As the world came to a halt amid the pandemic, we noticed a bright spot, literally: clearer, sparkling night skies. A walk along the Cape Cod coastline was a revelation. So. Many. Stars! Perhaps it was the drought (and lack of cloud cover) that made the skies look so bright, or perhaps we were just paying more attention. We’re not alone. “Astrotourism is really taking off,” says Andrew Bossie, executive director of the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Water. The group’s virtual event, “Stars Over Katahdin,” drew more than 400 people.
Things may not be looking up, but people are.
If you haven’t taken the time to notice, do it now. There’s a meteor shower coming up, the Quadrantids (Jan. 2-3), that you won’t want to miss.
And you might want to head out of town. Our electrified lifestyle throws major shade on stargazing. One third of the human population cannot see the Milky Way at night due to the glow of artificial light, according to the International Dark Sky Association. Founded to preserve and promote the protection of the night sky, the association recognizes locations with relatively less light pollution.
Up for a road trip? One of the best places for stargazing in the eastern United States, according to the association, is Cherry Springs State Park in Coudersport, Pa. About seven hours west of Boston by car, the park rewards starry-eyed visitors with views of meteors, satellites, and the Milky Way. If that’s too far to travel, here are some star-studded spots in our neck of the woods.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Patten, Maine
As of May 8, we have our own “International Dark Sky Sanctuary,” and the first on the Eastern Seaboard: Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine. And it is spectacular. “Last night, I saw four meteorites, including the brightest one I’ve seen in years,” says Bossie of the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters.
This 87,563-acre site, about five hours north of Boston, has no commercial power sources within its boundaries, creating the largest contiguous area of dark skies east of the Mississippi River. Astronomers use the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale; a 1 out of 9 is totally dark, the darkest skies on earth. The skies above Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument are rated 2 on the scale, indicating a typical truly dark site where the Milky Way can be seen by the unaided eye. Only remote places such as Antarctica have darker skies.
“In such darkness, you can see objects millions of miles away,” Bossie says. “Faced with the awesomeness of the night sky, you feel the enormity of the universe.”
The best spots to view these inky, star-splashed skies include the Katahdin Loop Road Overlook, and Haskell and Big Spring Brook huts. “You can ski the groomed cross-country trails near the huts and get totally off the grid,” Bossie says. “Come on a clear, moonless night with low humidity, dress warmly, and bring a hot toddy or cocoa with you” for a magical night under a blanket of stars. www.nps.gov/kaww
Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, Maine
“Acadia is a great place to see the night sky, especially in winter when the air is at its clearest,” says Earl Brechlin of Friends of Acadia. The park’s position on the coast, far from major urban centers, means very little light pollution. Moreover, “Bar Harbor and the town of Mount Desert have converted to LED street lights designed to focus the light down, not up,” he says. The town adopted dark sky-compliant lighting in all new developments and major institutions, and homeowners and businesses owners have retrofitted many of their buildings with appropriate fixtures.
Thanks to reduced glare, the summit of Cadillac Mountain (reachable by car) is a great place to stargaze. Or head to the Jordan Pond House and walk to the shore for great views of Polaris and the Big Dipper to the north, Brechlin advises. You can see the Northern Lights above the Bubbles (a rock formation) on the far end of the pond.
Note that the Cadillac Summit Road and the Park Loop Road (other than Ocean Drive) are closed to cars in winter, starting in November. One lane of Ocean Drive gets plowed; the other is reserved for cross-country skiers and snowmobiles. Jordan Pond House is reachable via Seal Harbor. “Folks are welcome to snowshoe, walk, ride fat-tire bikes, ski, or snowmobile on the closed portions of the Park Loop Road,” Brechlin says. “Admire the sky and then zip back to your lodgings for a hot apres-sky beverage.” www.nps.gov/acad
Maria Mitchell Association’s Loines Observatory, Nantucket, Mass.
Located 30 miles out to sea, “Nantucket is a perfect place to view the spectacle of a winter night sky,” says Dr. Regina Jorgenson, director of astronomy at the Maria Mitchell Association, an island science center.
The association operates two observatories, the historic 1908 Vestal Street Observatory and the more modern Loines Observatory. Both sites are closed to the public due to COVID-19, but the association offers private, small group constellation tours with a professional astronomer on request. They’ll also host virtual experiences this winter, weather permitting. Participants will see telescopic, real-time views of the planets. “Currently, we are lucky to be able to view Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars during the night. And right now Mars is at its closest approach to Earth, which means that the view is particularly clear and interesting,” Jorgenson says.
Loines Observatory is a prime spot for Milky Way watching, but really, the entire island (other than the middle of town) is a star-seeker’s paradise. “I recommend heading to a southern or eastern shore beach and just laying down a blanket and looking up,” Jorgenson notes. Another great spot is the middle moors, well away from neighborhood lights.
Long, cold winter nights might not be everyone’s favorite, but astronomers are fans. “The long night means that it gets dark early enough to enjoy stargazing without having to stay up too late, and the winter weather conditions create crisp, clear nights” that are ideal, Jorgenson says.
Northern Skies Observatory, Peacham, Vt.
Stargazing at this observatory in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom is a stellar experience, even though the facility (and its array of telescopes) isn’t currently open for public events. Operated by the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation, the observatory site is located “in a place so rural, nights here solidly score a 3 on the Bortle scale. Some even rate a 2,” depending on conditions, says Bill Vinton, the foundation’s secretary/treasurer.
Amateur stargazers are invited to use the site independently (BYO telescope); it’s located near Groton State Park, at an elevation of 1,260 feet, reachable via a short walk from the Peacham Elementary School. “Skies might be darker in Groton State Forest proper, but getting good views of the skies there can be a bit of a challenge” due to tree cover, Vinton says. Eventually, when public events are a “go” again, visitors can see quasars as far as 11 billion light-years away. For now, “come see shadows cast by the Milky Way, and indulge in night-sky therapy,” he says. www.nkaf.org
Here’s some advice, courtesy of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters:
- Invest in a red flashlight or cover your phone light with red cellophane. Blue and white light affect your night vision.
- Check moon phases before you go. Avoiding a full moon is best.
- Bring a chair or blanket to sit on.
- Check cloud cover before you go.
- Bring binoculars or a telescope.
- Download a stargazing app such as Skyview or Star Walk 2.
- Bring a compass to help locate stars and constellations.
- Give your eyes 30 to 45 minutes to adjust to the dark.
- Find the North Star to orient yourself.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com