Summer weather in the Midwest is a gift after months of frigid temperatures and snow, and once it starts to warm up, city slickers and rural dwellers alike flock to the most beautiful places nature has to offer. If you’re looking for the best view of the stars in the region, look no further than your nearest International Dark Sky Park. While there are over 100 Dark Sky Parks around the world, there are 78 in the U.S., six of which are situated in the Midwest.
What is a Dark Sky Park?
There are plenty of places where you can see stars better than in the city, but what makes Dark Sky Parks special is their official designation by an organization called the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). Founded in 1988 by professional astronomer David Crawford and physician and amateur astronomer Tim Hunter, the IDA is a nonprofit committed to preserving the night skies with a variety of initiatives focused on minimizing light pollution. Dark Sky Park classification means that an area is “exceptional or distinguished [in its] quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment” and is protected for future generations and at least partially open to the public.
According to the IDA, the four components of light pollution are glare, skyglow, light trespass and clutter. Glare is excessive brightness, skyglow is the brightening of the sky from areas where people live, light trespass is light falling where it is not needed or meant to be, and clutter is clusters of light sources. In addition to making it harder to see the stars, light pollution signals increased energy consumption, disrupts the environment for nocturnal animals and affects humans’ circadian rhythm. Blue light – which researchers have studied – brightens the night sky more than other colors, with a high, color temperature measurement in Kelvin. Interestingly, “cool” colors, such as blue and white, have higher color temperatures, while “warm” colors like red and orange have lower ones.
Geauga Observatory Park (Montville Township, OH)
The Geauga Observatory Park, the only Dark Sky Park in Ohio, opened in 2011 and gained its IDA designation that same year. The park district finished renovating the park’s featured observatory — the Nassau Astronomical Center — in 2017, complete with a telescope and an astronomy museum. Beyond the observatory itself, the park consists of 1,100 acres of land with trails, another science center, and activities ranging from movie nights and planetarium shows to archery classes. And, of course, there are beautiful views of the sky and events specifically for stargazing. The park incorporates downward-facing lights to minimize glare and light trespass, as well as “warm” colored red lights, which cause less damage than harmful blue light.
Headlands Park (Emmet County, MI)
Located at the tip of Michigan’s mitt along the shore of Lake Michigan, Headlands Park also received Dark Sky Park status in 2011. While camping is not allowed, the park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and visitors are encouraged to stay into the night and early hours of the morning to stargaze, with special stipulations on bright car headlights and flashlights (visitors can actually modify their flashlights with red plastic wrap to change the color of the light they cast). The park offers a variety of formal stargazing events open to the public, hosted at its Waterfront Event Center. People can also rent out the event center as well as a guest house and stargazing house for an overnight stay.
Dr. T.K. Lawless County Park (Jones, MI)
Michigan’s second Dark Sky Park, Dr. T.K. Lawless County Park, is located on the other side of the state from Headlands in the southwestern corner. Dr. Theodore Kenneth Lawless deeded the over 800 acres of land to the county in 1971, but it didn’t become a Dark Sky Park until 2019. In addition to stargazing, visitors can hike and bike, or play baseball, soccer, volleyball, disc golf and more.
Newport State Park (Ellison Bay, WI)
Newport State Park, designated as a Dark Sky Park in 2017, sits just across Lake Michigan to the west of Headlands. Spanning over 2,300 acres, visitors are welcome to come and gaze at the stars or stay overnight at one of the park’s 17 designated campsites. While it doesn’t have the same amount of formal stargazing activities as some of the other parks on this list, there is still plenty to do on site, including hiking and biking on its 30 miles of trails, as well as fishing, trapping, hunting and spending time in the picnic area.
Middle Fork River Forest Preserve (Penfield, IL)
Middle Fork River Forest Preserve became the first and only Dark Sky Park in Illinois in 2018. In 2020, the staff used YouTube to open up about the process of starting the park. They first identified the area they envisioned for the Dark Sky Park by looking at light pollution maps and measuring the sky with a Dark Sky Quality Meter. Next, they applied online with a map of the area and plans on how to manage the lightscape and change the infrastructure to preserve the sky. Changes included looking at every light bulb to make sure the color temperature was under 3,000 Kelvin, as recommended by the IDA. The staff also emphasized the importance of education that comes with an official designation. There are three different areas to view the stars: the Campground, Sugar Creek and the North Waterfowl Area, where formal Dark Sky Programs take place. Visitors may explore the trails, camp overnight, and host events in the activity center.
Voyageurs National Park (International Falls, MN)
The Midwest’s newest Dark Sky Park, Voyageurs National Park, only recently received its official designation in 2020. By day, visitors can engage in a variety of activities on the park’s lakes, like boating, fishing and kayaking. They may try to catch a glimpse of wildlife like moose, wolves or Minnesota’s iconic loon. By night, they can camp out and gaze up at the stars, and may even see the Aurora Borealis, also known as the northern lights.