10 Tips for Enjoying Michigan’s Dark Skies

Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which shroud the state in near-total darkness. This makes it the perfect destination for some of the best stargazing in the nation.  

Milky Way above barn near Sleeping Bear Dunes
DH Day Farms in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

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Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which shroud the state in near-total darkness. This makes it the perfect destination for some of the best stargazing in the nation.  

Michigan has committed to establishing areas that are devoid of the artificial light commonly found around cities, which partially obscures the night sky. There are six dark sky preserves located within state parksHeadlands International Dark Sky Park and Dr. T.K. Lawless Park—Michigan's only internationally designated dark sky parks—and the pristine, quiet shoreline and forests in the Upper Peninsula. Each of these spots provides for the perfect dark sky viewing experience, and they are located all across the state. With so many spectacular locations that let you truly see the extraordinary dark sky above, you are sure to be starstruck by Michigan’s dark skies.

To be well prepared for your night of stargazing, follow these ten tips:

1. Find the Perfect Spot

Dark sky viewing in the UP
Stargazing at McClain State Park | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Once you’ve left the city lights behind, it is time to find the right spot to set up for the night. Any of Michigan’s dark sky preserves are perfect for stargazing in the Lower Peninsula, but if you are hoping to see the aurora borealis—or northern lights—as well, you’ll want to go somewhere you can see the horizon. The aurora borealis will likely appear low on the horizon rather than overhead, because of Michigan’s distance from the north pole. This makes the Upper Peninsula’s unobstructed shoreline along Lake Superior perfect for chasing the northern lights.

2. Check the Weather

To really optimize your dark sky viewing experience, you want to be sure to pick the perfect day. Choose a night with a clear sky forecast – clouds and rain could really put a damper on the night.  It’s not just the weather you should keep an eye on, either. Light from the moon can make it harder to see the stars, so avoid nights where the moon is full. Also, though Michigan’s Great Lakes help to darken the sky, their shores are often 10 degrees cooler at night than expected. This means warm clothes and lots of blankets are a must.

3. Find a Place to Stay

After confirming there will be a clear night, you’ll want to book your sleeping accommodations – such as a state park campsite – ahead of time. Luckily, Michigan’s six dark sky preserves are located in state parks, and most have camping available onsite. While Headlands International Dark Sky Park doesn’t allow you to set up camp, the park is never closed and there are many nearby accommodations for spending the night.

4. Find Art in Constellations

A constellation is a grouping of stars that forms a distinctive shape, usually that of an animal or mythological being. As the year goes on, and the earth rotates around the sun and different constellations become visible, so research which constellations can be seen overhead from your dark sky destination. This summer in Michigan, look for Virgo, Sagittarius, and the Summer Triangle. Also, Ursa Major and Minor, known as the Big and Little Dippers are visible all year long in Michigan. Since they are simple and easy to identify, they can help direct you to other constellations as well. 

5. Look for More than Stars

The Northern lights over Lake Superior
The Northern Lights over Lake Superior | Photo Courtesy of Pure Michigan

The sky is home to more than just the moon and stars. Check the orbit of the International Space Station to see if it will be visible, or learn the names of the satellites that will be gliding across the dark sky overhead. These man-made structures are visible at night when the sun reflects off their surfaces. You can also find out which planets will be visible depending on the time of year, or if a meteor shower will light up your night. It’s best to research your viewing location beforehand so that you can know what to expect, and it may give you something to hunt for as you focus your gaze among the stars.

6. Don’t Get Lost – Bring a Map

There are billions of stars in the Milky Way – and looking at a sky full of seemingly-endless stars is awe-inspiring. This is why you need a star map. A map can give you a sense of what you are looking at and help you navigate the celestial skyscape of constellations and planets. Print a map to bring with you or download an app to your phone. Either way, having access to a map while stargazing is a great way to learn about the universe above and keeps you from getting lost in the sea of stars.

7. See Far Away, Up Close

A night of spectacular dark-sky viewing doesn’t require a fancy telescope. Actually, without the proper practice and experience, viewing the sky with a telescope can be challenging. Rather than spending money on expensive equipment, bring a pair of binoculars! Binoculars can help you focus and get a better view of the stars – plus they are portable which allows you to travel easily with them in hand. Kids can also create their own telescope using common household items, like paper towel rolls, which makes for a fun craft before your trip.

8. Allow the Stars to Shine – Use a Red Light

The red lamps at Headlands Dark Sky Park
Red lights at Headlands International Dark Sky Park | Photo Courtesy of Ryan Resatka

To allow the twinkling lights of the stars to really shine, you want to avoid creating any other light that will obstruct your view. Limit the use of all your devices and flashlights, and be sure to find a spot away from other artificial light sources like street lamps if you’re not in a dark sky park. When you do need a light, use a red light. Red lights allow your eyes to stay adjusted to the darkness, while still helping you see things – such as where to walk on the trail or reading your star map. You can purchase a special red-light device, or simply tape a few layers of red cellophane over your flashlight!

9. Join a Celestial Celebration

Michigan’s stargazing and astronomy community – amateurs and professionals alike – seizes every opportunity to gather and admire the stars. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore you can join a star party atop the lakeshore’s towering dunes, bringing you closer to the sky. On the shores of Michigan near the Mackinac Bridge, Headlands International Dark Sky Park hosts many of its own events, complete with astronomer presentations, telescope demonstrations and space-themed celebrations. In August, celebrate the Perseid Meteor Shower at Michigan State Parks with Meteors ‘n Smores. Surround yourself with people whose passion for stargazing is out of this world and make your night of stargazing even more memorable.

10. Just Look Up

campers looking up at night sky
Campers Under Night Sky | Photo Courtesy of Joe Gall

The first step to viewing the night sky like never before is turning your eyes to the sky. Get yourself to where they can really be seen and look up – in Michigan, beautiful dark skies are everywhere. Step away from the hustle and bustle of your daily routine and escape to the sky’s natural brilliance. Just set up your blanket, grab a thermos full of hot chocolate and surround yourself with good company while you wait for Michigan’s dark skies to light up in a sea of stars.

Discover more amazing places for stargazing in Michigan: