It was just minutes after the sun’s final, faint rays disappeared from the sky when I saw the first meteor streak overhead. I was lying on my back next to a crackling campfire. The meteors appeared more frequently as the night wore on.
By midnight, the Perseid meteor shower was living up to its reputation, showing at least a meteor every minute. Cheers exploded from campsites hidden from my view when particularly spectacular meteors carried long trains over the tree line. I may have been camping by myself, but I wasn’t alone.
Of course, the darker the skies, the more you will see when stargazing. Those rare, truly dark skies provide the best chance to see deep-sky objects, shooting stars, the northern lights and the Milky Way.
But even the most ambitious can’t drive up to Superior National Forest for the consummate stargazing perch every time something fun is happening in the night sky. Meteor showers don’t care if you work in the morning. Many wonder-filled celestial events can be enjoyed simply by escaping the intense light pollution of cities, even if they won’t be quite as spectacular as they would be under darker skies.
There are lovely places to stargaze within an hour of the Twin Cities. Here are a few recommendations just a short drive away from Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“I can’t say [that] loud enough,” says facility director Merle Hiltner. “It is probably the best place for anybody kicking the tires and wanting to see what astronomy or [night sky] viewing is about. It’s the place to be.”
Stargazers of any experience level are welcomed. “Anybody can wander around the park, but the building itself is only open by request or during public star parties,” Hiltner says. The parties are held every other Saturday, with some exceptions, from March to November. During these events, MAS provides telescopes, occasional speakers, and space for you to enjoy the night sky’s wonders.
Afton State Park
Afton State Park is close to the Twin Cities but has plenty of public space perfect for stargazing. It also has campsites, allowing for a quick overnight getaway with the stars.
If you’re not into the relative roughing it of setting up a tent, Afton also has yurts and cabins that make it an even lighter lift to enjoy a night of stargazing.
The park closes at 10 p.m. every night, so in the darker months, there are opportunities to pop in for a look at the night sky rather than undertaking a full camping excursion. With later sunsets in the summer, the opportunities for stargazing before the park begins to close are more limited. Entry to the park costs $7 for a day or $35 for an annual permit.
William O’Brien State Park
Much like Afton, William O’Brien State Park has excellent viewing locales and a dearth of artificial lighting. The park is near Scandia — about 45 minutes outside Minneapolis — and open until 10 p.m. so there are some early evening viewing opportunities here.
Of course, you can also opt for a campsite or one of the park’s four camper cabins to stake your claim on a view of events like August’s Perseid meteor shower.
Maybe there needs to be an asterisk or three on this entry. The Bell Museum is in St. Paul, so you’re not exactly escaping the city’s light pollution, which can spill shockingly far from the city limits.
That said, the museum’s new-ish location is relatively isolated for St. Paul. And what makes this an alluring option is the museum’s star parties, which are one way to get your feet wet. The monthly events include telescopes, hands-on activities for all ages and astronomy experts. It’s an easy way to explore the cosmos without leaving the Twin Cities. As is the museum’s planetarium, which features programming on everything from Minnesota’s night skies to Mars.
You can also find your hub elsewhere. Hiltner notes that any dark place can work if you’re simply hoping to spend a few minutes under the stars without getting too far from home.
“Anywhere you can find a park or a gravel road turnoff away from the city where it’s dark, that’s a spot,” he says. “When I don’t want to drive out to the observatory, I might drive 20 minutes south of town and find an out-of-the-way gravel road or turnoff for a quick viewing.”
Light pollution severely impacts what is visible, but if you’re just starting your stargazing journey, you don’t have to make a massive trip out of it. Yes, the Boundary Waters and other truly dark skies in Minnesota will provide awe-inducing views. But just getting away from the bright, omnipresent lights of the city can be richly rewarding.
Dustin Nelson is a writer in Minneapolis. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Afar, Inside Hook, and Best American Experimental Writing, among other places. Find his work at dustinlukenelson.com.
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