The Straits of Mackinac are an ideal location  for stargazing — from land or water.

The Straits of Mackinac are an ideal location for stargazing — from land or water.

Photo privided by Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry

Stargazing in northern Michigan

Metro | Published July 26, 2023


By Greg Tasker

NORTHERN MICHIGAN — If you’ve missed recent chances to see a dazzling display of Northern Lights in northern Michigan, don’t fret. There’s still plenty of opportunities to see spectacular celestial shows up north this summer.

As home to one of Michigan’s three international dark sky parks, as well as the base for night ferry cruises and kayak excursions (nearby), the Straits of Mackinac are an ideal location for stargazing — from land or water.

The darkness of the night sky near the Straits of Mackinac is rare in the heavily populated eastern United States, where upward views often are obscured by light pollution. While communities on either peninsula create a sky glow along the horizon at night, the top of the sky remains clear.

Mary Stewart Adams, a star lore historian who narrates Night Sky Cruises for Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry every summer, finds the straits a special place not only because of the darkness, but also because of the confluence of unique geographical features, including two of the five Great Lakes.

Imagine standing on the top deck of a Shepler’s ferry while anchored below the center point of the majestic Mackinac Bridge — marking the border between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron — looking west at Lake Michigan.

“When you get to the center point of the bridge, you can catch the sun setting and the moon rising. It’s quite the experience taking all of this in,” said Adams, who hosts the weekly public radio program and podcast “The Storyteller’s Night Sky.” “For me, it’s such an experience of what Michigan is all about — land, water, sky, bridge and people. … It’s so iconically Michigan.”

Begun several years ago, Shepler’s Night Sky Cruises are extremely popular and tap into a growing phenomenon around the globe — people wanting to experience starry nights and celestial occurrences. For many passengers, much of the cruise’s appeal stems from Adams, who narrates the voyage through the straits.

“She does a great job narrating and sharing information about the stars that most people don’t know,” said Sarah Carter, who is group sales and cruise coordinator for Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry. “This is not the kind of cruise where you sit back and someone just narrates in the background. It’s interactive.”

Passengers are free to move around the top deck. Adams brings along a music playlist of songs that make reference to the moon, sun or something about the night. The playlist includes everyone from George Gershwin to Eric Clapton. Passengers are handed maps of the night sky when they board; on the back are lyrics to a song.

“There’s a point where everyone sings together — we joke about when was the last time you were out on the Straits of Mackinac, singing to the sky,” she said. “When you die, you regret the things you didn’t do … so let’s belt out the song because we are here.”

For those who prefer paddling, you can join Adams on “Star Gazing and Star Lore” trips hosted by Woods & Waters in Les Cheneaux Islands. Adams said paddlers will glide through quiet bays to watch the night skies. The tours were inspired by a similar event Adams was hired for last summer.

“It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had,” she said. “The night was perfectly calm. The water was like glass. It’s remarkable when a Great Lake is that still. You could see the Milky Way in the water. It was like paddling in the stars.”

For those who prefer to watch the skies from land, Headlands International Dark Sky Park is ideal (Headlands was the first in Michigan; the other international dark sky parks are Dr. T.K. Lawless County Park in Cass County and Keweenaw Dark Sky Park in the Upper Peninsula). That distinction is given to places that offer unspoiled night-sky viewing.

About 2 miles west of Mackinaw City, the Headlands is open day and night and hosts stargazing programs throughout the summer. It’s also a great place to explore on foot — there are 5 miles of well-groomed trails amid acres of old-growth forest. The Dark Sky Discovery Trail features indigenous artwork and regional photography that interprets humanity’s relationship to the night sky over the centuries and across cultures.

Adams, the founder and former director of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, encourages do-it-yourself stargazing wherever you can find dark skies. She suggests becoming familiar with a park or landscape before visiting at night. Find the name of a constellation or star and figure out when it is in the sky and build your experience around that. You can do research about what it means, where it comes from.

“It can sound simple, but this kind of thing has an affirming quality to it,” she said. “It can directly connect us to our past, to the past of all humanity. There’s not a single culture that doesn’t have a single star lore that tells people who they are.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer. Greg’s articles focused on northern Michigan travel will appear in C & G Newspapers during the summer.


Headlands International Dark Sky Park, 15675 Headlands Road, Mackinaw City. (231) 427-1001. The website has information about programs and a guide to seeing the Northern Lights.


Night Sky Cruises

Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry has three night cruises left this season. They include Midnight Meteor Showers on August 11, 12 and 13. For more information and ticket prices, go to Shepler’s Night Sky Cruises.


Star Gazing and Star Lore

Star lore historian Mary Stewart Adams will narrate evening and night paddles in Les Cheneaux Islands. Go to Woods & Waters for details.