How many times as a kid did you head out into your backyard, lie back on the thick grass, and gaze endlessly at the countless stars in the night sky? Or, maybe it was a camping trip where you first discovered the magnificence of our universe.
Sadly, finding "dark sky," or areas where there is very little to no artificial lighting, is becoming more difficult these days. From the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, light pollution diminishes our view of the heavens.
Lucky for us, there are still places where you can get lost in the stars. With the total solar eclipse fast approaching—the first one to span the entire United States since 1776—we thought it would be a good time to share with you some of our favorite locations in Alabama to watch the nighttime sky. Remember, this is only a sampling, and you can visit the Dark Site Finder website to find a stargazing location near you.
Conecuh National Forest
The Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia is becoming known as a prime stargazing location. Within the national forest, the the Open Pond Recreation Area and Nellie Pond are two top spots to get lost in the stars. Open Pond does have some lighting for campgrounds, but overall it’s a nice place to view stars and meteor showers. Plus, it has restrooms.
For a darker sky, take a little hike to beautiful Nellie Pond. To reach the pond, park at the north trailhead on Alabama 137 in Andalusia and hike 1.6-miles. Along the bank of the pond, you’ll find ample room to set up a scope or simply sit and gaze. By the way, this is also a great place to camp, but keep in mind that hunting is allowed here in the fall and winter. For hunting season dates, visit Outdoor Alabama.
Moundville Archeological Park
Moundville Archeological Park near Tuscaloosa is best known for the 28 dirt mounds that were built by Native Americans of the Mississippian Period between the years 1100 and 1541. The park itself is a huge, flat field ringed by the mounds. Because the land is largely free of trees and artificial light, it’s a fantastic spot to view the vastness of space and all of its magic.
The park closes daily at dusk, so you’ll have to camp there to view the heavens at night. For information on camping fees and reservations, visit the Moundville website.
If you don’t want to camp, the University of Alabama Department of Physics and Astronomy hosts a public viewing night at the park about once a month.
Von Braun Observatory in Monte Sano State Park
Located atop Monte Sano Mountain, the Von Braun Astronomical Observatory was built by the famous rocket scientist Werner von Braun, who led U.S. efforts to put a man on the moon and helped Huntsville earn its nickname, the The Rocket City.
The facility was opened in 1956 and has been operated by the Von Braun Astronomical Society ever since. On Saturday nights, the observatory is open to members of the public who can pay a small $2 admission fee to see presentations by astronomers and astronauts in the planetarium. If the weather is favorable, visitors can then use presenters’ telescopes to gaze into space.
Oak Mountain State Park
While Birmingham includes large swaths of urban landscape, the "Magic City" still offers the opportunity to catch a little stardust. Each month on a Saturday near the time of the full moon, the Birmingham Astronomical Society (BAS) hosts a Star Party at Oak Mountain State Park. For each gathering, members of BAS set up their scopes at Double Oak Lake and invite the public to come out and take a gander at the moon, planets, and stars.
As the state’s highest mountain, Cheaha is one of the best places to get in a night of "dancing with the stars." If you camp at Cheaha State Park, head to the Group Camping Area on the north side of the park. Along the park’s main road, you can stargaze in a wide-open field where there’s little light to obscure your view. Plus, there are a few trees where you can suspend your hammock and relax under starlight.
To explore another great spot for stargazing, take Alabama 281 west of Cheaha State Park to a point 1 mile north of Adams Gap. On the west side of the road, you can park in a wide pull-off area that will accommodate about 10 vehicles. Because this remote area has virtually no light pollution, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the thick blanket of stars better known as the Milky Way. Many people say that, from this vantage point, they feel like they can reach out and grab a handful of the stars. If you travel in a pickup truck, throw an air mattress in the bed so you can lie back and own the night sky.
If you travel 5.5 miles east of the state park on Alabama 281, you’ll reach the Cheaha Scenic Overlook, which offers an expansive view of the surrounding Talladega Mountains. After sunset, nature begins its light show with bright planets and shooting stars.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.