Starstruck Year-Round

Michigan’s newest international dark sky park joins a cluster of fabulous celestial observation sites around the state
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The nightime heavenly views at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge’s new Dark Sky Park are stunning. // Photo courtesy of Keeweenaw Mountain Lodge/Dark Sky Park

The pitch-dark skies south of Copper Harbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have been noticed.

The location has “ideal conditions for observing the night sky,” the International Dark-Sky Association proclaimed in June, as it named the area at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge an official international dark sky park. The Keweenaw Dark Sky Park is Michigan’s third.

Come fall, as days get shorter and nights get longer, the heavens are putting on a show. All you have to do to see it is look up. “In the winter it gets dark at 4:30 p.m., and it doesn’t get light till 9 or 9:30 in the morning,” says John Mueller, owner of the lodge, which is located on 560 acres just a mile from town.

Mueller bought the lodge and surrounding property from Keweenaw County over the past four years. He says both the northern lights and the Milky Way are sharply clear when nature cooperates. And when you watch the show on moonless nights, you’ll be awestruck by the profound, ancient panorama above.

“Quiet and darkness and clean air really help you,” Mueller says. “We want to see more designated dark sky parks in the Upper Peninsula.”

Once upon a time, before electricity and pollution, everywhere on Earth was worthy of being called a dark sky park. People told time and fortunes by the stars, predicted events, and saw magical creatures overhead.

These days, with lights everywhere, the world’s remaining dark places are more treasured and more scarce. An estimated 99 percent of Americans live under  “sky glow,” an artificial brightening of the night sky that makes stars hard to see. In some places — think of the blazing lights found in big cities such as Detroit and Grand Rapids — people are lucky if they can see the moon and Big Dipper.

But billions of stars are up there, and planets, and constellations, and the sparkling belt of the Milky Way. Many people need a dark spot to remember what the night sky really looks like.

The Headlands International Dark Sky Park near Mackinaw City, one of the state’s more extensive facilities, is located along the Lake Michigan shoreline. // Photo courtesy of Pure Michigan

Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Depression-era WPA, has cabins for rent year-round, as well as low-key events focusing on night sky viewing and photography. Even visitors who don’t stay overnight are welcome to visit the dark sky park. Bright lights at the resort have been replaced by muted, downward-facing anti-glare lights. The main attractions are silence, trees, and the big sky overhead.

“People relax and see things they haven’t seen in years — the stars and constellations,” Mueller says.

Copper Harbor isn’t the only place in Michigan where you can snag a dark sky view. In fact, Michigan now has three international dark sky parks, plus six state dark sky preserves, and you can drive just 90 minutes west of Detroit for the experience.

A favorite spot for amateur astronomers is the Lake Hudson State Recreation Area. The park, in rural Clayton in Lenawee County, near the Ohio border, is a Michigan Dark Sky Preserve. It has simple campgrounds and a nice swimming beach, but its real claim to fame is the extremely dark sky overhead.

Head to the parking lot near the lake on a clear night and you’re likely to find amateur astronomers with giant telescopes setting up. Luckily, you don’t need fancy equipment; even binoculars will help you see the celestial sights.

The other super-secret spot — until it became an International Dark Sky Park in 2020 — is the Dr. T.K. Lawless County Park, in tiny Vandalia in southwest Michigan. Run by the Cass County Parks Department, it features a wide night sky and plenty of stars glistening above.

Other spectacular opportunities are on the Lake Huron side of the state. A trio of state parks — Negwegon, Thompson’s Harbor, and Rockport, near Alpena — are dark enough to offer fantastic star views, especially looking east over the lake.

Port Crescent State Park in the Thumb’s Port Austin also boasts fine star-viewing, as does Wilderness State Park in Carp Lake. Finally, the popular Headlands International Dark Sky Park is just west of the Mackinac Bridge, and perches on two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan coastline. The park’s popular night sky programming lasts through fall, says Jamie Westfall, park manager. But as winter descends, she adds, only hardy astronomer types show up for stargazing.

“We don’t have official programming in the winter, but we keep the trails open and groomed for cross-country skiing,” she says. The park even has two houses for rent, year-round, for anyone who wants a quiet, internet-free stay. Sleep well, stay warm, and stargaze as you wish.

In fall, the constellation of Orion, the hunter, rises. He guards the skies in Michigan throughout the winter. Look up, and if it’s dark enough, you’ll see him.

PLAN IT!
Where to find dark sky sites in Michigan:
Headlands, Mackinaw City
Dr. T.K. Lawless, Vandalia
Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, Copper Harbor
International Dark-Sky Association
darksky.org

Michigan Dark Sky Preserves
Lake Hudson Recreation Area, Clayton
Port Crescent State Park, Port Austin
Negwegon State Park, Ossineke
Rockport State Recreation Area, Alpena
Thompson’s Harbor State Park, Rogers City
Wilderness State Park, Carp Lake
Search for dark sky at michigan.gov.

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