You don’t have to travel far to find the perfect spot for your next sky watching experience.
Stargazing is a great way to spend an evening with friends, family or a significant other, but there are a few things you need to know before you set out for the nearest cornfield.
The first thing to research before setting out on a stargazing adventure is the weather. If it’s a cloudy or rainy night, the stars won’t be visible no matter how hard you look.
Make sure to monitor the weather beginning a couple of days in advance either online or via TV. When the time comes to set out, there are many useful apps to help you keep up to date.
After checking the weather for a clear forecast, the next step is to find an area with a dark night sky free of light pollution. Light pollution is the brightening of the sky due to man-made lights such as street lamps. The lights are great if you are trying to drive at night, but inhibit the viewing of stars, planets and other night sky phenomena. This means you will have to travel away from large city centers in order to have the best experience. Thankfully, in the Valley, we have plenty of views of a clear night sky.
Sometimes weather apps will also have a feature that shows users a real time light pollution map, but if not, there are plenty of online resources available to help you navigate to a dark area.
After you determine that the sky is clear and dark, you are pretty much good to go. The only question that remains is of where to go.
The most common problem you will come across when looking for a place to stargaze is that most public lands close at dusk or soon after to avoid vandalism. We know you’re not there for the wrong reasons, but the police might not.
Perhaps the easiest way to find your perfect stargazing spot is to poke around within your group of friends and see if anyone owns any rural land. This is an easy way to know that you aren’t breaking any laws, plus you might even add a few more people to your stargazing party.
If that yields no results for you, don’t despair, luckily, there are a few places that allow nighttime visitors and overnight stays for free or cheap.
Here are the best public places to stargaze near you:
McFarland Park, Florence, AL
McFarland Park near downtown Florence is a great spot for amateur stargazers because, while it is still close to the city, the sky gets pretty dark in the campground area. Plus, you don’t have to be a camper to enjoy the park until 11 p.m. If you do want to camp, fees start at $14 per night.
Joe Wheeler State Park, Rogersville, AL
Joe Wheeler is a little farther away from the comfort of the city, but it is a beautiful place to hang out day or night. They do ask that visitors support the park with a $4 fee, but non-campers can be in the park until 10 p.m. which leaves just enough time to see the stars and get home for a little Netflix. If you do want to camp, fees start at $16.50 per night.
Natchez Trace Parkway Colbert Ferry Park, Cherokee, AL
The Natchez Trace offers many scenic overlooks that are available to hikers during the day, but most are not night-time friendly. Colbert Ferry Park features a free campground for bicyclists that make it a great place to stay overnight. Not only does it offer a spectacular view of the Tennessee River during the day, but clearings allow campers to see an abundance of stars at night. If you like cycling and stargazing, this campground is for you.
Natchez Trace State Park, Wildersville, TN
The Trace spans a vast majority of north Alabama and south-central Tennessee, so if you’re not near Cherokee, have no fear. Natchez Trace State Park is a great place for Tennessee locals to see the stars. There is plenty of room to hike to your ideal stargazing destination and even an overnight trail if you’re interested. Non-campers can enjoy the park until 10 p.m. and if you decide to spend the night under the stars, camping rates start at $15 a night.
University of North Alabama Planetarium, Florence, AL
The UNA planetarium offers an up-close view of the stars from the comfort of air conditioning. The Planetarium hosts weekly public events that include information about constellations and an opportunity to use the telescope. Events start at 7:30 p.m. and UNA students can participate for free — it’s $3 for all others.
Henry Horton State Park, Chapel Hill, TN
This state park is smaller, but more centrally located. Plus, it still offers a great view of the night sky. Visitors can stay in the park until 10 p.m. and with more than 10 miles of hiking trails, the stargazing possibilities are endless. This park is also ideal for bikers. Overnight camping fees start at $11.
Of course, when camping or stargazing in the wild, always be sure to go in a group and bring flashlights and other safety tools.
Now that you’ve got the resources, it’s time to plan a trip and get under the stars.
Check out these helpful apps for your next stargazing adventure:
Scope Nights – This app tells you the perfect weather conditions for stargazing in your area using aspects like humidity, moon phase and temperature. The app even recommends locations using NASA’s light pollution map so you can be sure your view is clear.
Night Sky 2 – Getting you coverage on everything from cool and clean visuals to information about the constellations you see before you. Not sure what you’re seeing? Night Sky 2 has you covered. Using a vast database and GPS monitoring, this app will tell you exactly what you’re looking at, like a true astronomical friend.
NASA – The obvious one. This app updates to let you know when you can catch a glimpse of the International Space Station, countdown features for launches and frequent updates on all things space tech.