It’s getting harder and harder to view and appreciate the night sky, especially if you live in the eastern United States, which is one of the most light-polluted areas on the planet.
Here in western Ohio, for example, it is now impossible to view the night sky without some amount of light pollution obscuring the view. In fact, based on the Bortle Scale, which measures light pollution and ranges from 9 to 1, with “9” being the kind of light produced by a major city and “1” being almost no artificial light, western Ohio, at best, can produce just under a “4” on the scale. Most major towns in our area, including Piqua, Sidney, Tipp City and Troy are a “6” on the scale. Greenville and Versailles are a “5.”
Unfortunately for us, it takes a “3” or less to truly appreciate the splendor of the night sky with the naked eye, including seeing objects like the Milky Way, nebulae, distant galaxies, auroras and meteor showers.
In order to experience a “1,” “2” or “3” level of darkness, amateur astronomers seek out Dark Sky zones and parks, a concept that is new to this century (2001) and that has really taken off since 2007, essentially growing into a new form of eco tourism.
In short, a Dark Sky zone or park is a natural or protected area where efforts are made to minimize light pollution and preserve darkness of the night sky. At some places, the natural environment, such as being in a secluded mountain valley (or the middle of nowhere), creates the right conditions. In other places, fences, walls and even mounds of earth are used to block ground-level light pollution. Not all Dark Sky zones are created equal, with the International Dark-Sky Association requiring a “3” or lower on the Bortle Scale to qualify as an official “zone,” with “1” being far superior and darker than a “3.”
1. Buckhorn Lake State Park in Kentucky
2. Calhoun County Park in West Virginia
3. Cherry Springs State Park in
4. Daniel Boone National Forest in
5. Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Michigan
6. John Glenn Astronomy Park in Ohio
7. Lake Hudson State Park Recreational Area in Michigan
8. Mammoth Cave National Park in
9. Moon Hollow Trailhead in Ohio
10. Muskallonge Lake State Park in
11. Observatory Park in Ohio
12. Perkins Observatory in Ohio
13. Port Crescent State Park in Michigan
14. Rockport State Recreation Area in
15. Schoonover Observatory in Ohio
16. Warren Rupp Observatory in Ohio
17. Watoga State Park in West Virginia
There is no place in Ohio to experience a “1” (not even in the middle of Lake Erie) and, depending on which online light pollution map you use, there is possibly only one small area in the state where a “2” can be experienced. It’s a little patch of land in the middle of Shawnee State Forest, just west of Portsmouth near the Ohio River. It is not a designated Dark Sky zone, but it has several public spaces that offer unobstructed views of the night sky. This includes the Moon Hollow Trailhead parking lot (part of the Buckeye Trail), where backcountry camping is available in this secluded, dark valley.
Not far from the trailhead is the Copperhead Lookout Tower, a public feature that offers 360-degree views of the state forest—and night sky.
Places where a “3” (and slightly lower) can be experienced in Ohio include the area around Serpent Mound State Memorial and nearby Tranquility State Wildlife Area, as well as throughout Vinton Furnace State Forest and at the Wolf Creek Wildlife Area.
However, compared to places like The John Glenn Astronomy Park in Hocking Hills State Park (pictured below) and, even more, Observatory Park (northeast Ohio), both of which are official Dark Sky parks, these rural areas have little to offer stargazers in the form of accommodations, tools and bells and whistles.
The John Glenn Astronomy Park, which opened in 2018, on the other hand, has much to offer.
Located not far from Old Man’s Cave, this astronomy park has a small observatory that features a retractable roof. This allows for unobstructed views of the night sky and even lower Bortle scales than already offered in this rural part of the state. Under the guidance of park staff or volunteers (at designated times), visitors can use several public telescopes at the observatory to view the night sky.
The observatory also contains a circular plaza with a number of celestial markers built into its design. For example, at the center of the plaza is a small sphere that sits atop a post (pictured at left). The sphere represents the cosmic scale of the Earth as compared to the bench it sits upon, which represents the size of Jupiter. The walls of the entire plaza, then, represent the size of the Sun in comparison.
If you look through a small circular “window” in the Earth sphere, it will lineup with a tall flagpole and sphere located at the entrance of the plaza. The tall sphere looks at the spot in the sky at the very center of the Earth’s rotation. Within this view is the North Star, Polaris, which allows stargazers to acclimate themselves to the night sky and to locate various constellations and planets.
Finally, if you visit at sunrise or sunset on the first day of each season (solstices and equinoxes), you’ll be able to watch the rays of the sun shine through special gaps in the plaza wall and fall upon the Earth sphere in the middle.
John Glenn Astronomy Park is free to visit and open to the public during non-program nights. Programs are held often and are centered on celestial events, such as full moon rises and meteor showers. A full list of events can be found at jgap.info.
Observatory Park, located near Montville (and pictured above), was the first official Dark Sky park in Ohio, and it’s probably the most elaborate. The park, which spans 1,100 acres, is surrounded by Amish farms and communities, which obviously helps alleviate the level of light pollution in the area. Like John Glenn Astronomy Park, Observatory Park contains an observatory with public telescopes and special programs. But what really makes it stand out are the unique astronomical features scattered around the park, all of which pay homage to mankind’s enduring fascination with the sky. This includes a giant sundial, a set of cornerstones that replicate the size and scope of the astronomically aligned Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, earthen mounds that echo the solar and lunar alignments of the Hopewell Indians in Ohio, henge stones similar to Stonehenge in England, and access to the Nassau Astronomical Station, which is one of the largest publicly funded telescopes in Ohio. Visitors also enjoy planetarium shows and exhibits at the McCullough Science Center and a series of hiking trails that contain educational exhibits. In essence, it’s like a miniature astronomy theme park!
A full list of stargazing events at the park can be found at geaugaparkdistrict.org.
While these two parks are certainly the most user-friendly, there are other hidden astronomy gems to be discovered in the Buckeye State.
One such gem is the Warren Rupp Observatory, located near Mohican State Forest in Richland County. It is considered the world’s largest amateur operated telescope and run by the Richland Astronomy Society. It is located on the grounds of Hidden Hollow (a retreat) and open to the public on the first Saturday of every month (March through November), as well as during special events and programs. If there is minimal cloud cover on public nights, guests will have an opportunity to view through the big telescope, at no cost. For a more expansive/expensive experience, take part in the annual Hidden Hollow Astronomy Conference in September, where guest speakers discuss a variety of astronomical topics and guests stay in cabins on the property. Learn more at wro.org.
LEFT: The Warren Rupp Observatory, photo from the observatory. RIGHT: Perkins Observatory, photo from the observatory
There are two other observatories in the area that offer public viewing events. Schoonover Observatory is operated by the Lima Astronomical Society. Every Friday night in the summer they open their telescope for public viewing. Learn more at limaastro.com. The other is Perkins Observatory in Delaware, which requires guests to purchase tickets for numerous stargazing events and workshops, including the annual Celebration of the Sun in July. Learn more at owu.edu.
Finally, there are several state parks in Ohio that either have astronomy parks, such as Portage Lakes, or that are secluded enough that visitors can enjoy fairly unpolluted skies. This includes Burr Oak, Cowan, Jackson Lake and Jesse Owens state parks.
Beyond Ohio, and not far for most readers, are a number of places where a “3” or less on the Bortle Scale can be experienced, as well as plenty of “2”s and one “1.” Some of the locations are astronomy parks similar to Observatory Park in Ohio and others are simply very dark places, often in the middle of dense Appalachian forests, along the shores of the Great Lakes or in the middle of large farming communities.
Dark Skies in the Region
Mileage calculated from Tipp City, Ohio
Muskallonge Lake State Park | 550 miles away
29881 Co. Rd. 407, Newberry
According to most Dark Sky sources, there is only one place in the eastern U.S. to experience at “1” on the Bortle Scale, which is Muskallogne Lake State Park, located in the Upper Peninsula on Lake Superior, and No. 10 on the map at right.
In actuality, the shores of Lake Superior are an excellent place to appreciate the night sky, including the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights.
A unique lodging option at the state park is Caboose Style Cottages.
Lake Hudson State Park Recreational Area | 140 miles away
5505 Morey Highway, Clayton
The closest official Dark Sky preserve for most readers is Lake Hudson State Park (No. 7 on the map), located just north of the Ohio-Michigan border. Because of its popularity as a Dark Sky destination, the otherwise quiet park is open 24 hours a day. Other features at the park include camping, a swim beach, hiking and boating.
Headlands International Dark Sky Park | 460 miles away
15675 Headlands Rd., Mackinaw City
Located at the very tip of lower Michigan, this is both a beautiful and dark place to visit. The park hosts a number of special events and programs throughout the year. Learn more at midarkskypark.com.
Rockport State Recreation Area | 430 miles away
Located in the lower part of Michigan, but in its secluded northeast area, this recreation area with hiking trails (but no camping) is a great place to see an unobstructed sky. A boat dock is accessible at the park and is used by water-faring stargazers. Another nearby dark locations is Thompson’s Harbor State Park in Michigan.
Port Crescent State Park | 320 miles away
1775 Port Austin Rd, Port Austin
This park is located at the top of the “thumb” of lower Michigan where Saginaw Bay meets Lake Huron. Along with the dark lake, the entire region is mostly farms and small towns that emit very little light.
Brockway Mountain | 762 miles away
If you want to try to get a great view of the Northern Lights ((pictured below, photo by Phil Stagg), Brockway Mountain is about as far north as you can get in the United States. Located on the shores of Lake Superior, the Dark Sky Park is very secluded. However, there is lodging at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge and Fort Wilkins State Park, which is an historic attraction itself.
Note: Visit Spaceweather.com to watch for updates on when the Northern Lights will be visible.
Cherry Springs State Park | 430 miles away
4639 Cherry Springs Rd., Coudersport
The Gold Standard of Dark Sky parks in the eastern U.S. is Cherry Springs State Park, located not far from the border with New York in Susquehannock State Forest. In reality, the entire state forest region is very dark (a “2” or less) and can be enjoyed at any number of secluded campgrounds, backpack and equestrian trails and lodges and cabins in the region, as well as by snowmobile in the winter. However, the most astronomy friendly place in the area is definitely Cherry Springs State Park.
Consisting of 82 acres, the park offers two kinds of astronomy experiences. Those stopping in for only the evening are encouraged to use the giant Night Sky Public Viewing Area on one side of the park while visitors planning to observe through the entire night are encouraged to camp on the other side, which requires a small fee. Park rangers host a number of special programs throughout the year.
Calhoun County Park | 240 miles away
380 Park Pl., Grantsville
Located in the foothills of western West Virginia (and pictured below), this county park has become one of the top destinations for amateur astronomers in the region. It contains large clearings where camping and stargazing are available, as well as indoor facilities that can be accessed in the winter months. If you’re looking for a place that’s really away from it all, and that has crisp-clear skies, Calhoun County Park is where it’s at. READ MORE
Watoga State Park | 350 miles away
4800 Watoga Park Rd., Marlinton
Deep in the heart of eastern West Virginia, this state park is a great place to camp and stargaze, as is almost anywhere in nearby Calvin Price State Forest and at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park.
Buckhorn Lake State Park | 260 miles away
4441 KY-1833, Buckhorn
Welcome to one of Kentucky’s most secluded and darkest state parks (and regions), not far from legendary Hazard County.
Daniel Boone National Forest | 200 miles away
This massive national forest is not an official Dark Sky zone, but plenty of dark areas can be found in the region, many that are a “3” or less on the Bortle Scale.
Mammoth Cave National Park | 260 miles away
Mammoth Cave is the only Dark Sky designated site in Kentucky, as well as one of the newest (it joined in 2021), and offers a variety of stargazing and astronomy programs for visitors.