Star Gaze Southern Appalachian National Parks In September

Thanks to "star" Asheville, NC photographer, Tim Barnwell, here's a scintillating glimpse of what you'll see on the lofty summits of the South during three great stargazing events in September. The Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway offer a truly mega vantage point on the Milky Way. Photos by Tim Barnwell.

You’ll get startlingly close to galaxies, nebulae, planets and more at three great September star-gazing events at the loftiest viewing locations in Eastern America, thanks to Southern Appalachian National Parks.

Between events at Purchase Knob in the Smokies, near Craggy Dome on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and atop Mount Mitchell State Park (reached via the Parkway), there are awesome early autumn opportunities to see, and learn, about the skyscape above the East’s highest mountains.

The Astronomy Club of Asheville is involved in all the events and their Web site homepage has details on all three.

Great Smokies

Pick the Smokies if you want an event that happens regardless of sky conditions. The September 7th gathering at Purchase Knob’s Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, located at 5,000 feet, starts with an indoor program featuring what would be visible outside at that time of year. “Then hopefully, the event moves outside to actually see what was just presented,” says Bernard Arghiere, president of the Astronomy Club of Asheville.

If that happens, great. If not, you’ll still have an enlightening, entertaining experience inside the learning center facility (a former vacation home that along with the surrounding acreage amounts to the largest private donation ever given to the park).

The event is limited to sixty participants, starts at 7:30 pm, and reservations are required (call the park directly at 828-926-6251). Purchase Knob isn’t the easiest place to find so don’t rely on GPS and ask the park for directions. It’s located off US 276 near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. (For anyone interested in making this a rarefied travel opportunity, the renowned and equally insulated country inn, The Swag, is minutes away from the Science Learning Center.)

The 5,000 foot elevation of this observation site, much less the nearly 7,000 foot elevation locations of subsequent events, strongly recommend bringing clothes suitable for the best viewing weather—a cold front passage with crystal clear skies that could see temperatures in the 40s and wind chill factors akin to winter (a word to the wise!).

The Astronomy Club of Asheville will lead this exploration of the night sky where a 260-degree unobstructed view should offer up views of Neptune and Uranus; the wonderful starry glow of our Milky Way Galaxy, the beautiful spiral disk of the Andromeda Galaxy, the numerous star clusters of late summer and early fall, and several binary star systems.

Great Smokies’ Superintendent Dale Ditmanson says, “National Park areas often offer a wonderful opportunity to stargaze. Visitors are often amazed at the amount of stars that can be seen simply by venturing out of well-lit communities and into the natural darkness of places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

Mount Mitchell

This summit most exemplifies the value of mountaintop observation for Astronomy Club of Asheville President Bernard Arghiere. “There are much better places than the Southern Appalachians for stargazing,” he says. “After all, the best observatories are on the very highest mountains. But when you get above 5,000 feet in North Carolina, you are definitely way above a lot of the atmosphere and the stars really pop.”

A quintessential example is Mount Mitchell’s summit parking area, not far below the peak’s 6,684-foot elevation, reached on NC 128 from Milepost 355 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Add to that the mountain’s rural location far away from urban light pollution, and it’s an ideal spot for stargazing.

The Blue Ridge Astronomy Group, based in Burnsville, North Carolina, will host this first-ever Mt. Mitchell Star Party on September 8th, in conjunction with the Astronomy Club of Asheville and the Cleveland County Astronomical Society.

These astronomy groups will provide a variety of powerful telescopes for public use, but people are also encouraged to bring their own telescopes. There's no charge for admission and anyone with an interest in viewing the mysteries of space is encouraged to attend.

"The moon will not rise until after midnight, so with good weather we expect a very dark night of exceptional stargazing," said Bob Hampton, one of the event organizers. "From that vantage point on Mt. Mitchell, we expect to see not only stars, but galaxies, nebulae, the Milky Way, orbiting satellites and much more."

Hours for this unique event are 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., with sunset occurring at 7:46 p.m. local time. Also, Mt. Mitchell State Park is open all day so folks can arrive whenever they wish.

In case of bad weather, the event will be moved to the following Saturday, Sept. 15.

For more, the Blue Ridge Astronomy Group’s site has information or call the Yancey County Chamber of Commerce at 800-948-1632.

Craggy Dome

September 14th, the Astronomy Club of Asheville is hosting another star gaze, this one at Craggy Dome Parking area (5,640 feet), pretty quickly accessible from Asheville via the Blue Ridge Parkway (at Parkway Milepost 364.1).

Cades Cove

There’s a brand new event just scheduled for Saturday, September 15 in Cades Cove in the Smokies. Beginning at 8:00 p.m. Great Smoky Mountains National Park will offer a 2 ½-hour stargazing program in cooperation with the Smoky Mountains Astronomical Society. Experienced astronomers and numerous telescopes will be on hand.

In case of rain or cloud cover where night skies are not visible, the program will be cancelled. For further information, or if there is any uncertainty about whether the event will occur because of weather conditions, call 865/448-4104 the day of the event for its status.