On the clear nights around the Pacific Northwest, those who head outside, away from the cities are rewarded with a stunning display of the wonders of the night sky. Up on ridges and mountains, along dirt roads and closer to the wonders of the universe, stargazers in the Pacific Northwest are treated to a litany of astrological wonders. From northern lights and meteor showers, to glorious views of the Milky Way Galaxy and witnessing the International Space Station fly overhead, watching the night sky around the South Puget Sound is a something you need to experience. While the best areas to look at the heavens are not close to town, they are worth the drive and the effort.
To start, consider downloading an app for your phone to help identify what you are looking for in the sky. Generations ago, nearly everyone knew the night sky and could read it as a map. Today, we are not nearly as skilled. One great free app to put on your phone to help identify stars and constellations is the Star Chart App, available for both iPhones and Androids. SkyView Free is also a fantastic app for iPhones that will not just show stars and constellations but will also help you find satellites cycling the earth.
Looking at any light can make stargazing much more difficult. For the best views, you will need to leave the city. Even the light from your phone can make your eyes less likely to see deeper into the universe. I recommend avoiding all light for 5-10 minutes and then looking at the stars. This means no phones, flashlights, car lights or even illuminating watches. You want your eyes able to see the night sky in full glory, and even one quick flash of light can take up to ten minutes to reverse.
The moon will also have an adverse effect on how well you can see the heavens above; so before you go, look at a moon chart and pick a night with a new moon. This will give you the best chance to see all the stars visible in our corner of the world.
One of the most popular stargazing activities is watching meteor showers overhead. While news media will report amazing numbers of meteors crossing the sky during peak hours, the numbers they use are based on places with zero light pollution. Heading up to Mount Rainier or Deer Park on the Olympic Peninsula will help you see the gloriousness of a meteor shower. A full list of the meteor showers and other astrological events for 2016 can be found in publications like Sky and Telescope Magazine.
Once your eyes have adjusted, try to remember any schooling you received about constellations and planets. The most commonly recognized (and most important) constellation is the Big Dipper, which helps stargazers locate the north star. Other easily recognizable constellations are Orion and the rotating “W” of Cassiopeia. Planets can easily be seen once you know what to look for, with Venus, Jupiter and Mars often most recognized. Using your apps and studying the night sky will turn a glance upward into the a gaze into to magnificence of the universe.
Now, find a destination nearby. Capitol Peak is the closest stargazing destination to Olympia, but does have quite a bit of light pollution, diminishing your chances to see a lot. The road to Mount Ellinor in Mason County is also quite good, but you still will have lights from the entire Puget Sound reducing the clarity of the universe. You can theoretically stargaze from anywhere, but those looking for incredible sights will need to drive an hour or two. That is why, if you want the best star watching, you’ll need to head up to Mount Rainier or the Olympic Peninsula.
One of the best places to stargaze in all of Western Washington is up at Suntop Lookout off SR410 near Mount Rainier. Lookouts in the Cascades are most often in isolated areas, facing away from towns. Since they are isolated and at the top of ridges, they offer panoramic views and the least amount of light pollution. Suntop is a great destination because you can drive up quickly, giving quick hikers access when stunning solar events are happening.
The Sunrise parking lot is also a favorite, thanks to the complete lack of light pollution anywhere around. Sunrise is extremely easy to access when it is open and can make for a fantastic family-friendly destination during the summer months. Mount Rainier’s Paradise region is also pretty spectacular for stargazing, but the trees and mountain will obstruct some of the more sweeping views on the Milky Way.
On the Olympic Peninsula, there are few better places than Hurricane Ridge or Deer Park near the towns of Sequim and Port Angeles. While it is a drive, the night sky is unobstructed and absolutely gorgeous.
Finally, those looking for a truly unique stargazing experience should head to the wilderness coast of Olympic National Park. Places like Ruby Beach or Kalaloch, Lake Ozette or LaPush will give incredible coastal stargazing and a chance to see the night sky plunge into the Pacific Ocean.