Auburn Astronomical Society

Conecuh National Forest 
Darkest Sky Observing Site
John Tatarchuk


I went down to the extremely dark Conecuh National Forest Saturday 9/8 and Saturday 9/15.  Using Google Earth, I have at last located a large field where multiple observers can set up! 

On 9/8, I had some high cirrus clouds to contend with till about 10:30.  However, once they cleared out, the sky was spectacular.  M33 was a clear naked eye object, and M31 stretched for about 2 degrees naked eye.  The Milky Way was extremely bright, and had a very powdery, peppered look to it.  The Gegenshein was visible in northeastish Aquarius.

This was the first time I had gotten to do any serious deep sky observing since April.  I seemed a little rusty at first, but soon got into stride.  Objects like the North America Nebula, Veil Nebula, and later, Horsehead Nebula were spectacular through the 18", but the real meat of this observing session was the Abell galaxy clusters.  I observed five different extremely obscure Abell galaxy clusters, including one at a distance of 1.9 billion light years.  Towards dawn, Venus startled me with its brightness, casting shadows.

I went back down to the Conecuh National Forest on 9/15.  This time I met up with Taras from the Mobile Astronomy Club, who brought along his 10" Discovery dob and 4.5" RFT.  We set up in a fairly large, dirt field with pretty decent horizons that I had found in Google Earth images.  The sky proved very dark that night.  Not only was the Gegenshein visible, but around 1-2AM I noticed that the even fainter zodiacal band was visible!  The zodiacal band is a band of light along the ecliptic that is caused by sunlight being scattered by interplanetary dust.  Unlike the zodiacal light, it is visible at any time during the night, and it is also MUCH, MUCH fainter.  Pointing out the zodiacal band to Taras, he saw it too, saying "it looks sorta like the Milky Way".  Yea maybe, but 20 times fainter and only about 10 degrees wide!  It was incredible to look up and literally see the plane of the solar system etched across the sky!

Anyway, the night proved to be one of the darkest I have ever seen at the Conecuh National Forest.  Overhead, it appeared to be just as dark as West Texas.  Unfortunately, I left my front light baffle at home, and had to construct one on-site out of some sticks, duck tape, and some black cloth.  After I finished this, I got some great views.  I spent the time hunting Abell planetary nebulae, more extremely obscure Abell Galaxy Clusters (I spotted 2-3 galaxies in one that is 2.5 billion light years away!!!), and I even tracked down the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.   Taras and I stayed all night till dawn.  I started packing up when I noticed that the morning light had made it no longer possible to see the Horsehead Nebula without a filter.
 


Conecuh National Forest Dark Sky Site
John Tatarchuk

I've been searching for the perfect Alabama dark sky site for years.  While I still haven't yet discovered the perfect site, I've come very close.

Tom McGowan and I first scouted out the dark skies of the Conecuh National Forest back in May 2005.  We set up on the side of a road, about 14 miles east of Brewton, Alabama (as the crow flies).  When the summer Milky Way reached meridian that night, we knew we had something special.  Since then I have scouted out two even darker sites closer to the heart of the forest.

The skies at the Conecuh National Forest are very dark- excluding the horizons which have some light pollution hugging them, it's nearly impossible to tell you're not in West Texas.  The faint and elusive Gegenshein is visible every night, and on a good night, the incredibly faint zodiacal band (not to be confused with the immensely brighter zodiacal light) is visible too.  M33 is about to easy to see naked eye as M31 from a magnitude 4.5 or 5 site.  The Milky Way is incredible.

The Conecuh National Forest is located in extreme south Alabama, east of the town of Brewton, Alabama, and southwest of Andalusia and Opp.  According to the light pollution maps, it's located in a Bortle Scale 2 zone.  While there are wide swaths of Bortle Scale 2 areas in southwest and south-central Alabama, the Conecuh National Forest is the only Bortle Scale 2 area that I have found that is located on public lands.  Below is a map of light pollution in central and south Alabama, showing the normal AAS dark sky site (at Bortle Scale 4) and the Conecuh National Forest.

 Conecuh National Forest  Clear Sky Chart

 Approximate driving times:

From Auburn:  ~3-3.5 hrs, ~205 miles

From Montgomery:  ~2.5- 2.75 hrs, ~155 miles

From Birmingham:  ~3.5-4 hrs,  ~230 miles

There are many ways to get to the Conecuh National Forest.  The exact site within the forest is located at:

31 6' 40.24"N 
8642' 26.51"W

Let's assume that you're driving down I-65 South.   At exit 77, south of Evergreen, turn left back over I-65 to the east on ALA 41 and drive 16 miles to downtown Brewton. 


At the railroad tracks in downtown Brewton, ALA 41 merges with US 29 North (Mildred St.). 

You might want to reset your trip odometer as you cross the RR tracks in Brewton.  The following distances and mileages are based on this as a starting point.  The turn-off point onto CR11 is just past "mile marker 24" on US 29N.

Continue 0.3 miles due east past the railroad tracks, over the bridge into East Brewton, (now Forrest Ave.).  At odometer reading 1.3, bear left (east) where US 29 North diverges from ALA 41, and heads towards Andalusia. 


 
 


At about 9 miles out, you'll see CR 4 on the right.  This is just a landmark. Stay on US 29N. which is actually heading north here. 

At about mile 12, US 29N is heading east.

At about mile 20, (just past "Brooklyn Road.) you'll cross the "McGowan Bridge" over the Conecuh River. 

(The following directions have been changed from the original directions that led in from the north, just past the Dixie School Road on FR 312.  There is an impassable section there 1000 yards or so from the highway.  Thanks to Marc Crawford for this update.)

Continue on US 29 just pasr mile marker 24 to CR 11 and turn right (south).

Go 1mile on CR 11 then turn left on the unpaved Forestry Road 312.

Go 0.7 miles then turn left again (to the east) onto FR 311-D.

Stay on 311-D for another 1.4 miles.  The field will be on your right.

Google Maps Forestry Road designations leave a lot to be desired.  The Forest Service map with their designations are on this PDF file.  Below is a portion of that map to give a frame of reference.

 

BE CAREFUL:  The field is set a bit off the road, and in the dark, it could be missed.

The observing field is a cleared, flat, very sandy field.  There are a few weeds growing in it, but very little grass.  Because of the extremely sandy soil, it's dry and free of mud.  Make sure to bring a tarp to set the scope up on!  It takes a vehicle with a decently high suspension, such as a small truck or SUV, to directly drive out into the field, as there is a steepish drop off right where you pull off the road.  No fear though, if you have a small car with a low suspension, there is a place where you can park.  However, you will have to transport your equipment from this parking spot about 75 yards out into the field.


Driving back from the Conecuh National Forest can be tough after staying up all night observing.  I recommend a 1-2 hour nap after the observing session is over.  Dark skies aren't worth dying for.