5 Expert Tips for the Most Spectacular Summer Stargazing
What you need to know before setting out to follow the stars.
When you're making summer travel plans, stargazing might not be top of mind. Most travelers—okay, almost all travelers—aren't thinking about the night sky when picking a destination. But you should be. That doesn't mean you need to drop $500 on a telescope and head to the nearest middle of nowhere solely for the stargazing. However, it's worth looking for good stargazing locations near wherever you're staying. That could be a national park, or if you're lucky, a designated Dark Sky Park nearby.
In a surprising number of destinations, you'll find dark skies that can add a memorable nighttime activity to your trip. Stargazing is not only an awe-inspiring experience—a lot of us have never seen a truly dark sky and might not even know it—but it's usually free and accessible.
Thrillist spoke with Pam Dyl, lead night sky photographer at Keweenaw Mountain Lodge in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and Richard Drumm, producer and editor of Astronomy Cast and the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, to get tips to help you make the most of your summer stargazing journey.
Show up Prepared
This might seem rudimentary, but you should do a little preparation before going out stargazing. Yes, part of the allure is that you can do it from almost anywhere, and it doesn't require that you spend any money most of the time. However, both Dyl and Drumm pointed out that it gets cold at night, and you're going to be sitting still for a long time. Bundle up, or have a sweatshirt available.
Drumm also suggested having some hot chocolate, coffee, or other warm drink on hand.
It's also useful, Dyl said, to have a flashlight. You'll be walking in the dark. Though, the light from a flashlight can impair your night vision for a surprisingly long time. You might consider putting a piece of red cellophane over the light, which will ensure your night vision remains intact. There are also options if you don't want to make a DIY project of it. "I've got a flashlight with a red LED in it," Drumm says. "Generally, it’s best to just turn it off, though."
You may also want a blanket or chair. It seems obvious, but it's easy to forget. Drumm recommended a lawn chair that leans back to help you take in as much of the sky as possible without craning your neck for a ridiculously long time. You'll regret that in the morning.
Pick the Right Equipment
There's always something to see in the night sky, even with the naked eye. Still, a little help is nice. "Buy a good pair of binoculars, you’ll be able to use them in the daytime as well as at night," Drumm said. He encourages you get a pair and get familiar with them. It's something he tells stargazers when he does star parties at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park.
"You don’t have to know the name of the stars or what constellation you’re looking at, but there are apps for your phone that will make determining the names of the stars and constellations you’re looking at a whole lot easier," he added. He uses Sky Safari Plus. That's not a free app. If you want to go the free route, there are plenty of free apps for iPhone and Android, like Sky View, that will help you find objects in the sky and identify the ones that stand out to you.
Pick the Right Spot
There are a few things that go into "the right spot." You can definitely look up from almost anywhere and, even in cities, you can probably see bright stars like Arcturus or the brighter planets like Venus. However, for the best experience, you want to get somewhere dark. That trips up some people because you might not realize how far our light pollution goes. You can get outside of a city and still experience light pollution from the city, which reduces the number of things you're able to see in the night sky. Find a state park or national park as a starting point if you're not sure where to go.
If you have options, Drumm suggests heading south. "Go south from whatever city you’re in," he said. "If you go south, it puts the light pollution in the northern sky. I call the southern skies, which would now be the darker skies, the parade of the cosmos. As the Earth turns on its axis, the skies in front of you, in the south, will parade by. The things in the north are okay. There’s not a whole heck of a lot to look at, but mostly the cool stuff to look at is overhead or in the south parading past you."
If you're looking for something that is low in the sky or you're going to see a meteor shower, it can also help to pick a place with a clear view along the horizon so that trees or tall buildings aren't blocking some of the sky from view.
Look for Something Specific
It can be helpful to have something in mind that you'd like to see, though it's certainly not required. A conjunction between planets, a meteor shower, or even an eclipse would be great, Dyl said. Unfortunately, those aren't things that happen every night.
Nonetheless, there's always something to see in the night sky. Use the stargazing app you downloaded or just admire the view if there's not something in particular that you're searching for.
Another option, in the northern parts of the country, is to go out looking for the northern lights. They're elusive, but sites like the Space Weather Prediction Center and SpaceWeather.com can help you determine if there's a chance to see them on the particular night you're hunting. "I tell people to go out, be patient, wait a while," Dyl said. The northern lights are a bit unpredictable. So, you need to have patience, and it's not a bad idea to plan on looking at the stars for a while.
Get Some Help
There are resources out there if you feel too lost to enjoy the night sky without a little help. There are astronomical societies and stargazing groups all over the country that host star parties. Meeting up with one while you travel can be a great way to get questions answered, find a good location (those groups know where the prime stargazing spots are hidden), and, likely, get access to telescopes.
"Type into Google 'astronomy' and let’s go with 'La Crosse, Wisconsin' or 'Yellowstone' or whatever and see what pops up," Drumm said. While the odds of being there on the night of a star party might not be great, it's worth a try. However, Drumm notes that many astronomy clubs have stopped in-person gatherings due to the pandemic. But many are starting up again or eyeing late-summer dates for their next gathering.
Another option is a guided tour. Night sky photography tours are available in a lot of places, like the workshops offered by Dyl at Keweenaw. Those kind of tours are fun, and leave you with some amazing photos to take home.
Ready to go stargazing?
Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners, the best meteor showers of 2021, or easy stargazing road trips from big US cities.