As avid photographers and budding astrophotographers, we have wanted to visit Headlands International Dark Sky Park for several years. It finally worked out for us to go there on one of our recent trips and it was a very different experience than what we expected.
This dark sky park has two main purposes. The first is to be a teaching location so that the general public has the opportunity to learn more about and appreciate what’s in the dark skies above our heads.
The second is the working observatory which is busy taking photos for various scientific endeavors.
Headlands Dark Sky park isn’t just for astronomers or people who are comfortable with viewing the night sky. It’s for everyone.
But there are some IMPORTANT rules that you need to know before you go to make your experience and the experience of everyone else as enjoyable as possible.
Want to see how things went during our visit? Check out the video below.
Here are the Do’s and Don’t of Visiting Headland’s International Dark Sky Park.
1 – Bring a red headlamp
There are signs when you first enter the park warning that white light isn’t permitted at night and they aren’t joking. It’s vital that you bring a red headlamp with you so that you can see to pack up your chair and safely walk back to your car when you’re ready to leave.
It will be extremely dark and there are no lights so this piece of fear is a MUST. Make sure it only has a red light with it or it will be too easy to accidentally switch to the white light while fumbling around in the dark.
2 – Arrive before sunset
There will be a lot of people to try to walk around and through so it’s best to arrive before sunset so that you have time to choose a good spot. This is also good etiquette because other people are trying to pay attention to the program and you don’t want to be a distraction.
3 – Park with headlights facing away from the observing area
Unless you are the last person to leave, you will have to start your car and turn on your headlights at some point. The light from the parking lot DOES reach the observing area so it’s best to park with your lights facing the back of the lot to keep from angering people.
4 – Visit around a new moon
A new moon occurs every month when the Moon is between Earth and the Sun, causing the side of the Moon that is in shadow to face Earth. This means that the days leading up to and away from a new moon are the darkest so more astronomical objects are visible.
This makes it a lot easier to see more of the stars and planets that are traveling around above our heads.
1 – Use any white light
This bears repeating. If you turn on a white light you will upset the other observers as well as the docents affiliated with Headlands.
When we visited the park, there were several times that someone accidentally turned on a white light and it became quite contentious. They were asked to leave the park immediately.
2 – Try to use your cellphone
It’s easiest to leave your cellphone in your pocket or at home. If you must bring it with you, be sure to buy a red film for the display and turn down the brightness setting as much as possible so that you don’t disturb people around you.
It’s amazing how far the light from a phone travels when it’s completely dark otherwise.
You can purchase a red cellophane square from the Headlands gift shop but it’s probably best to have it installed before you arrive because it isn’t always available.
3 – Set up your chair on the cement circle
We learned this one the hard way.
The cement circle is where the astronomers from Headlands will set up their telescopes. They focus on different objects throughout the night and allow the public to light up and view them.
So the cement area will be quite busy.
It’s best to sit on the tiered grassy area around the cement circle so that you aren’t in the way. You can also choose to bring a blanket or a chair and set up in the surrounding area.
The astronomers use a green laser pointer to point out various objects in the night sky and to talk about them. They talk fairly loudly but you don’t want to move too far away or you won’t be able to hear their explanations.
4 – Attempt to do astrophotography
We also made this mistake on our first visit to the park. While this is an official dark sky area, there are other places in the vicinity that are just as dark and won’t have as many extreme white light restrictions.
It’s always good etiquette to minimize white light when others are around so that you don’t ruin people’s night vision. But we found several isolated areas in nearby Wilderness State Park that were a much more relaxing location for astrophotography.
If you do want to take some photos, bring along a blanket or a large coat that you can use to view the back of the camera without any light leaking out to disturb the people around you.
Dennis did get this nice picture of the Milky Way core while we were there.
1 – You don’t need to bring a telescope
Like I said above, there will be docents who bring telescopes for the public to look through and who also point things out in the night sky. If you want to bring your telescope with you, you can.
But it’s certainly not a requirement.
2 – There will be crowds
This is especially true if you visit during the summer during a new moon if the skies are clear. We were shocked at how popular this dark sky park was during a new moon in August.
The Headlands website says to expect a 30-90 minute wait once the parking lot fills up. This is another reason why it’s best to arrive well before sunset for easier parking.
3 – There are bathrooms which are open 24/7 year round
This was a pleasant surprise! Having a husband who dabbles with astrophotography means I have had to get used to not having access to a bathroom for long periods of time.
The bathrooms at Headlands were family style and they were large and clean. The lights inside the building also had red film on them to keep the lights from disturbing any observers.
4 – You can scope out the park during the day
Headlands has a lovely giftshop and a lot of information inside the Waterfront Event Center.
Sometimes, it is rented out for a private event. But if it’s open, it’s definitely worth checking out during the day.
The surrounding paths and lakeshore is also a beautiful area that you’ll want to check out. It’s always nice to get your bearings before heading somewhere new at dusk or in the dark.
When we visited Headlands International Dark Sky Park we weren’t fully prepared for what we would encounter. The next time we go, we’ll leave our cameras and phones at home and will immerse ourselves in the experience of the public program.
Experiencing skies that are darker than we’re used to is incredible and we will definitely plan more trips to this location in the future.
For more information about Headlands or to learn about upcoming events, visit their website: https://www.midarkskypark.org/