Lifting appreciative eyes to the skies is one of the enduring pleasures of life among the East’s highest peaks, and that includes at night, when soaring summits shoulder out urban light and offer rare, high-elevation opportunities to appreciate the cosmos. The clear, cold nights of winter can’t be beat.
The founders of the Astronomy Club of Asheville realized that more than 40 years ago. One of the nation’s biggest and most active stargazing organizations, the more-than-200-member club has two observatories, one in partnership with UNC Asheville, the other solely owned by the club in Madison County. “Each has a large, permanently-mounted telescope in a building with a motorized roll-off roof and a large outside patio where club members set up additional personal scopes for public viewings,” says president Knox Worde.
Regular club stargazings include first Thursday of the month club meetings, and similar events at a number of other WNC observatories and dark spots, including Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks. In Spruce Pine, Mayland Tech hosts stargazings at the new Bare Dark Sky Observatory, and so does the Appalachian State Dark Sky Observatory near Boone.
Tim Barnwell urges newbies to attend a stargazing and “don’t worry about gear, everyone wants to share and that’s how to learn what you want.”
The key to these sighting sites is more about isolation than elevation. Dr. Daniel Caton, Director of App State’s Observatory says, “we’re not high enough to get above the atmosphere like the highest observatories in Hawaii, the Andes, or out West,” he says, “but we’re certainly way darker than many places.”
From December 26-January 16, you’ll spot the Quadrantids darting by, which NASA considers to be one of the best meteor showers of the year. During the celestial event, more than 120 fireballs per hour streak through the sky.
In winter, there’s a steady flow of new things to see, so visit the Asheville Astronomy Club website for a list of astronomical events to watch during the upcoming month. astroasheville.org.
Get Out There!
Stargazing can be done without any equipment, so don’t rush to purchase any gadgets—all you really need is an unobstructed space to observe the night sky. But if you’re looking for tools to brighten your view, here’s some gear that can help.
Binoculars: Using a pair of astronomy binoculars, you can spot many stars, planets, and more. Throughout this winter, you can actually see the moons of Jupiter with binoculars. “Galileo discovered those with a telescope equivalent of binoculars,” Caton reminds. A popular choice among stargazers is the Celestron SkyMaster.
A telescope: Unlike binoculars, which make for easy exploration, a telescope is a great tool for studying a particular facet of the night sky. Barnwell advises against making any big purchases at first; instead, look into borrowing one. Many public libraries have telescopes in their inventory—visit your local branch to see if there are any telescopes available to check out. If you're ready to buy, however, Caton recommends the Celestron NexStar 4SE for beginners.
Apps: Caton uses Star Walk 2, an interactive map of the skies that works with your smartphone. The app acts as a guide to the stars, and shows users the real-time positions of astronomical objects.
Books: Touring the Universe Through Binoculars by Phillip Harrington, according to Barnwell, is a great resource to learn about the intellectual side of astronomy. Learn about star hopping, charting constellations, and more.
A headlamp: It's important to keep your hands free while hiking, particularly during the winter season. For safety’s sake, avoid flashlights and instead opt for a headlamp to light the way.
Hiking poles: Especially in the wintertime, it's imperative that you take precautions when exploring the mountains. Hiking poles can help you keep your balance in harsher weather. With winter ice lurking in the dark, use extreme caution at viewpoints near cliffs and waterfalls.
What is an IDA Dark Sky Certification?
The International DarkSky Association is a nonprofit organization that is working to protect our communities from the harmful effects of light pollution with education and conservation. This organization recognizes, “communities, parks, and protected areas around the world that preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education,” and certifies a variety of locations for their low levels of light pollution and protective policies.
In Western North Carolina, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in the Pisgah National Forest is certified as an International Dark Sky Place, and Burnsville’s Bare Dark Sky Observatory is an IDA-certified Star Park—these locations are two of only about 200 worldwide. PARI hosts regular tours of their facilities by appointment; you can even stay in cabins overnight on the campus. The Burnsville observatory’s park is open to the public anytime for free, even when the observatory is closed. There are eight telescope viewing stations located around the building.
Interested in stargazing but not sure where to start? Check out these local clubs and locations frequented by like-minded astrophiles.
Astronomy Club of Asheville
Since 1981, the club has helped astronomers of all levels enjoy the stars and regularly hosts group events throughout the year. astroasheville.org
Catawba Valley Astronomy Club
The organization has requent star parties at the Lucile Miller Observatory in Maiden; visit their website for upcoming dates. catawbasky.org
Grassland Mountain Observatory
Owned by the Astronomy Club of Asheville, the observatory has two large telescopes, a motorized roof, and restrooms on site.
Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute
A certified Dark Sky Park, the 200-acre facility is home to a planetarium and four radio telescopes. Open by appointment only. pari.edu
Bare Dark Sky Observatory
Admission to the observatory is $25 per adult and $5 for kids 12 and under, but you can visit the grounds for free at any time. mayland.edu
Dark Sky Observatory at Appalachian State University
This astrophysics research center also holds monthly stargazing events open to the public. dso.appstate.edu
Web Extra: Additional Stargazing Locations
We included some of our favorite places to observe the night sky above, but if none of these sound right for you, here's some additional locales to check out. Be sure to research the trip beforehand and come prepared.
Crabtree Falls Overlook
Mt. Pisgah Trailhead
Courthouse Valley Overlook
Log Hollow Overlook
Cherry Cove Overlook
Wolf Mountain Overlook
Rough Butt Overlook
Bear Pen Gap Overlook
Caney Fork Overlook
Appalachian State Dark Sky Observatory