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Discover Michigan’s Only Internationally-Designated Dark Sky Park—The Headlands—in Mackinaw City

A conversation with Mary Stewart Adams, Director – The Headlands Dark Sky Park

For visitors coming to the Mackinaw Area and may have never heard of a “Dark Sky Park,” what is it and what should they expect?

A Dark Sky Park is an area of land over which the night sky has been protected from light pollution, which is stray light that spills up into the sky, diminishing views of the stars. Most residents of the United States now live where they can’t see most of the stars at night.

Given that the stars and a striving to understand them has motivated some of the highest achievements in humanity, this poses a significant threat to culture everywhere. Conscientious use of light at night also helps us support and sustain healthy habitat, particularly for bird migration through the Straits area; it allows us to be better stewards of natural resources that are used for energy; and it supports human health and well-being, since we now know that exposure to artificial light at night disrupts the production of important sleep hormones.

Michigan is home to only one Internationally-designated Dark Sky Park, and to several thousand acres of state park lands where the night sky is celebrated and protected. What visitors can expect at The Headlands is several miles of hiking trails where they can take in some of the area’s best old-growth untouched forest and maybe catch a glimpse of the rare Dwarf Lake Iris, which only grows in this region of the world. The Headlands also has two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline which is dedicated to night sky observing, taking in beautiful sunsets, wishing on stars, watching the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).

This summer we are also opening our new Waterfront Event Center and Observatory, where we will host regular programs, both indoors and out, as well as public viewing nights with the telescopes, to enhance the experience of the natural environment.

What makes a Dark Sky Park so unique? This is the only one in Michigan and one of only how many in the US and the World?

An internationally-designated dark sky park such as The Headlands is owned and managed locally (in this case, by Emmet County) but reports annually with sky quality meter readings and hosts regular educational program to sustain a standard and quality of dark commensurate with the rigors of the designation.

Headlands is still the only internationally-designated Dark Sky Park in Michigan (it was the 6th in the US and 9th in the world) when it was designated in 2011. There are now over 40 international Dark Sky Parks worldwide, and they can be found at the website

How accessible is the facility – the trails, the viewing areas, the new Waterfront Event Center.

The Headlands is located just two miles west of downtown Mackinaw City at 15675 Headlands Road. Guests to the park can drive in and park near the Waterfront Event Center and access the grounds by sidewalks, or park near the entrance and walk the beautiful one mile route to viewing areas along the shore. We have 24-hour ADA accessible restrooms; and the building is also universally accessible, both lower and upper levels. However, there are 20 steps up into the Observatory, so guests who cannot handle stairs for programs we offer with the telescope can view the screens in our event space.

What can people find inside the new waterfront event center – in terms of exhibits and events?

The Waterfront Event Center is designed for rental and is not open daily like a visitor center would be. When we host programs in the space, visitors can take in the exhibit area and restrooms. We have two large format screens in the event space that will display what is being seen by our 20-inch PlaneWave deep space imaging telescope. There is a commercial kitchen; and an indoor/outdoor fireplace.

What is planned regarding this August’s Solar Eclipse?

During the Great American Eclipse on Monday, August 21 the Sun will appear to be about 80% eclipsed by the Moon. We have a terrific solar telescope through which we will be projecting images, and we intend to have live stream from the path of Totality on screens in the event space.

What about this Pure Michigan Award you received earlier this year?

The first Pure Award was presented in 2016, and the second was awarded earlier this year to The Headlands, at the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism held in Detroit in April. The Headlands was selected “based on its recognition of the night sky as a vast and vanishing natural resource that is essential to today’s global conversation about habitat protection, energy resource management and tourism.” The award itself was designed specifically for us by artisan glassblowers at Greenfield Village and is a single blown piece in the shape of the north star, inlaid with silver leaf to evoke a sense of the Milky Way.

Final thoughts on admission, accessibility, hours and such?

Visitors to The Headlands can always access the site free of charge. We are busiest through the summer months, so even though we have paved parking near the Waterfront Event Center, the lot gets full, which means guest park at the entrance and walk one mile to the shoreline viewing areas. It’s a beautiful walk, but you should be prepared with things you can carry, like chairs or sleeping bags, and red filter flashlights (see below). The park is always open, and you should come by in the day the first time, so you can see the lay of the land, because it gets really dark at night.

Some things to note:

  • There is no camping at The Headlands, but there are many sights nearby for camping as well as the hotels, motels, cabins, cottages and bed-and-breakfasts in the Mackinaw City area. Visitors are welcomed and encouraged to stay out through the night and early morning hours for night-sky viewing opportunities. You may bring blankets, sleeping bags, chairs, food, beverages, etc.
  • Plan accordingly and dress for temperatures 10 degrees below what you expect. The park is located on the shore of Lake Michigan and is always cooler than inland.
  • Dogs are allowed at the Headlands as long as they are on a leash. And please remember to pick up after your pet so everyone can enjoy the park experience. Dogs are not allowed inside the buildings at the Headlands.
  • We recommend that visitors bring red-filtered flashlights only, so as to not disturb the vision of other park users. White light can ruin the viewing opportunities presented at the Headlands, for yourself and others. You can make your own red-filtered flashlight by taking red plastic wrap (or coloring clear plastic wrap red) and covering the tip of the flashlight.
  • ADA restroom facilities are available 24/7 near the Dark Sky Viewing Area.

Occasionally we host programs that are ticketed, and there will be a fee for public viewing in the Observatory. These things can be check ahead of time on our website at