Myakka River State Park
When hiking through the woods at night, it is best to leave the flashlights turned off. "Your eyes will eventually get used to the dark," I told a group of Cub Scouts huddled beneath a stand of live oaks. "It is amazing what you will see." It took a while to get the kids settled. Children of the electronic age are accustomed to nonstop visual stimulation, and many of them don't like to be parted, even momentarily, from the handheld video games that keep them constantly entertained. But as I explained, the best show on earth is, and always has been, the one that takes place each night in the sky above. For tens of thousands of years, humans have kept themselves entertained by looking at the stars.
Stargazing is easy and inexpensive, but it does take patience. It is difficult to see the planets and stars in a major city because of all the nearby lights, so unless you live in the country, you may want to head to a state park for a better experience.
Before setting out, check the weather report. Even a thin layer of clouds can ruin a night of sky watching. Also, if possible, plan the trip on or near a new moon (next one: Dec. 16). A full moon is good for a night hike, but it won't help your chances of seeing the moons of Jupiter or the rings of Saturn.
If the sky is exceptionally clear — December, January and February are known for their cool, cloudless nights — you might also be able to see the International Space Station and space shuttle if it happens to be in the right orbit.
An inexpensive star guide from a bookstore will help to identify the major constellations, including the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Orion the Hunter.
St. Petersburg's David Knowlton has been an amateur astronomer for nearly 60 years. He owns thousands of dollars worth of equipment but advises stargazers to proceed slowly.
"You can start off with a pair of good binoculars," said Knowlton, 65. "It is amazing how much more you will see than with the naked eye."
Knowlton brought his stargazing equipment – two expensive refractor telescopes (they use lenses) — to a scout campout at Myakka River State Park, but he thinks a beginner should start with a simple reflector telescope (uses mirrors).
"The department store telescopes most people buy aren't really very good," he said. "They will actually discourage, instead of encourage you, to pursue astronomy."
Knowlton, past president of the St. Petersburg Astronomy Club, suggests stargazers look for something easy to spot, such as the Andromeda Galaxy, which can be seen without a telescope, directly overhead in the night sky.
"Then you can move on to the planets," he said. "Right now, Jupiter is the brightest thing in the night sky."
Great places to see stars
Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, is far enough away from civilization to have little light pollution. The state park, one of Florida's first, has a full-service campground and several group campsites. But if you really want to take in a celestial show, head into the backcountry.
Myakka has six primitive campsites located along the park's 37 miles of backpacking and mountain biking trails. The campsites are nestled in oak hammocks, ranging in distance from 2 to 9 miles in from the trailhead, and each one can accommodate three groups of backpackers.
Call (941) 361-6511 or go to www. floridastateparks.org/myakkariver.
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, 33104 NW 192 Ave., Okeechobee, is one of the darkest places in Florida. This preserve is home to one of the largest remaining tracts of dry prairie left in the state.
The park has more than 100 miles of dirt roads for hikers, bikers and horseback riders to explore. Kissimmee Prairie also offers ranger-led buggy tours.
But it is Kissimmee Prairie's remote location that makes it one of the premier stargazing spots. On a new moon, especially on a cool, clear night during the winter, it is possible to see the major constellations with the naked eye.
Call (863) 462-5360 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/kissimmee prairie.
Collier Seminole State Park, 20200 E. Tamiami Trail, Naples, is as close as you will get to the Everglades without an airboat. Located on the coast, about 17 miles south of the city, this state park is rich in history and culture.
Visitors can see the Bay City Walking Dredge, which was used in 1924 to build the Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, which linked Tampa and Miami.
The park has a full-facility campground as well as youth/group and primitive campsites available. Wait until the sun goes down, then head to the boat launch area to enjoy the night sky. Shine a flashlight out over the water and you might see some alligator eyes shining like stars as well.
Call (239) 394-3397 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/collier- seminole.
Helpful camping hints
Before choosing a place to camp, ask if campfires are allowed. Some state and local campgrounds do not allow open fires on the ground. And even in those parks that do, drought conditions often force officials to ban open flames to help prevent forest fires.
Most organized campgrounds have fire rings. It is always a good idea to bring a shovel to clean old ashes out of the pit so air can circulate under the wood.
If the campground doesn't have a fire ring, bring your own. Cut off the bottom 12 inches of a 55-gallon drum and drill a few air holes in the side.
As you pick your fire spot, be mindful of the surrounding and overhead vegetation. Once the site for the fire has been established, set up the rest of the camp (tent, cooking area, etc.) upwind.
At most heavily used parks, don't count on finding dead wood on the ground to fuel the fire. Gather wood beforehand at a brush site or buy some split logs at a camp store or supermarket.
Oak and other hardwoods will burn long and slow, and create a long-lasting bed of coals. Softwoods, such as pine or spruce, burn quicker and hotter.
A grocery store bag of split wood costs about $5. It is always better to have too much wood than too little. If you think you will use two bags a night, buy four. Keep an extra bag in reserve.
No camping trip is complete without this classic campfire treat. Start with a bag of marshmallows, a box of graham crackers and a package of chocolate bars.
There are several variations to this American delicacy, but a tried and proven way is to toast the marshmallow until it is a delicate golden brown. Then gently place the marshmallow on a graham cracker, add chocolate on top, then cover it with another graham cracker. Now gently squeeze the crackers toward each other, wait until the marshmallow has cooled and eat carefully.