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Star Search: Astrotourism in Door County


By Jamie Bartosch

One of Door County’s best activities takes place at night, and to participate, all you need is a flashlight. On clear nights, astronomers, photographers, “astrotourists,” and adults and children interested in astronomy congregate at one of Door County’s two popular stargazing sites: Newport State Park and Crossroads at Big Creek. Using flashlights, they walk out to a spot in a field where they can set down a blanket or chairs and look up at the star-filled sky.

It’s such a dazzling site that it’s almost impossible not to say, “Wow!” out loud. With no light pollution to hinder the view, you can see millions of stars, meteors, and planets in the sky without a telescope (although telescopes are often available if you want to take a closer look). 

Depending on the time of year and amount of cloud cover, the Milky Way Galaxy, shooting stars, constellations, and meteor showers are clearly visible. And if you’re lucky, you may see the colorful, dancing northern lights (aurora borealis), too. It’s one of the best shows in Door County. Here’s where to catch it.

Newport State Park

Door County’s Newport State Park holds an elite status as a certified International Dark Sky Park—the only one in Wisconsin. 

Newport Night Sky

It didn’t earn its certification just because it’s five miles from any kind of artificial light on the northern tip of the Door County peninsula. Rather, the park has a robust educational component to help visitors learn about how dark skies affect the lives and behaviors of humans, animals, and the ecosystem. 

Programming on these topics is held regularly. At sky viewings, people can look through the park’s high-powered telescopes for clear views of planets and other celestial sights. Astrophotographers join, too — adjusting their camera settings for cool night-sky photos. 

While people visit year-round, the biggest crowds come to Newport State Park between May and September, when the weather is warm, and the Milky Way is directly overhead. The Perseid meteor shower in August is a big draw, too, since the falling meteors usually put on a great show. Newport State Park borders Lake Michigan—providing a rare all-the-way-to-the-eastern-horizon view and making the sky show feel bigger than an IMAX movie.

Crossroads at Big Creek

Astronomy outreach is also emphasized at the newly refurbished Leif Everson Observatory and Stonecipher Astronomy Center at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay.  In August 2022, a new state-of-the-art telescope was installed in the domed observatory. The $75,000 investment provides clearer, high-resolution images of celestial objects in our solar system. Members of the Door Peninsula Astronomical Society (DPAS), who oversee the astronomy center and its educational programming, have filled their Facebook page with some of the incredible images they’ve captured. 

Star-seeking visitors to Crossroads at Big Creek often gather in the outdoor Star Garden near the observatory, an area open 24/7. During events, the area is lined with red lights for improved nighttime vision. Telescopes and mounted astronomical binoculars are available for public use. Sit in the garden’s seating area or spread out a blanket on the grass and stare up into the night sky. 

The best time to visit is during monthly Viewing Nights (on the Saturday nearest the new moon) or special events. DPAS members use green laser pointers to help visitors locate planets, constellations, and other interesting objects in the sky. When the sky is clear during these events, telescope images are projected on a large flat screen in the Stonecipher Astronomy Center. On cloudy Viewing Nights, DPAS offers indoor planetarium shows. All programs are free and open to the public.

Star-seeking visitors at Crossroads at Big Creek garthered in the outdoor Star Garden.

Northern Lights

The famous northern lights (aurora borealis) are a rare, magical, bucket-list sight. They result when charged particles from the Sun collide with Earth’s magnetic field, producing streaks of neon green, purple, and yellow light that sometimes dance around and change shape in 
the sky. 

The Northern Lights over the lake.

People might assume they have to travel to far northern places like Alaska, Canada, or Iceland to see the northern lights, but they’re visible in Door County year-round…if you are lucky enough to get the perfect conditions. 

The skies must be dark, clear, and with no bright moon, and the geomagnetic activity index (Kp) must be high. The northern lights are most likely to be visible if the index is around 5 or 6. The phenomenon can happen at any time of year, and the best spots for chasing the lights are Rock Island State Park and Washington Island, although the most popular destination is Newport State Park. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to see the northern lights, Door 
County’s nighttime sky is a natural wonder and an opportunity to let your mind and imagination wander.

Tips for Stargazing

Yes, ultimately, stargazing is simply going outside at night and looking up, but there are quite a few things you can do to make the experience both more special and more comfortable.

The easiest and most convenient way to view a "magnified" night sky is with a basic pair of hand binoculars. Look for ones with high-quality optics, meaning they have multi-coated, high-index lenses.

It’s entirely possible to see many constellations with the naked eye. At least an hour after sunset, search for a dark place away from all light sources. If you want a light for reading or wayfinding in the dark, use a red-colored flashlight lens to avoid the need for your eyes to readjust from light to dark.

Unless you want a good crick in your neck, be prepared to lie back while gazing skyward. Plan for the situation as well as the weather, bringing warm clothes or a blanket when temperatures cool.

As seasons change on Earth and our planet spins around, different constellations come into view. Do some research so that you know which constellations or phenomena to look for, or download a smartphone app in advance. Dozens are available, and many are free.

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