Trona Pinnacles, an area of iconic landscape features in the California desert served as my first “Chase The Milky Way” adventure. Here is how I got there.


On an August morning last year, I walked out of the front door of my house at about 11 am. About 6:30 the next morning, I walked back through that door after experiencing a Milky Way adventure for the books. It was a great introduction to “Chase the Milky Way.”

johnson mesa church
Johnson Mesa, New Mexico

The short story is I had made plans to meet a group of friends and online acquaintances in Clayton, New Mexico. We were to eat lunch and then decided what to do next. Within the first couple of minutes of my arrival, we discovered where we would go. It was a rock church on Johnson Mesa built over one hundred years ago. That trip has played a big part in this “Chase The Milky Way” idea.


Since then, I have thought about how I could recapture the magic of that trip. A while back, I developed a plan which I have called “Chase The Milky Way.” I have several goals behind this plan, an idea that I hope is a great success this year and I can follow up in the following years.

My plan is simple. I have decided to make four road trips to locations within a day’s drive of my current residence in California. Now some of these road trips are well north of 500 miles, and because Milky Way photography is weather dependent, this could all turn into a train wreck.

I have chosen four primary locations to shoot, with the long road trips hopefully being two-day affairs that will have secondary photography targets. There are locations that I have not been too before, and there are locations that I have been to, but never have done Milky Way photography there. Some of the spots are somewhat popular, while others not so much. There is at least one shot that due to the timing might be very hard to pull off raising the difficulty level just a tad. All I know is Photopills is telling me I can create the image I want at the location I want to go.


I have several goals behind this challenge. The first is to inspire people to get out and soak in the night sky. The second goal is to bring awareness to people about saving the night sky and third, well if I was to say that this challenge does nothing to stroke my ego, well I would be lying.

After each road trip, I am going to share those trips with you, the readers here at Milky Way Photographers. There will also be offshoot stories such as my move from a crop sensor with a prime lens to a full frame and zoom lens for my Milky Way photography.

So please subscribe so you are notified when we publish new stories and you can follow Chase the Milky Way.


The first trip in this grand adventure is also the shortest out of the four. I decided to do kind of a test run to create some images to announce “Chase The Milky Way.” I chose to head to Trona Pinnacles just east of Ridgecrest. At just a little over 3 hours away, the trip was a little on the long side. This trip would go to Trona, shoot, come home.


I was going to go on this trip a month ago, but since I had such a small window of opportunity, I ended up postponing due to weather. Even though I am from Oklahoma, where the wind comes whipping down the plains, I am no fan of doing photography in the wind and the night I had scheduled; the area was under a wind advisory.

In my article, Milky Way Photography For Beginners, Research, Location Scouting and Apps I highly recommend going to a location while it is still light. The reason why is so you can scout the area and figure out what shots you will get. With this particular trip, I threw my own advice out the window. I ended up leaving the house about an hour before sunset, and it is a 3.5-hour drive. If I had left in the middle of the day, I could have done some location research for future locations, and seen Trona in the light. As it was, it was about 10 pm when I arrived. I ended up talking to a full-time RV’er who travels around doing night photography when I arrived. Luckily, the light pollution from Ridgecrest illuminates the landscape enough that I could get an idea of where I was looking.

I kicked the evening off with a star trail image while I waited for the Milky Way to come up above the horizon.


After leaving the RV’er, I drove around until I found a pinnacle that I liked for a star trail subject. That is one thing to keep in mind with Milky Way photography. At that time of year, the core of the Milky Way rises a few hours after sunset. Since I was on location about an hour before it was visible, I decided to shoot a star trail.

With my star trail images, I do not spend a whole lot of time on them. I usually shoot a series of 3-4 images at 10 minutes each. Trona is a Bortle Class 4 location, so each exposure was timed perfectly, so the landscape had enough illumination. Even in Class 1 skies, I have found that 10 minutes works great if I want to use ISO 100.

After the star trail shots, it was time to get down to Milky Way photography. Unfortunately, things went a little south for me. I shot one long exposure image for the foreground and did not realize that it was out of focus until I got home. It was not a big loss. I came back with enough material. Even though I had my LED panels with me, I did not use them to illuminate the ground. That was a mistake on my part. Using the ambient light to illuminate the foreground produced a little too much noise.


Roughly after about 2 hours shooting, I packed up and headed home. I wanted to pull off another shot or two, but I needed to get back home. All in all, it was a great experience at Trona Pinnacles for my first time. As we know, further into the year, the earlier the core will be up. I may cap the year off by another trip to Trona. Doing this will allow me to see it during the day and think about my shoots.

trona pinnacles

Like I mentioned earlier, I want people inspired by this to go out and soak in the night sky. Decades ago, I was introduced to the night sky by someone who loved it. That inspiration is what I want to pass on. Make “Chase The Milky Way” your photography theme.


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