I consider myself a portable imager. I do not have an observatory, and my backyard is not well suited to setting up a pier (much less the less than enthusiastic response from my wife at the suggestion of “a big hole in the ground and a pole sticking up all the time”). I do leave my mount up on my back patio for days at a time, but it comes in and out of my shed several times a month, and at least once a month if not twice I “camp” somewhere where I can get to darker skies, and a larger portion of the sky (trees, houses, etc. obscure most of my backyard sky). The backyard is great for trying things for the first time, for “working” on things for my job (Software Bisque), and I do like shooting the moon, and lately narrow band. Even for narrow band imaging though, my backyard does not offer much of a sky dome. I need to camp.
I live in Central Florida, and there are plenty of places to do this camping thing. Finding a suitable place for astro-imaging though is the trick. My first choice for a long time has been Kissimmee Praire Preserve State Park. This state park is in south Florida in Okeechobee country and is about an hour and a half drive. The park actually caters to amateur astronomers, has a dedicated section away from other campers lights, no trees, a good horizon, and ample space, power, and even water at the camp sites. The skies are also very dark. Far better than the Winter Star Party’s skies down in the Keys that many rave about. Another thing I like about KPP is it is very clean and has a nice place to take a shower and get cleaned up. My own local astronomy club holds a star party there twice a year in fact. Camping in the summer in Florida is no fun anywhere in my book, but KPP is a great fall/winter/early spring spot. They do not offer the astronomy pads on-line however. You have to call them to reserve them, and do it early, they often fill up on new moon weekends.
And there’s the rub. New moon weekends I’ve been shut out of KPP a few times now. There’s also the general public, and I don’t mean to be snobby, but sometimes I just don’t want a parade of dogs, small children, etc. coming by to see “what the astronomers are doing”. I do like public events, and I participate in outreach events from time to time, but when daddy goes to work, he’s working…
A little while back, some friends of a friend bought some land only a few miles from KPP in the middle of a sod farm. They built themselves some private observatories, and invited a small number of people to “join” their group. This has been my most recent Florida dark sky site, as it’s quiet and private. They call it StarDust Ranch, and now these friends of friends I consider my own friends. The original friend has an RV he parks there where he lets me stay… and let me tell you; RV camping is nice. Very nice. For most of the year StarDust Ranch will be my main haunt. I don’t have to compete for space (I’m a bit claustrophobic too), and I can jaunt down there in the middle of the week with an hours notice if I want or need to. Like KPP, the sky there is very nice and dark as well.
Of course you can’t mention imaging in Florida without talking about the Chiefland Astronomy Village. It appears there are two separate groups up there, and quite a few homes built in the area. It is a dark sky haven, and both groups allow visitors and members to come up on new moon weekends. I’ve only just recently managed to get up there for a visit. The skies seemed nicely dark, but it was rainy, hazy… geez, I hate Florida summers. I’ve been invited to come up and give a talk at the fall star party in November, and the weather should be much better. I plan to stay most of the week, so that improves the odds. From a practical standpoint, Chiefland is a good bit further away (about 3 hours drive for me), but there are restaurants, and a hotel very near by. A shower from time to time is a pretty nice thing to have, and someplace to sleep during the day is an exceptional amenity anywhere.
When the mood or opportunity strikes, I also am fond of driving up to Georgia or North Carolina (and Tennessee once). Usually this is for star parties up in that area. PARI outside Asheville has nice skies, and I help organize a yearly star party up there. The state parks in Georgia are also hit or miss as far as finding a good place to image. I plan to continue to investigate up that way from time to time. Unfortunately, summer weather seems terrible for anywhere within driving distance of where I live. I don’t mind a day long drive, but I want to get a couple of good nights imaging in for the effort, and summer weather is just hit or miss within a days drive.
In September, I have a big opportunity to image in the desert out west. That’ll be an adventure and a half! Until then, I just keep checking the weather around here and hoping for a lucky break.