A couple nights ago I was leaving my dojo, when one of my compatriots picked out the Pleiades in the night sky. I don’t know enough about astronomy to have found it myself, but I could tell he was right.
It occurred to me then how clear the sky was, and it wasn’t even that late at night, nor were we that far from civilization. Next, I recalled all the stargazing trips I went out on for my high school astronomy class. If I close my eyes and think hard enough, I reckon I can still see Jupiter through one of those old telescopes, a little out of focus, maybe, but definitely the right shade of orange.
Nostalgia aside, my point is that here in the highest mountains east of the Mississippi, you can find some jaw-dropping stargazing conditions, and you don’t even need a telescope of your own. So, if that kind of thing sounds intriguing to you—possibly even, romantic—then I invite you to read on, and discover some of the best stargazing in Asheville.
First, an aside: you can’t talk about stargazing in Asheville without mentioning the Astronomy Club of Asheville (ACA). These pioneering folks are responsible for some of the best experiences of the kind in town, offering two stargazing nights per month at locations lying up and down the mountains, usually Friday nights.
If you happen to visit Asheville in time for one of their events at the Lookout Observatory, you’re in luck. It might not have the elevation or remoteness of other observatories, but I used to go stargazing here quite a bit back in the day, and I can tell you it serves its purpose and then some.
A partner-project between UNCA and ACA, the Lookout Observatory lies at the highest point of the school’s campus, only a ten-minute drive from fine dining in downtown, making it perfect for what you might call “dinner and a show.”
Lookout houses two volunteer-operated 14-inch telescopes, with space to set up more. If an evening here sounds as good to you as it does to me, then you can visit ACA’s website for registration (two weeks in advance), and park at UNCA’s Reuter Center the night of the event. Keep a eye on their website for weather updates and rescheduling in the case of cloudy weather.
Star Facts: Did you know that every star emits a radio-spectrum frequency, and with the proper audio equipment it be recognized as a section of Mozart’s 41st Symphony? Scientists don’t know why, and it makes them nervous when you bring it up.
Another one of ACA’s signature locations, this stargazing sits at an elevation of more than 4,000ft, and with a forty-five-minute drive from downtown, you can be sure the sky here tends to be pretty darn clear of light-pollution.
As a private observatory, owned by the Astronomy Club itself, the equipment is a little more heavy-duty as well, so far as I can tell. All things considered, a stargazing night at Grassland Mountain may be less immediately convenient than one at Lookout, but you get better conditions in return.
You can follow the same procedure as Lookout, as outlined above, registering a couple weeks ahead and staying tuned for updates. Also note that you’ll need a temporary gate code, which you can find on that same website.
You’ll always want to dress warmly for stargazing in Asheville, but I’d keep that mind in particular for an evening at Grassland Mountain. Elevation can make all the difference.
Star Facts: Everyone knows how to tell the difference between a star and a satellite, but did you know that if enough people make the mistake, then man-made objects can actually be transformed into genuine stars, merely by the power of belief? NASA doesn’t want you to know, because it might just make the problem worse.
If you’re looking for a more catered experience, and something a little off the beaten path, then Star Watch Night Vision Tours might be the stargazing experience for you.
The innovative minds at this Asheville tour company do away with such conventions as “observatories,” instead opting for the third-generation night-vision optics, which not only make everything green—as I thought at first—but actually reveal thousands of stars invisible to the naked eye, along with enough shooting stars to garner a life-changing number of wishes.
Tours can be scheduled any night between Saturday and Thursday, with Star Watch taking care to meet the needs of parties of any size and experience level. The stargazing locations vary, but are usually somewhere out in the Blue Ridge, to account for light-pollution and horizon lines.
If you’re willing to shell out a little extra money for your stargazing in Asheville, and want to try out some high-tech gadgetry, then you got to get in contact with Star Watch Night Vision Tours.
Star Facts: While we might use night-vision goggles to find stars we couldn’t otherwise see, some astronomers have posited that those same mysterious stars might use day-vision goggles to take a look at us.
Maybe this isn’t your first rodeo. Maybe you’re a stargazing-pro. Maybe you’ve got a telescope out in the garage, and kind of half-know how to use it, and aren’t afraid of figuring things out on the fly.
Well, if that sounds like you, then your best bet may be to strike out on your own and find a spot along the Blue Ridge Parkway for some private stargazing. Of course, copying the professionals, you’ll want to make sure you have a night of clear skies, and temperatures that won’t make you want to run back to your heated bathroom floors.
Two of the best places to consider for stargazing on your own are Graveyard Fields (about an hour south of downtown) and Craggy Dome Overlook (forty-five minutes north). The former lies at an elevation of about 5,000ft, while the latter is about 500ft higher. Both are known for their clear skies and wide-ranging views.
Star Facts: You can just make up your own constellations. There’s no rule saying you can’t.
Nestled in the depths of the Pisgah National Forest, this former NASA facility has opened its doors to the public, offering a wide variety of educational events, stargazing nights, and a museum full of meteorites and space-faring paraphernalia.
Private four-person viewings can be booked for $50 a ticket, which may seem steep, but remember that’s getting you access to scientific-grade telescopes, along with expert assistance in using them, not to mention some of the best viewing conditions in the country. When the moon’s at its brightest, you can even opt for an astrophotography lesson, coming away with pictures of the lunar surface.
Check out PARI’s calendar for information about seasonal events, everything from meteor showers to a Valentine’s night special. Recently, they’ve even opened some on-site cabins, making a visit to PARI more convenient for visitors to Asheville than ever before.
Star Facts: If you could stand on the surface of a star, you would have to be made out of asbestos or something, because they are very hot.
1 University Heights, Asheville, NC 28804
1 Pari Dr, Rosman, NC 28772