Discover Michigan: Let the stars guide your travels

Dark sky preserves are prime destinations for stargazers

By: Jennifer Sigouin | C&G Newspapers | Published July 5, 2017

 The new Waterfront Event Center and Observatory — with outdoor seating, a shoreline staging area, restrooms and telescopes — is scheduled to open this summer at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.

The new Waterfront Event Center and Observatory — with outdoor seating, a shoreline staging area, restrooms and telescopes — is scheduled to open this summer at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.

Photo provided by the Headlands International Dark Sky Park

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How can you wish upon a star if the stars are hard to see?

Light pollution in large metropolitan areas such as Detroit can limit what’s visible in the night sky, but luckily for stargazers, better viewing options aren’t far away.

Several Michigan parks now have state-designated dark sky preserves that aim to restrict artificial light, preserve natural darkness and provide spectacular views for visitors.

“Thankfully, these designations have started a conversation about the dark sky,” said Maia Turek, statewide recreation programmer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “And I think, for many people, considering the night sky as a natural resource is a rather new concept. Woods and waters, yes. But the dark sky? That’s a new idea, and people are pretty excited about it.”

One of the most notable sites is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City — the only park in Michigan that’s officially designated by the International Dark Sky Association.

According to Headlands Program Director Mary Stewart Adams, when Headlands received its International Dark Sky Park designation in 2011, it was only the sixth park in the United States — and ninth in the world — to do so. The park also won the 2017 Pure Award at this spring’s Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

“There are now over 40 such parks, and we’ve been an integral part of the growing awareness about why protecting natural darkness is so important today,” said Adams.

Headlands is located on 2 miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline, and it contains 550 acres of woodlands with native wildlife, rare plant life and 5 miles of trails. Above all, Adams noted, visitors most enjoy the park’s “incredible views.”

“Sitting on the shore to take in sunsets and wait for starshine, catching the northern lights, wishing on falling stars — these are all favorite experiences noted by visitors,” she said.

This summer, visitors will find some new features at the park too, as its Waterfront Event Center and Observatory — with outdoor seating, a shoreline staging area, restrooms and telescopes — is set to open soon. As part of its Dark Sky Park designation requirements, Headlands also offers ongoing year-round public programming, including its Lights Out Northern Michigan event Aug 11, which coincides with the Perseid meteor shower.

“We get the communities of Mackinaw, St. Ignace, Petoskey and Harbor Springs to compete in seeing which can get darkest during the meteor shower — and even the Mackinac Bridge Authority joins us by turning off the cable lights on the bridge,” said Adams.

She added that Headlands will also have its solar telescope ready for the biggest celestial event of the year: the “Great American Solar Eclipse” on Monday, Aug. 21. In addition, she said, stargazers should keep an eye out for Jupiter and Saturn this summer, as well as beautiful moonsets throughout the year.

“My favorite stargazing nights of the year at Headlands are always three or four days after new moon, when the waxing crescent can be seen after sunset, and then you get to follow it as it sets into the lake,” said Adams. “This is what makes Headlands such a terrific viewing spot.”

Elsewhere in Michigan, stargazers can visit dark sky preserves at six state parks: Lake Hudson Recreation Area in Clayton, Negwegon State Park in Harrisville, Port Crescent State Park in Port Austin, Rockport Recreation Area in Alpena, Thompson’s Harbor State Park in Rogers City and the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in Ontonagon.

Turek noted that some of these locations, along with other state parks across Michigan, celebrate the Perseid meteor shower each summer by hosting Meteors & S’mores events. Participating parks will stay open past the usual 10 p.m. closing time Aug. 12-15 and will offer free s’mores and special programs.

“The Perseids peak this year Aug. 12 and 13, but are visible during a two-week time frame,” said Turek. “Before the kids go back to school, it’s a great time to make a late summer tradition they won’t forget.”

And for travelers visiting Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer, there’s no need to seek out a dark sky preserve to see brilliant nighttime skies — all you have to do is look up. Turek explained that, by nature, most of the Upper Peninsula already meets the criteria for a dark sky destination.

“That makes it a great place to visit for urban dwellers who want to be wowed by the night,” she said.

For more information on Michigan’s dark sky preserves, visit www.michigan.gov/darksky; to learn more about the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, visit www.midarkskypark.org; and for details on participating Meteors & S’mores locations, along with other state park events, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks.

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