Chasing The Milky Way in Kings Canyon National Park

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roaring river falls
The night skies of Kings Canyon is perfect for those living in the San Joaquin Valley

Kings Canyon National Park is an overlooked destination for Milky Way photography. Living in the San Joaquin Valley of California can pose challenges for those of us that like to chase milky way photography. The skies here are a dumpster fire of light pollution. It is a gentle reminder of how good I had it living on the High Plains. One of the San Joaquin Valley’s drawing points is it’s a central location to two main recreational areas of California, the Pacific and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In my last installment, I wrote about how I returned to Hume Lake to seek retribution for a busted trip a year ago. Mentioning that I went up early in the day, I was able to explore the park a little further.

ABOUT KINGS CANYON NATIONAL PARK

While Yosemite National Park gets all the PR and rightfully so, Kings Canyon might be considered a lesser version. Yeah, that could be true, but there are sights to be seen in Kings Canyon that are simply breathtaking. There is the Kings River that draws trout anglers and kayakers. Hiking trails led into some seriously awesome backcountry and, for us photographers, landscapes that can be formed into pixels. With giant Sequoia trees and mountain peaks topping 14,000 ft, it makes my flatlander eyebrow twitch with fear and anticipation. My photographer’s eye sees it as a challenge.

First created in 1890, Kings Canyon National Park received its new name in 1940. It is one of three major national parks in the Central Sierra. Yosemite and Sequoia being the other two. Because of a limited road network, Kings Canyon has the smallest number of visitors every year at around 700,000. Yosemite gets hit with an average of over 4 million visitors a year.

HOW TO GET THERE

To access the park, I hit Highway 180 east of Fresno and climbed into the mountains. Even though I have another route that I can take to Hume Lake, it’s my shortest route into Kings Canyon. Along with others that lead off the valley floor into the Sierra, this road offers some absolutely stunning vistas.

The same goes for once you’re inside the park. The road goes through the Canyon in spots. The road also rises out of the canyon in spots, and at any number of pull-offs, you can hop out and look out across the tops of the Sierra for miles. Along the way, the road will run next to the Kings River. The terminus for Hwy 180 is at Zumwalt Meadow. Unlike Yosemite and Sequoia that has several different ways in and out, 180 is the only entrance and exit except for a back road at Hume Lake.

A LUCKY DISCOVERY

On my previous trip to Kings Canyon and my exploration, I found a dirt road near Roaring River Falls that I went down. I had learned about the falls some time prior and checked them out during my previous trip. I was not feeling it as a place for Milky Way photography. After going down the dirt road a little way, I found a spot that looked like a camping spot (it was not), so I pulled off. What I was greeted by was a first-class, Sierra Nevada style view.

Scenes like this await visitors to Kings Canyon National Park.
Scenes like this await visitors to Kings Canyon National Park.

Roaring River Falls drops over several hundred feet to where it feeds into the river. The viewing area is just a small part of the actual falls. From my vantage point across the river, some distance away from the viewing area, I could see the notch in the large granite monoliths where the water feeding the falls came through. I also noticed one important facet of this notch. It was 180° from where I was standing. This time of year, that’s huge.

DOING RESEARCH

Once I returned home and had reliable cell service, I opened up PlanIt Pro to see what I was dealing with. I wanted to catch the core right in the notch. As we know, when it comes to planning shots like this, time of year makes a huge difference. With several road trips to Nevada looming, I started looking at dates that I could return. My first trip to Nevada was right at the New Moon, so those days were out. I then saw that if I wanted to catch the core in the notch, I would have to hit the road the week before Nevada. If I did not, I was going to have to wait until next year. So three weeks later, I was on my way back up to Kings Canyon to see if I could pull this off.

This screenshot from PlanIt Pro shows the Milky Way lines up perfectly with the view in the previous photo.
This screenshot from PlanIt Pro shows the Milky Way lines up perfectly with the view in the previous photo.

THE TRIP

Again, I left early. I had been studying shooting video with my Nikon D750 and wanted to practice a little. I have also been on an automotive photography kick, so I planned on doing a light painting of my 4Runner.

The sorcery of light painting. Light painting is a photography exercise everyone should do. You can learn a lot from it.
Light painting is a photography exercise everyone should do. You can learn a lot from it.

Everything worked out. The light painting went okay, but I learned that I needed to work with focal lengths closer to 35mm to make it look “more natural.” I shot some video and ate a sandwich. While waiting for the day to turn into night, I broke out my camp chair. As I watched a movie on my iPad, a passer-by stopped to inform me that the “campsite” was not a campsite and that the National Park Service was issuing monetary awards to people who were actually camping. Well, I was not camping in this camp spot, oh well.

THE PHOTOGRAPHY PORTION OF THIS PROGRAM

The night sky finally came to life, and I started shooting. I felt okay with the material I captured, but I made one mistake that gave me a lesser quality foundation. In the past year, I have been experimenting with shooting a series of sky images to stack in Sequator. I will then blend in a long exposure foreground image. Last year, I was getting foreground images that needed a lot of work due to being overexposed. They were still good, but I wanted something a little more natural-looking straight out of the camera.

My setup before darkness descended into Kings Canyon.
My setup before darkness descended into Kings Canyon.

On this trip, I dropped my ISO and came home with an underexposed foreground, which affected the overall image quality. I usually shoot the foregrounds at 5 minutes and ISO 4000-5000. This time around, I thought I would beat the system and drop the ISO to 400. I used my experience of shooting 10-minute exposures at ISO 100 and having decent results as the foundation. Yeah, it did not work out so well.

Roaring River Falls. The night skies of Kings Canyon is perfect dark sky location for those living in the San Joaquin Valley.
The night skies of Kings Canyon is perfect dark sky location for those living in the San Joaquin Valley.

CONCLUSION

Luckily the final image came out pretty decent, and my social media fans loved it. Heck, I love it. Yet I am planning a return trip to this spot next year to rinse and repeat. When I write about that trip, it will probably have a fishing report included!

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