Starry Nights in the Shenandoah Valley
September 16, 2021
Imagine kicking back and watching the sun’s last rays slip away to be replaced by the night’s first stars. As the sky darkens, entire constellations slowly appear until it feels like you are in an absolute sea of stars. Never experienced this? You’re not alone. All the electricity brightening our homes and towns has caused so much light pollution that, according to Shenandoah National Park, “roughly 80% of people in North America cannot see the Milky Way.” In many places in the country, it never really gets dark.
Residents of the Shenandoah Valley are lucky, though. We don’t have to head out west or around the world to see some amazing sky shows. In fact, Virginia has some of the best stargazing on the East Coast, especially as you move away from the towns and cities causing light pollution. Read on for how to find some of Virginia’s darkest skies.
Dark Sky Parks
Dark Sky Parks have been born of an effort to preserve night sky heritage, prevent energy waste, and protect the nocturnal environment for generations to come. These parks and public places must be nominated and undergo a rigorous application process to demonstrate that they “meet specific criteria for promoting conservation of the night sky and educating the public on responsible lighting practices and the effects of light pollution.”
In the spring of 2021, the Shenandoah Valley and the International Dark-Sky Association welcomed two new Dark Sky Parks. To the north, near Front Royal is Sky Meadows State Park, which holds monthly family-friendly Astronomy for Everyone sessions. A Junior Astronomy program hosted by NASA JPL sparks interest with engaging information for all audiences. Next, depending on what’s happening in the sky, visitors might learn about astronomical events, mythology’s relationship to the stars, or get to peek through a local astronomer’s telescope. The park normally closes at dusk, but stays open late on these nights.
Further south, Natural Bridge State Park boasts a wealth of dark, starry nights, low light pollution, and a protected nocturnal environment. Visitors climbing the Skyline Trail to Jefferson Point can find a number of observation locations with clear, open views. Check NBSP Events for dates the public has after-dark access to the trail. These events include new moons, meteor showers, planets at opposition and more. Join the festivities during one of December’s Luminary Nights. Visitors can also enjoy an illuminated nighttime walk along Cedar Creek and under the natural bridge. Don’t forget to reserve your spot in a horse-drawn carriage. Click here for more information on Dark Sky Parks.
Photo Credits: Steve Shires
Other Dark Places for Gazing
Shenandoah National Park is stunning in both the day and in the night. On clear, moonless nights, the stargazing is phenomenal from many of the 70+ scenic overlooks. Head into the park at entrances near Front Royal, Luray, Elkton, or Waynesboro and set out along the Skyline Drive on a crisp, clear, fall night and enjoy those magical views of distant worlds.
Photo Credit: Scott Turnmeyer
Not only can you camp at Shenandoah’s Big Meadows, but the park service offers free Night Skies programs to the public on select Friday nights. You’ll need binoculars, but you’ll learn about the constellations and about controlling light pollution. Other options at Big Meadows include a guided twilight hike through the changing colors of dusk (reservations and fee required) or a select Wednesday night lecture by amateur astronomer, Frank Perfetti. Look for the recurring Night Sky Festival that takes place in the late summer and includes educational programming and chances to see the stars with guides.
Further South, you can access the Blue Ridge Parkway from points in Augusta and Rockbridge County. The Parkway’s remote location means there’s not a lot of light pollution, so on a clear night, you can see about 2,500 stars. Good spots to park are the Humpback Gap Overlook at Milepost 6 and Big Spy Overlook at Milepost 26.4. Park and turn off your lights. Don’t worry if you don’t see anything at first — your eyes will adjust after a few minutes.
If you’re in the western part of the Valley, hike or drive to the top of 4,393 ft. tall Reddish Knob for spectacular panoramic views of Virginia and West Virginia or night views of the sky. Elliot Knob is the tallest spot in Augusta County and it’s a steep 8.5-mile round trip, but if you choose to tackle it, it’s worth your trouble for the incredible views east, west, and up. You can’t go into the old lookout tower, but you’ll find a pair of campsites at the top.
Open between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., 4-acre Reservoir Hill Park is a good bet for catching sight of some stars in downtown Staunton. One of the highest points in town, the quiet and secluded spot is good for spreading your blanket and gazing up.
Keep an eye on the calendar for your chance to join the Shenandoah Astronomical Society at UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm and for full moon walks, nocturnal animal walks, and chances to look through high-powered telescopes at stars, planets, constellations, and more.
Head out with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club at Great Meadow on one of its scheduled public nights. Watch for the Shenandoah Astronomical Society’s upcoming meetings and public stargazing events like Star Parties at Maurertown’s Shenandoah County Park.
The Shenandoah Valley Stargazers club is headquartered in Harrisonburg. They hold regular viewing sessions at Stokesville Observatory. Beginning stargazers will find their webpage full of information on moon phases, dark skies, and useful links. Although JMU’s normal schedule of free movies and star shows at John C. Well’s Planetarium is currently closed for Covid, check out the website for resources including maps of light pollution and details about future offerings.
How to Sleep Under the Stars
If you’re hoping to get a peek at your own, private sky, reserve a weekend for your crew at Clarke County’s 36-acre working Blue Hill Farm (Millwood). This historic farmhouse and cottage can handle up to 17 guests and has beautiful fields, gardens, and an apiary.
You won’t miss seeing stars from any one of Shenandoah County’s mountaintop rental homes and cabins. You’ll find lots of options with wide open views of the sky and limited light pollution. Accommodations range from rustic cabins, chalets, overlooks at the bear den, glamp pads, and backcountry camping. Stargaze from any of the 25 windows in Sacred Haven, a brand new tiny home with incredible views, including those from the skylight in the closet! You might also like The Bear Den, a comfy cabin with panoramic views on the edge of Shenandoah National Park.
What better way to combine stargazing than with a weekend of camping at Natural Chimneys Park & Campground? Enjoy the pool and public spaces, hike the trails, admire the limestone towers, and when night falls, lose yourself in the sky.
While Waynesboro’s six public parks close at dusk, you can enjoy both the nightlife in town and the galactic nightlights with a getaway at the nearby Iris Inn. Perched in a quiet spot overlooking the Valley, the balcony of your luxury cabin will offer a stunning view of the night sky. You can even watch the constellations from your private hot tub.
Tips for Stargazing
- Pick a night without clouds or a full moon.
- A telescope is great, but binoculars, or even naked eyes will do in a pinch.
- Bring a jacket or dress in layers.
- Give your eyes time to adjust.
- Use a red flashlight so your eyes can adapt.
- Orient yourself with a star chart or use a stargazing app.
Photo Credit: Scott Turnmeyer