Header Image Photo Credit: MEDC/Pure Michigan
Where in the Petoskey area can you go to chase the northern lights, watch meteor showers, take a hike on almost 600 acres of land, learn about astronomy, attend photography workshops, and hold a wedding or other large event?
The Headlands Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City—just a stone’s throw from Wilderness State Park and the Mackinac Bridge—hosts all of this and more family-friendly events in northern Michigan.
The Headlands has been designated with the International Dark Sky Association since 2011. At the time it was only the sixth dark sky park in the country, but Park Manager Jamie Westfall says that now it’s one of hundreds of parks joining the effort to keep light pollution to a minimum in some areas.
Light pollution refers to an excess of artificial lighting—like street or house lights, or commercial lighting—that brightens the night sky and makes it difficult to see stars and planets. It can also negatively affect wildlife, making dark sky parks special refuges. “We get a lot of people from areas where there’s a lot of light pollution, and they’ve never seen the Milky Way,” explains Westfall. For those who’ve never looked through a telescope and seen a planet, galaxy, or nebula, the Headlands is a rare and special place.
If you’re visiting the region from a brightly-lit urban area, why not visit Headlands and take a look at what you’re missing?
Warmer months at the Headlands
Opportunities at the Headlands vary seasonally, with some programs only available from spring through fall. It’s a popular destination for folks visiting the Mackinaw City area, or locals wanting to explore the wonders of the night sky. Make sure to check the Headlands events calendar for updates to their programs.
Emmet County Programming and Sales Coordinator, Austin LaVigne, schedules the weekly presentations that usually take place on Wednesday nights at the Headlands, with Northern Michigan Astronomy Club members often lecturing throughout the year. Some highlights for 2023 include presentations on the Big Bang, comets, the Northern Lights, special effects photography, binocular astronomy, and more.
“I’m always learning something new and interesting, that’s why I like the programs,” says LaVigne.
Rod Cortright is the manager of the sky docent program and a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Solar System Ambassador. An experienced educator and astrophotographer, Cortright has led outreach programs at the Headlands for years. He describes the sky docents as a group of astronomy volunteers who take visitors through night sky tours using telescopes. They’re usually around on Wednesday nights after programs and Sunday nights.
“We also have a resident astronomer available in the summertime who brings out telescopes and interacts with people,” says Cortright.
Another treat is the solar telescope, which is occasionally set up during the day so visitors can look at solar flares and sun spots.
Year-round at the Headlands
Hiking & Winter Sports
The park is open 24/7 year-round, with over five miles of hiking trails through old-growth forest and along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. Westfall and staff do their best to keep the trails groomed in winter, and cross-country skiing is a popular pastime in the park.
The Discovery Trail will be a hit for families and folks interested in the history of humanity’s fascination with the night sky. The one-mile paved trail connects the Headlands entrance to the Dark Sky Viewing Area. Along the trails are “cultural docents” and interpretive signage to help visitors understand the vital importance of stars and planets in history and culture.
Come to the Headlands during daylight hours for nature viewing. Westfall says she feels like she’s a million miles from town when she’s at the park, surrounded by deer, foxes, golden eagles, and loons on the bay. “It’s an incredible piece of land to call your workplace,” she says.
Planning an event? The Waterfront Event Center can host large events. Click out the “About” tab on the Headlands website for more information or call 231-427-1001.
More than just a telescopic view
Westfall calls the Headlands Dark Sky Park an absolute necessity. “It’s more than just looking through a telescope and seeing a planet or a galaxy or a nebula,” she says. “It’s the whole experience of coming here in the company of others.”
She often witnesses small groups of people gathered on blankets underneath the night sky. There’s a hushed murmur of soft voices as they gaze upwards. “It’s like there’s a concert and the performer is the sky and nature, the sunset and the waves right here on the shore,” she says. “It’s just magical.”
Know before you go
First-time visitors to the Headlands without a solid plan can end up disappointed. Park staff made the following suggestions to optimize your time at this premier dark sky park.
- Check the weather. One of the most common mistakes is coming out to see the stars on a cloudy night.
- It can be chilly at night, so bring an extra warm layer or blankets.
- For outdoor viewings, such as meteor showers, bring something to sit on.
- The trails, viewing areas, and restrooms are open 24/7. Facilities are only open to the public during programs or by private rental.
- Arrive early for programs. The parking lot is relatively small, and the line to enter the park can be long. There is overflow parking across the street at Heritage Village, and guests can enter on foot.
- Park with your headlights facing away from the shoreline and viewing areas.
- Bring a red-filtered flashlight for navigation around the park. White light can obscure the view of the night sky. You can cover a regular flashlight with red plastic wrap for a DIY red filter.
About the Author: Jen DeMoss is a newcomer to the Petoskey area and loves northern Michigan. You can catch her paddling a canoe, hiking a trail, or swimming in Lake Michigan as often as the weather cooperates. She’d love to help you make the most of your time in this paradise she now calls home.