Update: This article was originally published in 2013 but has been updated for 2019.
Washington, DC has more than its fair share of parks and greenery but sometimes it takes a trip to the rolling hills of Virginia to get a real taste of the outdoors. For me, this generally means a trip to a winery or making a drive to the Shenandoah. But one of the best kept secrets about a trip like this is a special kind of night life. Once a month on a Saturday, you can join Sky Meadows State Park with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for an evening of stargazing.
Sky Meadows State Park is about 90 minutes away from Washington, DC’s center. While it is far enough away to escape the city lights, it is not far enough to require a lot of advanced planning. The event begins about an hour before the sunset, giving your eyes plenty of time to adjust to the dark.
We have attended this event a few times several years ago when they were called Saturday Star Parties but they are now simply called Astronomy for Everyone. When we attended more recently, we were pleased to find this event is just as fun and friendly as we remember.
This event is perfect for an off beat date night or evening event for the whole family. During the first half hour, NASA JPL presents the “Junior Astronomer” program, which engages the audience in space facts and trivia. While it is designed for the little ones, everyone can join in. We thought it was entertaining to watch all the parents try to answer the questions. The next 30-45 minutes cover what you’ll see that night in the sky and general information about current discoveries. This program is appropriate for all ages. You can also spend this time lounging in the grass, enjoying the sun set, and watching amateur space enthusiasts set up their telescopes.
Once the sun is set, the real fun begins. Tour guides scatter through the large crowd with special laser pointers to point out constellations. The guides will share various stories about Greek mythology and astronomy facts. For those that prefer a more up-close view of stars, there are also local astronomy enthusiasts with powerful telescopes. They are all friendly and eager to share their own experiences with backyard space exploration. Visitors are encouraged to walk around to listen to different stories and check out different telescopes.
Depending on the season, weather, and galactic events, you will always get a different experience each time you go. On some occasions, the focus was more on the mythology and storytelling. Other times, we spent more time interacting with the local astronomers and looking through the telescopes at views of planets, star clusters, and galaxies within view.
What to Bring for Astronomy in Sky Meadows State Park
Dress for the weather! Each time we have visited, the weather cooled down substantially after dark. Do not be fooled if it is a warm afternoon in DC. In the summer months, bring a light jacket or sweatshirt. In the cooler months, bundle up in hats and mittens – lots of people have hot chocolate in thermoses as well!
Pack a dinner picnic or snacks. Most guests arrive anywhere between 30 to 90 minutes before dark to enjoy the scenery and let their eyes slowly adjust to the dark. Fill the time with a picnic dinner or spread of snacks. Remember not to bring alcohol and to bring your trash with you!
Bring lawn chairs or a blanket. While we like to clean up any snacks we have before it gets too dark, it is nice to have a place to sit. You may wander a little bit to hear stories but it is also nice to just sit and look up at the night sky.
Telescopes, star apps, and red lights. Many people will bring telescopes and are willing to tell other guests about them but feel free to bring your own. There are also many star finding apps you can use on your smartphone to help navigate the skies. However, remember to bring red filters for your white lights or get a special red light for the occasion. Too much white light will mess with everyone’s night vision!
This event runs once a month on Saturdays year round. The skies change with the seasons so different constellations will be in view each time you go. The hours of the event also change as the sun sets later in the spring/summer and earlier in the fall/winter, so be sure to check the website before you go. The event is free but there is a $10 parking fee per car. If it rains, only the Junior Astronomer program is presented. You can search for future stargazing dates by looking for “Astronomy for All” on the Virginia park calendar.
Star gazers of all ages
Event is free, parking is $10 per car
11012 Edmonds Lane
Delaplane, VA 20144