City and suburban lights have made it increasingly difficult to enjoy the night sky at its finest. Fortunately, the International Dark-Sky Association has created areas around the world that keep skies dark so that everyone can access fantastic night sky views.
Headlands Dark Sky Park in northern Michigan is one of only a few Dark Sky Parks in the Midwest, and it’s a spectacular view that’s unmissable for visitors to the area.
Why You Should Visit Headlands Dark Sky Park
The night sky, stars, and Milky Way are some of the most incredible views available to people around the world, but light pollution has increasingly made it so that many cannot see stars at all.
Specifically, more than 99% of Americans‘ night skies are affected by light pollution, and more than 80% cannot see the Milky Way, despite it being overhead every night in summer.
Dark Sky Parks are designated light-free wilderness areas to mitigate light pollution and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the night sky. Headlands Dark Sky Park is one of these parks, and it offers acres of trails and darkness to enjoy the stars every night of the year.
While there are a few different dark sky parks in the United States, the location of Headlands Dark Sky Park makes it the perfect addition to any trip to Northern Michigan.
It’s a short drive from Headlans to Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island, two of Michigan’s most popular tourist destinations. It’s also close to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, one of just four protected National Lakeshores in the United States.
Overall Best Time to Visit Headlands Dark Sky Park
Headlands Dark Sky Park is open 24/7, every day of the year, so the best time is actually any time you choose to visit throughout the year.
Most visitors to the park are in the area to visit Michigan’s other famous tourist destinations, such as Mackinac Island or the renowned state parks in the Upper Peninsula.
While summer may seem like the obvious choice for spending an evening under the stars, fall, winter, and spring offer some benefits that summer doesn’t have, making it slightly more challenging to choose when to visit.
On one hand, visiting in late summer through late spring will give you the highest chance of seeing the Northern Lights, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that few people get to experience.
On the other, winter (at least in the northern hemisphere) is better for seeing stars because there are fewer stars in the sky- making those that are visible seem brighter. There’s also less moisture in the air, which helps brighten your view of the night sky.
Summer and the warmer months will allow you to spend more time outside and are also the months when Headland Dark Sky Park hosts programs and events.
Summer is also better for viewing the Milky Way, as Earth’s angle in the Northern Hemisphere is facing the right direction.
Overall, if you’re not up for braving freezing temperatures and want to experience programs or events with Headlands Dark Sky Park, early and late summer will afford you the best balance of viewing and weather.
If your goal is to see as many stars as possible, schedule your trip for winter, and you might even get a sighting of the aurora borealis.
Cheapest Time to Visit Headlands Dark Sky Park
And during the peak season, the fee is at its highest. You can save money by booking in the off-season (November through April) when the price drops. The stargazing house is a little more affordable.
It has a slightly lower nightly fee than the guest house. The price difference may seem insignificant, but depending on the number of nights you plan to stay, you could save a decent amount of money by opting for the stargazing house.
Unfortunately, camping is not permitted in Headlands Dark Sky Park. If you don’t plan to stay in the guest house, you will need to book a hotel room nearby or stay at a campground in the area.
If you plan to stay in a hotel nearby, Mackinaw City or Saint Ignace (on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge) is your best bet. Because of the nearby beaches and Mackinac Island (another popular tourist spot), hotels can be pricey at certain times of the year.
You can save money by traveling during the off-season, particularly in May and October.
In Mackinaw City, weekends in the spring, summer, and early fall are expensive, often upwards of several hundred dollars. Hotel rooms also tend to sell out quickly, so make sure to book early to ensure you have somewhere to stay.
Because you have to cross the Mackinac Bridge and pay the bridge toll, Saint Ignace tends to be less expensive, especially during the cold season. If you plan to stay on the north side of the bridge, December, May, and April are the cheapest times of year to visit.
Least Busy Time to Visit Headlands Dark Sky Park
As a park designed to view the night sky, Headlands Dark Sky Park tends to empty out during storms or poor weather. In general, winter tends to be less busy than summer, spring, and fall.
If you have enough nerve to brave the weather (which can be close to 0, accounting for lake winds), you might even get most of the park to yourself.
If you want to visit in the summer but want to avoid crowds, later in the evenings (2 am to 5 am) on weekdays will afford you more privacy if you’re willing to stay up that late.
Worst Time to Visit Headlands Dark Sky Park
While winter and the colder season are better for viewing stars, they’re also, well, cold. Nighttime temperatures are usually below freezing in November well into April, making it hard to stay outside.
The Mackinaw City area is also notoriously snowy, typically getting more than 90 inches yearly. Unfortunately, during these times, you won’t be able to view the stars, so visiting is relatively pointless.
The coldest months in Michigan are January and February. If you were to visit at these times, you would need heavy winter gear, and even then would be subjected to suffering freezing temperatures.
Things to Consider
Here are the main things you should keep in mind when planning a trip to Headlands Dark Sky Park:
- Bring a red flashlight. The park requests that all visitors use red-filtered flashlights to navigate the park. Paths and other areas aren’t lit for obvious reasons, but traditional flashlights can interfere with other visitors’ viewing experiences.
- Headlands Dark Sky Park is not a campground. While you’re welcome to stay as long as you want, you may not pitch a tent or sleep in their facilities. We recommend choosing a nearby campsite or booking a hotel room in Mackinaw City.
- Admission is limited. To keep lights low and experiences as best as possible, Headlands limits the number of guests allowed in the park. On the best viewing nights in summer, you may have to wait in line for a spot.
- Be careful in the winter. If you plan to stay in Saint Ignace or otherwise cross the Mackinac Bridge while in the area, use caution in the winter. High winds, heavy snow, and ice can cause the bridge to close. Always check with the Bridge Authority before making plans to cross.
- It gets cold. Because of its proximity to the lake Headlands Dark Sky Park is often ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the surrounding area. Pack for a chilly night, even if you visit in the summer.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are some of the most popular questions those planning visits to Headlands Dark Sky Park ask:
When can you see the Northern Lights in Headlands International Dark Sky Park?
Auroras are strongest during spring and fall, but nights are clearest in the winter. Early spring and late fall typically have the best combination of clear-night factors and auroras to give you the best chance to see the Northern Lights.
What time of year is best to go to Dark Sky Park?
The best time of year to go to a dark sky park depends on what you want to see. Summer is the best time to view the Milky Way, while winter, fall, and spring are the best times to view the Northern Lights.
What is the best time of night for stargazing?
The best time to stargaze is in the middle of the night, as far as you can get from sun up and sundown. Most people like to stargaze from 11 pm to 1 am to minimize interference from the sun.
What is the best time for stargazing at Sleeping Bear Dunes?
The best time to see stars at Sleeping Bear Dunes is on a cool, clear night with minimum atmospheric interference. You will have the best views on dry, cold nights in winter.
Where can I see the Milky Way in Michigan?
Dark Sky Parks, such as Headlands Dark Sky Park, Dark Sky Preserves, or Isle Royal National Park, are the best places in Michigan to try and view the Milky Way Galaxy.
What months are the Northern Lights most visible?
Winter is the best time to have a good night sky view, but aurora activity increases in the spring and fall. The best months to view the Northern Lights in Michigan are November, December, March, and April.
What is the darkest place in Michigan?
The darkest area in Michigan is Isle Royal National Park. Isle Royal is an island in Lake Superior only accessible by boat or seaplane. Because of this, there are no settlements on the island, and it is incredibly dark- perfect for viewing the night sky.
What time of day is best to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are most visible between 9 pm and 2 am, so most people search the night sky from 11 pm to 12 am.
How do you guarantee to see the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are a random event, and there is no way to guarantee that you will see them. You can increase your chances by spending more time in locations where lights are visible during peak times of the year or booking a Northern Lights tour with an expert.
So, When Should You Go to Headlands Dark Sky Park?
Only a few places in the US regulate lighting to protect viewings of the night sky, and Headlands Dark Sky Park is one of the best.
If you visit in the winter, you’ll get the clearest view of the night sky and have the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis, but if you visit in the summer, you’ll stay warm and have access to lectures and events.
Whenever you decide to visit, you will be able to see the incredible view of the stars and make memories that will last a lifetime. So what are you waiting for — book your trip today!