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G5 Solar Storm

A giant solar storm allowed us to see the Aurora Borealis from Colorado. It was a spectacular event that gave a great showing. The last time a solar storm this powerful happened was in 2003, so I knew I needed to go out to capture it. I had been getting notifications from NOAA all day about how powerful the storm was, and I was hoping that it would hold out through the night for me to peek at such a unique phenomenon that rarely visits Colorado.

At 9:30, I drove an hour and a half to the Pawnee Grasslands to hike a little bit of the Pawnee Buttes trail. When I got to the trailhead around 11 pm I was not the only one who had that same idea. There were several dozen cars along the road car camping and spectating as well as a nearly full parking lot with an additional 20+ cars.

I figured if there were this many cars up here that the showing was good, but before I left the warmth of my car I took a shot from inside using my steering wheel as a tripod. That first photo showed me a beautiful green sky with the silhouette bathroom outlined in the foreground. With just one photo I went from being skeptical of if this long drive would be worth it to being ecstatic and needing to get out there to start taking photos with something a little better in the foreground.

I got out there right as the moon was setting. The moon was just a sliver in the sky about 12% full. With the moon on the horizon, it was a gorgeous addition to the framing. But by the time I got my camera set up, I only got about 5 photos before the moon was gone. All 5 of those photos had the moon overexposed and weren't good enough to share. But I wish I had paid attention to the moon when deciding when to head out for shooting.

The area was busy but not packed. The Pawnee Buttes trail has lots of open space where people could spread out. There were spectators in lawn chairs simply watching, camera-phone photographers with silly phone tripods, amateur photographers (like myself), and serious photographers. Surprisingly, I didn't have to go far to be alone. Where the bulk of the people were was an area with a terrible foreground. The foreground from the meadow by the trailhead was only a few bumps on the horizon from the bluffs in the distance but nothing special or interesting. I knew from previous experiences here (in the daytime) that it was a short half-mile hike to the canyon where the Bluffs were in the direction of the Aurora. I was shocked that no one was in the canyon with me photographing (at least that I know of), but I won't complain about having that area to myself.

I was out shooting for about 2 hours including the hiking and didn't get home until nearly 3 am. The show was the best right before midnight when you could see the solar radiation rippling across the sky. That radiation line was a bright line spanning the entire horizon from East to West that would quickly shoot across the sky starting from the Northern horizon and ending straight up. These ripples lasted about 15 minutes before calming down. I've never seen anything like it.

Trailhead Location
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1.84 mi 2.1 hrs 5,281 ft 154 ft
View Graph
Lone Windmill
Incredible Showing
Northern Lights Panorama
Star Trails
Lips Bluff