James River State Park an International Dark Sky Park

From the start of time, humans have looked to the night sky as aids to guide them for travel, mark the change in the seasons, know when to plant their fields and when to harvest their crops, and to test the eyesight of their warriors. 

Many people nowadays are losing the ability to see the night sky because of light pollution. Here on the east coast of the United States finding a night sky dark enough to see the wonders of the stars and planets can be a challenge.

Earlier this month Mars was 38 million miles from earth and the next time it is this close will be fifteen years from now. My daughter and I enjoyed the Night Sky Festival we attended last year at Shenandoah National Park, and I wanted to get out again to catch a view of Mars and the wonders of the night sky.

Lucky for me my friend Richard has picked up the hobby of an amateur astronomer and has an impressive computer-controlled telescope. But to enjoy the night sky what you really need is a dark sky that is conveniently located to you.

James River Park International Dark Sky Park
One of two International Dark Sky Parks in Virginia.


It just so happens that James River State Park is an International Dark Sky Location (IDA) and nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Gladstone Virginia, and is about an hour and a half drive from Richmond. While there might be other places in the western part of the state to find the dark sky, Staunton River State Park is the only other International Dark Sky location in Virginia as of this post. 

Buried down in a blog post on the park's website is the only information that James River State Park is an IDS park. Since the park is open from dawn to dusk, you will need to call the park to get a special use permit to be in the park after dusk if you are not camping. Note: This information is not on their website. Richard only found out by calling the park. The use permit is free and can be emailed to you. The main viewing area is a large hillside which is the park's amphitheater. 


James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park
Richard getting his Celestron Nexstar Evolution 8" set-up.

The first step to setting up the telescope is to locate north. Once we have determined north, Richard starts to assemble the telescope while I work on setting up our viewing area. As you can see in the background of the picture, it is a very large field that we ended up having all to ourselves.  At the bottom of the hill is the James River and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


James River Park and International Dark Sky Park
The telescope has been installed. 


James River Park an International Dark Sky Park
Waiting for the sun to set over the Blue Ridge Mountains.

For the telescope to be able to find its location we have to wait until we can see three stars to start the calibration. The planets Saturn and Jupiter where the first planets that we saw in the southern sky. Just above our location was the first three stars that we saw and they made up what is called the Summer Triangle. 

James River State Park an International Dark Sky Park
Starting the calibration process.


The credit for the next few pictures goes to Richard. Some were just taken from a tripod and some thru the telescope. 
James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park




James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park



James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park
Hercules Star Cluster



James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park
Andromeda Galaxy.

James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park
Flame Nebula.


James River State Park and International Dark Sky Park
Milky Way.

This was an amazing mid-week outing. It was so cool seeing satellites in orbit with just the naked eye. While we had some very high-tech gear to see and take pictures of the constellations, you can get by with a lot less and still have a great time.

I have listed some apps that you might find useful for viewing the night sky. Most of the apps you can find for both iOS and Android. All of the ones I have listed below are free, but some do contain ads. There are more apps out there that do the same things and have different permissions. So, read about the app before you download it. 

  • The Moon- Phases of the moon.
  • Star Walk 2- Augmented Reality Stargazing. 
  • ISS Detector- Space station and satellites. 
  • Dark Sky Map- Find areas with minimal light pollution.
  • Clear Outside- Weather forecast for astronomers with an emphasis on cloud cover.
  • Compass- Finding direction.
I also took a pair of 10x50 binoculars, which I was very please with how well I could see the stars with them. 

I hope this post inspires you to go out and find a dark sky that is near you. It doesn't need to be a Dark Sky Park, just a dark sky. There is just as much if not more to see above us as it is around us. 

Now It's Your Turn-

Leave a comment about your favorite place to stargaze.  





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