One of Michigan’s best kept secrets makes for ultimate star gazing

The Milky Way with Saturn on the right, photo taken from the front yard of the Headlands Dark Sky Park guest house. (10mm, f1.7, 25 sec, 3200 iso)

There are many secret spots in Michigan, the places you went with as a child, beautiful and unique places you’ve discovered on a road trip.

This a story about one such a place: Headlands International Dark Sky Park.

The Emmet County park, five minutes west of Mackinaw City, is one of only a handful of places in the country that has been awarded “International Dark Sky” designation.

Arizona headquartered International Dark Sky Association says of its selection criteria:

“An IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”

For astrophotographers and star gazers alike, darkness is key, no light pollution and Headlands certainly checks that box. Emmet County owns and operates the park. The County has also adopted policies to minimize light pollution in the region.

The park is home to a large modern observatory, a couple of guest houses for rent, there's even a lighthouse which is available for overnight stays. The house we stayed in sleeps 20 and sits on a cove looking SW across Lake Michigan.

We took the scenic route up, M-119 along The Tunnel Of Trees Highway.


PRO TIP: Research moon phase. Go with a new moon. That’s the time to get the most out of your visit. If you roll up, and it’s a full moon, the moon light will diminish your ability to see deep into the universe.

After arriving to the park at about 4 p.m., we got word that there was a park astronomer, and he was going to give us a private celestial tour with his Hi-Tech telescope. No charge, “but donations to the park are greatly appreciated."

NASA Ambassador Rod Cortright sets up his telescope in the front yard of the Headlands guest house.

Rod was great. A recently retired MSU academic. He was looking for a hobby and astronomy fit the bill. Rod is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He spent 3 hours with us.

Using his impressive lasers and telescope he showed things that none of us had ever seen before. Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its four moons and then his kit whirred and panned to give us a view of the galaxy Andromeda, our closest neighboring galaxy some 2.5 million light years away.

Several of us bought our cameras. We set up our tripods and within minutes we started getting pictures of the Milky Way, Jupiter & Saturn, and then something super exciting.

The Milky Way with Saturn on the right, photo taken from the front yard of the Headlands Dark Sky Park guest house. (10mm, f1.7, 25 sec, 3200 iso)

(Photo: The Milky Way with Saturn on the right, photo taken from the front yard of the Headlands Dark Sky Park guest house. (10mm, f1.7, 25 sec, 3200 iso))

PRO TIP: If you will be trying your hand at some astrophotography be sure to bring your widest angle lens.

Just as we were winding down for the evening I pointed my Canon 80D straight up, towards Pisces. Set the ISO to 3200, 24 mm lens wide open, and went with an exposure of 30 seconds -- and what I captured had Ron fizzing with excitement, “Whoa, that’s.... that’s impressive." He explained that what we were looking at was a massive meteor shower.

Turns out that at that precise moment, Earth was hurtling through the tail of a comet and all the streaks are meteors, bits of rock falling off the comet. The picture (below) is my favorite from the trip.


(Photo: As we travel through the galaxy at about 68,000 miles per hour we flew through the tail of a comet resulting in this photograph of all the meteors. (24 mm, 30 sec, f2.8, 3200 iso))

PRO TIP: Don't use a regular flashlight in the park. You can find astronomy red flashlights that will allow you to see where you're going but won't generate any light pollution.

Headlands is great for the entire family. Whether you spent a couple of hours on one of the beaches or rent one of the accommodations and make a weekend of it, sitting back, gazing deep into space and the billions of stars - it helps put things into perspective.

The Headlands Dark Sky Park is open year round. Find more info on it right here.

Group photo in the backyard of the Headlands Dark Sky Park guest house.