From dark sky preserves to notable sky-watching events, find out the tips and tricks to exploring all Northern Michigan’s night sky has to offer.

30-second exposure of the Milky Way and shooting star at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Photo by Thomas Bos.

Where to Find Dark Skies in Northern Michigan

There are dark sky preserves, places protected from light pollution, within six state parks in Michigan.

  1. Lake Hudson Recreation Area | Lenawee County
  2. Negwegon State Park | Alcona County
  3. Port Crescent State Park | Huron County
  4. Rockport Recreation Area | Presque Isle County
  5. Thompson’s Harbor State Park | Presque Isle County
  6. Wilderness State Park | Emmet County

Additionally, Northern Michigan has one internationally designated dark sky preserve, Headlands International Dark Sky Park, in Emmet County. Headlands is a 550-acre county park located two miles west of downtown Mackinaw City. The website banner reads “Grounds Open 24/7/365”—best hours ever.

Visit michigan.gov/dnr for more information, and make reservations for camping under starry skies at midnrreservations.com.

Aurora Borealis at Eagle Harbor. Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

Notable Northern Michigan Sky Watching Events for 2021

May 6 & 7, 2021 | Eta Aquariids Meteor Shower
The shower runs annually from April 19 to May 28. It peaks this year on the night of May 6 and the morning of May 7. It’s capable of producing up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak, though most of the activity is seen in the southern hemisphere. In the northern hemisphere, the rate can reach about 30 meteors per hour.

July 12 | Venus-Mars Conjunction
Venus and Mars will be visible through a backyard telescope at the same time. Once your eyes adjust, it should be easy to see both planets unaided. “The venus-mars close approach will have those two planets about a half-degree apart (about the width of the full moon),” says astronomer Jerry Dobek, head of both the sciences and astronomy departments at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City.

August 12 & 13 | Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks
These meteorites are the residue of the comet Swift-Tuttle, and at peak can fall at a rate of up to 60 per minute. Since they’re traveling fast, they appear especially bright and colorful. “Both the Eta Aquariiad and the Perseid showers should be nice viewing this year,” Dobek says. “The Eta Aquariids will have a bit of moon interference, but the perseids fall under a waxing crescent.”

Virtual Viewing | Students from Northwestern Michigan College’s Astronomy Club and the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society are hosting virtual public viewing nights the first Friday of each month due to the pandemic. For more info, and updates on when in-person events will resume, visit the official Grand Traverse Astronomical Society website.

November stars over Hurricane River. This beach is never the same, and every visit is special for this reason. This image was shot using an astro-modified camera, which is highly sensitive to light. Photo by Marybeth Kiczenski.

Comet NEOWISE shoots across the night sky over Elk Rapids in July 2020. Photo by Allison Jarrell.

When to View the Superior Planets in Northern Michigan

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune— the Superior Planets—are among the most distant cosmic objects visible from earth. They’re clearest when they’re in opposition to the sun (in other words, when they’re hiding from the sun behind earth).

Look for them on:

August 2 | Saturn
A medium-sized or larger telescope will allow you to see Saturn’s rings and a few of its brightest moons.

August 19 | Jupiter
A medium-sized telescope should show you some of the details in Jupiter’s cloud bands, and good binoculars will allow you to see Jupiter’s four largest moons.

September 14 | Neptune
Use a medium-sized telescope for a view that’s “anything better than star-like,” Dobek says.

November 5 | Uranus
Again, a medium-sized telescope would be helpful; it will appear as a tiny blue-green dot in all but the most powerful telescopes.

Most of the Upper Peninsula offers wonderful dark sky viewing; look up from almost anywhere. On a dark sky map of the United States, the U.P. is hard to differentiate from lakes Michigan and Superior. Say yah do the Yoop, eh?

– Section by Michigan author and night sky enthusiast Ellen Airgood.

Mission Point star trail. Photo by Tyler Leipprandt of Michigan Sky Media.

Find this article and more in the May 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse Magazine delivered to your door each month.