Astronomers say that the Milky Way — that thick swath of stars that stretches across the dark night sky — isn’t visible for 80 percent of the people who live in North America. For many, the bright city lights cause the beauty overhead to disappear.
If you live in a light-flooded landscape, consider leaving the lights behind, perhaps on a one-with-nature trip to a national park, to find out what you are missing. Shenandoah National Park, on the western end of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, offers some of the region’s most unadulterated views of night skies and has several programs to help visitors appreciate them.
The lack of artificial light, along with crisp skies that accompany the park’s higher elevation, bring the constellations into clear view.
“We’ve had many people tell us that our program was the first time they ever saw the Milky Way or realized that’s even what they were looking at,” said Debby Smith, interpretive operations supervisor at the more than 300-square-mile park. “A lot of people are nervous about stargazing on their own, because they’re not sure what they’re looking at.”
That’s one of the reasons the park offers a series of free “night skies” programs from May to October. Visitors who are camping under the stars or lodging nearby can join amateur astronomers — volunteers from local organizations like the Charlottesville Astronomical Society — for a closer look at the sparkling skies and an explanation of what they see.
The monthly programs take place on the third or fourth Friday of each month, with the exception of August. The August event is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 12, so that participants can view the Perseid meteor shower taking place that evening.
The stargazing begins after dark at Big Meadows, across from the visitor center. With the help of telescopes and laser pointers, new and experienced stargazers can view and identify the constellations that might be obscured by lights near their own backyards.
They’ll also catch a glimpse of why protected spaces like Shenandoah National Park are important for preserving the views that people enjoy both day and night. While Shenandoah is perhaps best known for its Skyline Drive, which offers breathtaking vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its nighttime sights have become another claim to fame.
For the National Park Service’s centennial last year, the park expanded its late-night offerings into a weekend-long Night Sky Festival. Smith said that one of the stargazing events, offered simultaneously at three locations in the park, drew 1,100 people.
“It was just really cool to see that many people interested in having a nighttime experience in the park, interested in stargazing,” she said. “When the event ended, we had visitors say, ‘When is next year’s?’ ”
For that reason, the park will host another Night Sky Festival on Aug. 18-21, ending on the last day that a rare solar eclipse should be visible from the park. The programs will include the opportunity to view what should be a partial solar eclipse from the park’s perspective with the help of a telescope, solar shield and protective glasses.
The weekend also will provide an overview of the park’s night sky-related programs, including guided nature walks and lessons on why national parks are becoming refuges for both people and animals from the “light pollution” of nearby cities.
“A lot of people don’t realize what a great location Shenandoah provides, especially Big Meadows, because there’s just no artificial lighting around to interfere with the viewing,” said Helen Morton, director of sales and marketing for Delaware North, a hospitality concessioner at the park that provides both lodging and programming for visitors.
Visitors to the park who want to go beyond Astronomy 101 have still more programs to choose from during the peak summer months.
On guided twilight hikes that take place from May to August, Shenandoah Mountain Guides lead participants on a one-mile tour to explore how Big Meadows, its creatures and sky change with nightfall. Guides focus on the unique ecosystem of the meadow and encourage participants to engage all their senses as they watch the sun give way to stars.
“You go out into the meadow and hear frogs and other animals and see the night sky. It’s a full sensory experience,” Smith said.
The tour costs $12 per person and begins at 6:30 p.m. at Big Meadows Lodge. Reservations are required and pets are not permitted, though the hike is appropriate for most ages.
While most of the stargazing activities depend on cooperative weather, one bimonthly event takes place rain or shine on select Monday and Thursday evenings from May to November.
This event, now in its fourth year, gets a boost from Greg Redfern — a NASA Jet Propulsion Lab Solar System Ambassador. Redfern helps visitors connect their night sky experience to space exploration. The program begins indoors with photos astronauts have taken in space, lessons on the impact crater that lies beneath the Chesapeake Bay, or NASA’s newest mission to the moon. Then Redfern leads participants out under the stars for discussions that are part science and part folklore, as the weather permits.
“People give rave reviews about his presentations,” Morton said.
Redfern, who lives in Charlottesville, calls Shenandoah National Park “an oasis in the middle of civilization” and says he would be stargazing there even if he weren’t leading the classes. But his favorite part is showing participants of all ages how space and stars go hand-in-hand.
A kickoff for Redfern’s programs on May 12 will include a lunchtime presentation by former NASA astronaut Tom Jones, who has flown four space shuttle missions.
After spending much of his career as a celestial navigator aboard a Navy vessel, Redfern became a NASA ambassador to continue pursuing his dual interests in space exploration and astronomy. He started hosting the programs at Shenandoah as a way of sharing those interests “with people who already like nature, because they’re at a national park,” Redfern said.
“If you appreciate nature by day, you’ll appreciate nature by night,” he said. “They call it sleeping under the stars for a reason.”
Redfern helps participants brush up on their constellation identification skills while sprinkling the outdoor portion with history, science and facts about the park. He hosts similar presentations each month at Peaks of Otter Recreation Area west of Lynchburg, VA, one of the few other places in the region where night-sky splendor can be found on full display.
Smith said other national parks, such as Acadia National Park in Maine, Great Basin National Park in Nevada and Joshua Tree National Park in California offer night sky programs at locations far from city lights. But there are few other places to enjoy such a view in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“For this area, Shenandoah National Park is one of the best places that you can see the night sky,” Smith said. “It doesn’t have to be a perfect night to be able to learn about the skies and appreciate the importance of having some darkness in our lives.”
Details about all of these programs are available at GoShenandoah.com/activities-events/astronomy.
- Night Skies: Programs take place on May 26, June 23, July 21, Aug. 12, Sept. 22 and Oct. 20 at Big Meadows (mile 51, inside the Rapidan Camp gate). Free to park visitors (a seven-day park pass is $25 per car). A blanket, chair and flashlight are recommended. Call 540-999-2222 the day of the event to make sure it has not been cancelled due to inclement weather.
- Let’s Talk About Space: Free bimonthly presentations about outer space and astronomy take place on select Sunday and Thursday evenings, May through November, by NASA Solar System Ambassador Greg Redfern. Sunday presentations begin between 8 and 9 p.m. at Skyland and Thursday presentations begin between 8 and 9 p.m. at Big Meadows Lodge. The website (address above) provides a full schedule and list of topics.
- Twilight Hikes: Dates for these hikes will be posted on the website (address above). Follow a Shenandoah Mountain Guide on a hike through Big Meadows from 6:30 p.m. to about 10 p.m. Meet at the grassy circle in front of the main lobby of Big Meadows Lodge (mile 51 on Skyline Drive). Cost is $12 per person. Reservations are required; call 877-847-1919.
- The Night Sky Festival: Special programs take place the weekend of Aug. 18–21, including views of a partial solar eclipse.