N. Michigan observatory extends sky-gazers’ reach

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Mackinaw City — One of the best views of the heavens is tucked away here in the tip of the Mitten.

Featuring more than two miles of undeveloped shoreline along Lake Michigan and 600 acres of trails and old-growth forest, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park boasts one of the darkest skies in upper Michigan, undiluted by light pollution and preserved by Emmet County.

The dark sky park’s latest crown jewel is its newly opened $9.3 million observatory and event center that began welcoming visitors this month.

“This equipment allows us to give students, guests and photographers exceptional opportunities to photograph the sky and its many wonders,” said Mary Stewart Adams, program director of the park.

Park officials say interest here has been strong — an estimated 40,000 visitors came to the site in 2015 — and that inspired discussions and visits with other astronomers in Michigan along with schools and astronomy clubs as to how to best use the park.

From these discussions came the idea of building the observatory to further extend the vision of the creators of the park. The project was paid through bonds issued by Emmet County and work began in August 2015.

Almost two years later, the Waterfront Event Center opened to feature 2,500 feet of meeting space with public restrooms, a commercial kitchen as well as the star of the project, the observatory.

That facility showcases an 18-foot Ash-Dome and a 20-inch PlaneWave telescope. Additional equipment include a six-inch Takahashi telescope for near celestial objects and a solar telescope.

The PlaneWave telescope is computer operated and displays deep-space objects onto large, flat-screen monitors throughout the facility, allowing large groups to view the images away from the small dome and telescope.

Gary Appold, assistant administrator for Emmet County, will operate the telescope at the park during the free open viewing nights. The first session is to be held on Saturday.

“We use a SkyX computer program, and the computer searches and finds deep-space objects as we type in the coordinates,” Appold said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Emmet County Parks and Recreation Director Laurie Gaetano added they consulted with the Bloomfield Hills’ Cranbrook Institute of Science and “astronomers throughout the state along with museum directors from Grand Rapids, Michigan State and Eastern Michigan University to decide what telescopes to purchase.”

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In the last few decades, viewing the Milky Way and constellations has not been an easy task for Michiganians. With population growth and the expansion of man-made lighting, the night sky has slowly become polluted with stray light.

Since 1988, a growing effort to preserve dark skies has increased awareness through the designation of International Dark Sky Parks and Preserves. Michigan has been an active and vocal leader in dark sky preservation, culminating in the 2011 designation of Headlands International Dark Sky Park.

Adams worked on obtaining the designation, which came from the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona.

After all of the work was completed, the park became the sixth International Dark Sky Park in the United States and ninth in the world.

The 600-acre parcel is operated as a county park after it was purchased by Emmet County in the mid-1990s. The McCormick family of Chicago, Illinois, had owned the property for decades and wanted it to remain open to county residents and visitors. An existing summer home became a guest house, available for rent year-round.

Adams has become a steward for natural darkness. She and other volunteers have worked with the State of Michigan to protect dark skies and help establish six dark sky preserves covering 35,000 acres of state land.

The preserves do not have the same requirements as a dark sky park but are places that feature good celestial viewing and offer to visitors the knowledge of dark sky designations.

“I believe with all my heart that we can restart our imagination by being under a dark sky,” Adams said. “The telescopes and technology will only help to enhance this self-discovery.”

‘Enlightening experience’

On Friday, visitors walked and drove to the property after midnight, as the sky sparkled with the Milky Way and millions of stars.

A hundred or so visitors wrapped in blankets and carrying cameras enjoyed the use of a telescope brought in by a visitor earlier in the evening.

Viewing of the planets Jupiter and Saturn highlighted the evening along with occasional meteors.

Bill Erickson, 69, of Elk Rapids said the dark sky park was a “charming and enlightening experience.”

“I was absolutely impressed as the azure sky turned to total and complete darkness ... then watching the stars appear,” he said. “It was impressive how quiet visitors were, awed by the beauty of the night sky.”

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.

The Headlands International Dark Sky Park

15675 Headlands, Mackinaw City, MI 49701

The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a week at no cost. Some programs require a ticket and fees vary.

More information can be found at or by calling (231) 348-1704.