I’m not sure where I read it, but somewhere I picked up the idea that the Goldendale Observatory State Park, a three hour drive from Seattle in good traffic, is the “deepest sky” in Washington.
That might have to do with its former status as a Dark Sky Park, bestowed by the International Dark-Sky Association back in 2010. Turns out the observatory lost its status this year does not have plans to re-apply for the status after a major facility rebuild.
But we didn’t know about Dark Sky designations or the lack thereof in mid-August when we raced off to the park in hopes of seeing the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, the annual light show that culminates right around my birthday each year. Over the last 25 years, my kids and I have scoured the state for Perseids watch spots from Mount Rainier to the Wenatchee National Forest to Methow Valley. I have to say we’ve seen some doozy star shows, with fireballs blazing left and right minutes or seconds apart. But never in a Dark Sky Park. Imagine the excitement.
A night that looked like day
Now imagine the disappointment when a supermoon (which is when the center of the moon is less than 223,694 miles from the center of Earth and very, very bright) washed the deep night sky in brilliant light, obscuring our view of the 40 falling stars an hour (on average) we hoped to see.
Disappointment is too strong a word, now that I think of it. Because aside from being hit by a blinding supermoon now and then, the observatory is an incredible place to visit and a great adventure for families.
This 5-acre facility sits 2,100 feet above sea level and is located about two miles from the tiny town of Goldendale, Washington. It houses one of the nation’s largest public telescopes (yes, visitors actually get to look through it) and offers truly interesting and informative science programs to educate visitors about the solar system and universe.
Outside, the naked eye is greeted by open sky and clear views of the stars – when the moon cooperates. Observatory education programs are offered Thursday to Sunday from April through September at 3-5 p.m. (solar program) and 9 p.m. to midnight (evening program). From October through March the solar program runs 2-4 p.m. and the evening program runs 7-10 p.m. Friday to Sunday.
From a night sky stargazing perspective, aim for the evening program. No registration necessary for groups smaller than 6. Just show up.
During shows visitors explore the sun, moon, other stars and planets, and an array of other deep sky wonders. Live telescope viewing is part of every show, weather permitting.
Star Party on Aug. 25
My birthday stargazing was a bit of a bust for us this year, from the perspective of catching a rain of fire from a peaking Perseids. But, we are not giving up on the Goldendale area’s dark skies.
We phope to head back next week, August 25, for a deeper look at the stars near Goldendale with the Seattle Astronomical Society (SAS). On that night, the SAS will host its annual stargazing party at Brooks, which it calls “one of the darkest spots in Washington State.” SAS star parties are open to everyone from new astronomers and veterans. There are no age restrictions.
Star parties offer a chance for participants to view the night sky through enthusiast telescopes as well as interact with experienced, knowledgeable astronomers. Have questions about the universe? What to learn about the observation process or learn more about the solar system objects, deep space objects, constellations or types of telescopes? There’s no better place than these SAS nighttime gatherings.
According to James Day, president of Friends of Gorge Area Parks, participants in the event may engage in some discussion of ancient star viewing practices, the focus will be on the scientific:
“While do discuss astrology in its historical significance and common constellations the focus is on modern astronomical observations and the methods used in science,” he says.
No longer a Dark Sky Park, but dark nonetheless
As for the Washington Parks not pursuing Dark Sky status, Day says doing so is not within the mission or scope of Washington Parks. Even so, the region remains a great spot for stargazing:
“The town of Goldendale has grown up around the observatory and its current lighting structure does not usually interfere with the programs presented at the observatory.
“We do have very dark skies in the area,'” he adds.
Don’t miss the Greek food!
Brooks is located on Highway 97 about 25 minutes northeast of the Goldendale Observatory and just a few miles from town which has several family friendly restaurants.
Far closer to Brooks, and perhaps the tastiest food around, is the menu at St. John’s Bakery located at 2378 Highway 97. The bakery offers both savory and sweet dishes made by the nuns at the adjacent Greek Orothdox monastery.
We picked a tent at Brooks which offers clean and semi-private tent sites and RV parking with sparking restrooms and walking trails that most toddlers could manage (backpackable, not strollerable). What a joy to roll out of bed and rather than struggle over camp cooking gear, simply make the one-minute drive (‘cuz truck-packed highway) to enjoy fresh baked spanakopita, baklava and an array of coffee or milk-dipping cookies.
About Camping and other accommodations
Brooks, like most state camping sites, fills fast, so claim your spot there or consider other accommodations before heading out.
Maryhill State Park, 25 min from Brooks and close to Goldendale Observatory, is also open to campers and RVs. It has the added advantage of being the site of a memorial recreation of Stonehenge, which was erected as the nation’s first World War II memorial and dedicated in 1918. It’s a site to see at night especially.
The town of Goldendale has several motels at a reasonable rate and the region also offers several other public or private camping/RV camping sites. Or, if you are looking for family-style accommodations, The Steelhead Ranch can accommodate a large family (max 8) and VRBO and Airbnb both offer other home-stay options.
Is Goldendale too far? Star Party in Seattle!
We certainly don’t hold the Dark Sky Park certification in illuminated Seattle. Still, the SAS happily organizes star parties at Green Lake and Paramount Park every month, all of which are free and open to the public.
People of all ages, including young children, are welcome to join in the gazing. Star parties are scheduled for the Saturday evening closest to the first quarter moon of each month, but the time for beginning each star party varies due to seasonal changes in sunset times. If weather turns unfavorable, a cancellation notice will be posted on the SAS home page at least two hours before the scheduled Star Party. Check the site before bundling up the family and heading out. For star party dates and times go to seattleastro.org/events.
Not so disappointing after all
Come to think of it, camping out, warm baklava, Stonehenge at night and four shooting stars on a birthday is quite a gift. As is a supermoon shining a mom’s way into a new year. That three hour drive was worth those two things alone, not to mention we now have another spot on our Persieds watch map. We can’t wait to go back in 2023 (when the supermoon will not be shining at the peak).
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