Virginia has some pretty spectacular stargazing options year-round, so look for a clear night, grab a sweater, flashlight, and blanket, and head to one of these star parties, special events, or observatories to channel your inner astronomer.
Note: even observatories with professional equipment are weather dependent. Always check the forecast before you plan a stargazing activity.
The Milky Way as seen from Shenandoah National Park. Photo by John H. Messner.
Free of light pollution and development, Shenandoah National Park is one of the best destinations for stargazing in Virginia. Greg Redfern, a NASA-affiliated astronomy professor, leads engaging weekly “Let’s Talk About Space at Shenandoah” presentations followed by outdoor night sky viewings on Sundays at Skyland and Thursdays at Big Meadows Lodge. Special events focusing on rare celestial occurrences also take place throughout the year.
Staunton River State Park and James River State Park are two of only 64 parks in the world designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The parks have a strict outdoor lighting policy that ensures an exceptionally dark sky, which draws astronomers from across the country each spring and fall for multi-day star parties.
Situated on 12,000 acres of southwest Virginia mountain splendor near the Blue Ridge Parkway, Primland Resort offers some of the East Coast’s best stargazing. If the high altitude and remote location of the property aren’t enough to convince you, what about the on-site Observatory Dome where a resident astronomer leads nightly Tour of the Universe programs using the resort’s Celestron 14″ telescope? The tour starts with an outside demonstration of constellations and planets (weather dependent) then moves to mind-blowing topics like star formation and star death, galaxy formation, and the grand scale of the Universe.
Virginia Living Museum
The Virginia Living Museum’s Abbitt Observatory offers daytime observations of the Sun, as well as periodic nighttime views of the stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies and other celestial wonders, through a variety of professional astronomy tools, including a 16-inch Meade telescope. Star parties with portable telescopes are held on the second Saturday of each month and during special events, depending on the weather.
The University of Virginia’s McCormick Observatory was dedicated on Jefferson’s birthday in 1885. At that time the observatory housed the second largest telescope in the world. These days it’s a modern facility used for UVA courses and public outreach programs. Public Nights last two hours and include telescope observations, audio-visual presentations, museum exhibits, and tours. Public Nights are scheduled on the first and third Friday of each month. Call (434) 243-1885 for the Public Night Information Line.
Meadowkirk’s Brinton Observatory features a 12” Meade telescope offering stunning views of the Solar System, stars, and some deep space objects during the 1 to 1.5 hour Stargazing Nights programs. Topics range from novice to advance and must be reserved ahead of time.
The Keeble Observatory facilities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, are open for public viewing sessions weekly on Wednesday evenings, 7:30 – 10:00 pm – September through May, as weather and viewing conditions permit. For details, call the Keeble Information line or contact Prof. George Spagna.