Most in Michigan know the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, once declared the most beautiful place in America, always looks beautiful in the daylight. But stargazers quickly point out that the gem on the shores of Lake Michigan lights up on clear nights with some of the most spectacular views of the night sky anywhere. The low population around the dunes, proximity to lightless Lake Michigan, and vast beaches provide plenty of exceptional stargazing opportunities.
To show off the Sleeping Bear Dunes nighttime spectacular, the National Parks Service rolled out the “Find Your Park After Dark” campaign for 2017. Each month between April and October, parts of the park stay open late so visitors can enjoy eclipses, meteor showers, solar viewing, storytelling and more. Plus, park rangers and members of the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society are on hand for viewing tips and to answer your questions.
Here’s the full schedule of “Find Your Park After Dark” events this summer:
April 22 (9:00-11:00 p.m.), Dune Climb
Enjoy the dunes under a setting crescent moon and take the opportunity to view Jupiter and distant celestial objects. The theme of this first Star Party is “Night Sky 101,” explaining the basics of astronomy to visitors and conducting activities centered on the basics of preserving the night sky. This evening will also be the peak night of the annual Lyrids Meteor Shower (April 16-25). Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
May 13 (9:00-11:00 p.m.), Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Stop #3 Dune Overlook
The scenic overlook at Stop #3 provides outstanding views of the northern and western horizons, both in daytime and at night. Examine the moon early and then observe Jupiter and the starry skies once the moon sets. Please park at Picnic Mountain; the next right after Stop #2.
June 24 (4:00-6:00 p.m. & 9:00-11:00 p.m.), Dune Climb
On this date, two events offer you opportunities to focus on the sky. The first event’s focus is on our closest star, the sun, using solar telescopes. The second event takes place in a new moon period and is a great chance to view distant celestial objects as well as the evening planets of Jupiter and Saturn. Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
July 29 (4:00-6:00 p.m. & 9:00-11:00 p.m.), Dune Climb
Safely examine the sun up close with solar telescopes during the afternoon at the Dune Climb and then come back a little later to relax under the stars and observe Jupiter and Saturn. Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
August 12 (4:00-6:00 p.m. & 9:00-11:00 p.m.), Thoreson Farm in Port Oneida
Celebrate the last day of the Port Oneida Fair with a dual Star Party event. Finish off your afternoon with a solar viewing and then come back after dinner for a Star Party treat. Observe the beautiful summer night sky constellations, Saturn, and possibly a few bright Perseid meteors. The Perseid meteor shower is one of the very best showers to observe and this evening will see the peak.
August 21 (12:50-3:40 p.m.), Dune Climb
On this date, the continental United States will witness the first visible total solar eclipse since 1979. Even though the path of totality will arc across the central states from Oregon to South Carolina, Sleeping Bear Dunes will provide a wonderful place to see a magnificent partial solar eclipse. Safely observe this rare event with solar sunglasses.
September 23 (9:00-11:00 p.m.), Dune Climb
This event takes place only three days after a new moon, providing an excellent opportunity to observe deep space objects, as well as the planet Saturn. Please park in the row furthest from the dunes with your headlights facing M-109.
October 21 (8:00-10:00 p.m.), Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive Stop #3 Dune Overlook
This date marks the 47th Anniversary of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Celebrate the National Lakeshore’s birthday with the final Star Party of 2017. This will be a great occasion to observe the night sky, planets, star clusters, nebulae, and distant galaxies. Please park at Picnic Mountain; the next right after the Stop #2.
Each event is free to visitors with a valid park pass. Park rangers recommend packing a flashlight and bug spray. Also, you might consider bringing binoculars, a blanket, water and a beach chair.
In the event of bad weather, viewing parties will be cancelled. The decision to cancel will be made two hours in advance of the event. So please call Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at 231.326.4700, ext. 5005, for a voicemail message with the decision.
And don’t forget, Sleeping Bear Dunes isn’t the only great dark sky place in Michigan. The upper peninsula has plenty of hills, mountains and beaches that provide great viewing locations!