on Wednesday (8/12). Astronomy.com says the best time to view is late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning, with primetime viewing at approximately 2 am. They say up to 100 meteors per hour could be visible. If you can't make it out on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, you can still see a few anytime this week. The Perseid meteor shower is known for fast-streaking meteors that can leave long trails, creating a fairly spectacular show. The weather this weeks calls from mostly clear nights, with only a slight chance of scattered showers on Wednesday. The night skies should be relatively cloud free. Great news.
Billings is bright with lights and so is the Laurel area. The refineries put out a lot of light pollution, as does the train yard. Not to mention all of the normal city lights. I recently spent a night at my brothers house between Townsend and Three Forks and it's AMAZING how much brighter the night sky is when you are out in the country, away from city lights. It had to be like 10x brighter. Us city dwellers forget how bright the night sky in Montana actually is.
So, where's a sky-gazer to go that is not 100 miles away? Somewhere easily accessible, with minimal gravel roads? Here are three good options that are fairly close to Billings. You won't need a high-clearance 4x4 to get there either.
Molt Road/Buffalo Trail
It gets pretty dark out towards the intersection of Molt Road and Buffalo Trail. There is a parking area right near the intersection of the two paved roads, as well as two or three little pull-off areas right around where I put the X on the map.
17 Mile is located seventeen miles (duh) north of Billings on Highway 87, headed towards Roundup. During the day, it's a popular undeveloped shooting range on public land. Nobody in their right mind will be out shooting guns in the dark, so this would be a great spot to catch the meteor shower this week. There is plenty of room to spread out from your fellow sky watchers.
Coburn Road near Pictograph Park
Pictograph Park is technically closed at 7 pm. There does not appear to be a chain or gate to the parking lot, but I know there is a resident park attendant who may - or may not - approve of cars parking in the lot to watch the meteor shower. At press time, I was unable to get an answer on the phone. However, if you can find a place to park off the side of the road anywhere in this area, it will be dark enough for good meteor gazing. Honestly, if you pick a quiet side road and park anywhere off the Pryor Road area as well, you'll have good luck finding low light pollution.
- Don't block a road or highway.
- Don't trespass on private property.
- Bring a blanket or a reclining lawn chair. Flat on your back is the best viewing postion so you don't get a stiff neck.
- Be patient. You might not see anything at first. You might see a bunch of meteors back-to-back, or you might have to wait a few minutes.
- Let your eyes adjust! This means TURNING OFF YOUR PHONE. Sitting in the car with the dome light on basically guarantees disappointment.
- Generally look to the north/northeast. This is where the Perseids originate, but don't limit your view. Some may appear straight overhead or in all parts of the night sky too.
- Don't litter. This seems like a no-brainer, but everywhere I go outdoors I see piles of trash, beer cans, diapers and other garbage discarded from thoughtless people.
- Be extremely careful with cigarette butts or random sparks. It's very dry this time of year and heaven forbid you start a wildfire.
Have fun! If you'd like to take pictures, don't expect very good results with your phone. A real camera, tripod and long exposure setting is the only option for great meteor pics.