Grand Canyon National Park
Cape Royal & POINT SUBLIME
about the PHOTOsHOOT:
Many astronomy sites (including NASA's official site) excitedly pronounced the evening of May 30th 2022 could witness a 'once in a lifetime' event known as a meteor storm. The word *could* was stressed because meteor showers are so unpredictable.
Meteor showers are created by the Earth passing through debris of comets that have crossed our path previously. Comets are big chunks of ice and rock ("dirty snowballs") that orbit the sun in unusual orbits.
Imagine you are driving a car and coming up upon an intersection. A big truck with billowing black smoke crosses your path from right to left before you reach the intersection. It passes, and the cloud of smoke lingers as you go through your green light. As you drive through the intersection, you go through that lingering cloud of smoke.
This is essentially how meteor showers are created. A comet crossed Earth's path years, decades, or even eons ago... then when the it passes through that 'intersection' the debris left behind (small dust- and pebble-sized rocks) hit our Earthly 'windshield' (the atmosphere). The dust particles enter our atmosphere and burn up due to their speed and the friction of the air. It's like re-entry for a spacecraft, but the comet's debris doesn't have a heatshield so it burns up. We see these as "shooting stars".
So.... that explains meteor showers; what is a meteor *storm*?
If the cloud of debris is particularly thick or dense, and has an unusually large amount of dust and rocks, you have more material entering our atmosphere. So instead of 10 or 20 pebbles entering our atmosphere in an hour's time, you could have THOUSANDS.
The comet responsible for this particular cloud is 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3 for short. SW3 makes its trip around the sun about every 5.4 years, and the debris it leaves behind is the cause of the annual Tau Herculids meteor shower. Every comet (SW3 included) goes through immense gravitational pulls every time it swings around the sun. These pulls can be strong enough to tear apart the comet, and in 1995 that's exactly what happened to SW3. It broke into no less than 70 pieces.
As you can imagine, this left behind a HUGE amount of debris in its path. The only question was, would we pass through the area with all that debris or slip around it.
The answer, we learned on May 30th, was a bit of both. We DID encounter substantially more debris, so it *did* technically qualify as a "storm", however most of the meteors came straight into the atmosphere rather than at an angle (which creates longer trails). In simple terms, imagine you're at a baseball game. You're sitting along the first base line. You see the pitcher throw the ball to home plate. You see the entire trail of that ball over the 60 feet between the mound and home base.
But the catcher doesn't see that long arc. From his point of view, the ball hardly varies up/down or right/left as it flies towards him. During this meteor storm, we were in the position of the 'catcher', so the meteors appeared as short, bright fireballs coming straight towards us, rather than the long trails we commonly associate with shooting stars. So, the photos in this gallery have comparatively short meteors. They were incredibly bright, and lasted many seconds... but didn't soar across the sky. This made them very difficult to "catch" with the eye, and I can't imagine how impossible it would be to notice them in any but the darkest of skies.
So, you might hear "the Meteor Storm of 2022 was a bust", but it really wasn't. As long as you were in dark skies, you could have seen hundreds of meteors!
As for me, I chose the absolute darkest skies in the Southwestern United States - the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Most other Bortle 1 sites within view of the meteor storm were overcast, so I might be one of very few that caught the actual "storm".
about the site:
Point Sublime is an outcropping that juts out from the North Rim into the Grand Canyon. As such, it's only accessible from May 15th to December 1st. Although nearly all of the Grand Canyon has Bortle 1 skies, the tourist areas in the park DO emit light pollution that can put a damper on the night skies.
To get to Point Sublime: (and I can't tell you how strongly I suggest you put it on your bucket list! If you have only one day at the Park AND A 4 Wheel Drive (!!)... honestly.. forget the Visitor Centers and the "must see" spots and go here instead!)...
It is at the end of an 18-mile off-road 4WD trail. Yes, you can drive right to it, but you MUST have a high-clearance vehicle and the 'recommended' 4-Wheel Drive. They are not kidding on this!! I grew up in the mountains of Colorado and I've done a bunch of off-roading. This trail REQUIRES high clearance and suggested 4WD. I did it with my 2WD Jeep Patriot - but NEVER again!
There are actually 2 trails leading to Point Sublime. The shortest/fastest route is "Widforss Trail" - the "The 4WD way" as locals call it. It's 18 miles through forest and you WON'T be driving over 10-20mph, I guarantee it. The first 7 miles are pretty chill, as are the last 7. A Subaru Outback could handle those parts..... BUT!!! The 4 miles BETWEEN those stretches are absolutely 4WD territory!! There's one particular climb with an extreme grade and scree rock. It took me 4 times of back-and-forth getting stuck halfway up then spinning out then reversing down the hill to try again.... to get up it, and I eventually had to get a head-start at a very uncomfortable speed to get enough momentum WHILE avoiding some serious "I want to rip out your oil pan" rocks!! Without the years I spent in the Rocky Mountains, I never would have attempted it - much less made it.
The alternate route (which is how I got back) is considerably longer. In my opinion, it's rougher.. for a much longer period, but isn't as extreme (if that makes sense). I didn't have any worries in my 2WD Patriot on the way out. There are very VERY tight switchbacks making blind turns all along the way, and the road is washboard but only occasional "I better be careful here" moments.
Here are two good pages that go into more depth regarding directions:
Arizona Off Road Net (keep in mind this is written FOR 4WD regulars!)
Cape Royal is a far more accessible overview, with a paved road all the way to the parking lot. The picnic area is a short (.12 mile) walk down a paved trail.
The road to the overlook is longer than you think, and at some points quite narrow. As with all roads on the North Rim, expect tight switchbacks and wild life - so drive slowly and keep a watchful eye!