As the end of summer approaches, I begin to slightly panic that my favorite Michigan season is quickly slipping by. It’s around this time that I put forth extra effort to cram in as many of the best summer things to do in Michigan as I can.
There is only so much one can do in a day, but what if there was something to do in the middle of the night? You can imagine how excited I was to learn of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park on the Straits of Mackinac — it’s one of the best things to do in Mackinaw City!
About Headlands International Dark Sky Park
The Great Lakes provide unlimited benefits, many of which we are pleasantly aware of. However, an uncommon and unique feature along the Lake Michigan shoreline is what is known as Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
Located in Emmet County, the dark sky park offers the chance to observe the beauty of the stars without artificial light interference. It features programs, events, trails, and viewing areas for fresh-air enthusiasts to enjoy this unparalleled experience in many ways.
Headlands has exceptional views of the night sky within its 550 acres of woodlands and 2-mile stretch of shoreline along Lake Michigan. During the summer, the park boasts exceptional views of the Scorpius and Sagittarius constellations in the Milky Way, but come August, numerous meteor showers and shooting stars wow visitors.
This Emmet County dark sky park is also one of the best places to see the Northern Lights in Michigan!
In 2011, Headlands became one of the first International Dark Sky Parks in the world after completing a rigorous application and review process. Due to this prestigious designation, the park will stay dark and protected forever. With only a few dozen of these areas in the world, we’ll have to thank our lucky stars one is right here in our backyard.
What Can You Do at a Dark Sky Park?
With the promise of beautiful, warm summers, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park hosts a variety of great events that must be attended. Not only are these events a blast in themselves, but they are a great way to familiarize yourself with the park if you have never been before.
Some events are designed to help newcomers develop a further understanding of just what a dark sky park is. Park guests can participate in scheduled programs and events, such as trivia nights and viewing parties, or follow the nearly 5 miles of marked trails for self-guided evenings. There are even bonfires, storytelling, and telescopes available for use.
Once guests experience what takes place at a dark sky park at night, they have an opportunity to explore everything the park has to offer during peak daylight hours. Surprising for a park with “Dark Sky” in its name, there are even more daytime activities to participate in.
Since the dark sky park has miles of trails to traverse, as well as an inland lake, a naturologist may lead adventurers on a hands-on hike that examines both land and water ecologies. Or, guests can hike, cycle, ski, and snap pictures throughout the woodlands.
The park’s website notes that visitors may see native animals such as bald eagles, osprey, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and even black bears. And here’s the best part — Admission is free!
When Should You Visit a Dark Sky Park?
Visitors are encouraged to visit throughout the darkest hours of the night for the best, unaltered sights, but Headlands Dark Sky Park is open 24 hours a day, year-round.
Also, the park staff recommends bringing blankets, chairs, drinks, and snacks, as well as warm clothing for the temperate Lake Michigan shore. Just don’t leave your trash lying around because we want to preserve the woodlands for generations to come.
Although camping and overnight sleeping are not allowed at Headlands, downtown Mackinaw City hotels are only 2 miles east of the park entrance, and several campsites are nearby. The site also features a Guest House that can hold up to 20 people, but reservations fill up fast!
Why Should I Visit Headlands International Dark Sky Park?
You might find yourself asking just what the big deal is about a dark sky park. When Emmet County’s dark sky park opened in 2011, it was one of six such parks in the United States and one of just nine in the world.
In Michigan, we are blessed to observe the night stars from many different cities that are not heavily polluted by artificial light. However, many individuals who live in large cities have only seen stars in books or on television.
People travel from far away to see the wonders that Dark Sky Parks have to offer. We, as Michiganders, have the good fortune of traveling within our state to see such sights.
How Much Does It Cost to Visit a Dark Sky Park?
The best part about the Headlands International Dark Sky Park near Mackinaw City in Michigan? It’s always free, and so are its events.
It is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, offering a chance to experience nature in one of its purest forms. Check out the events calendar to pick one that fits your participatory pleasure.
The Emmet County website is a great source for frequently asked questions, further information, and photos as well.
More Things to Do Near Headlands International Dark Sky Park
Go on a Scenic Lighthouse Cruise
With so many lighthouses in the area, Shepler’s Ferry offers several options for lighthouse cruises. The three-hour eastbound cruise takes travelers by several Lake Huron lighthouses, and a westbound cruise passes by lighthouses at Old Mackinac Point, White Shoal, and more.
Go Shopping at Mackinaw Crossings
Play a Round of Mini Golf at Animal Tracks
Miniature golf is the perfect family activity, and Animal Tracks in Mackinaw City is a great spot for an adventure. As they play, golfers can learn about wildlife along the way. Those who can match different animal tracks to their respective animals can win a free game. The fun, scenic environment is perfect for a friendly game of competition.
Where to Eat Near Headlands International Dark Sky Park
Visitors on their way to Headlands International Dark Sky Park have plenty of dining options in Mackinaw City. Visitors who want to keep things local can easily skip the national chains.
Hunt’s Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Co.
A visit to Hunt’s Mackinaw Pastie & Cookie Co. allows visitors to sink their teeth into the Michigan delicacy known as the pasty without crossing the Mackinaw Bridge. The pasty variety satisfies taste buds of all types, and the restaurant’s gourmet cookies make for the perfect dessert.
Keyhole Bar & Grill
Mackinaw City is home to a lot of restaurants, but the Keyhole Bar & Grill is probably the most uniquely decorated. Visitors here will notice right away more than 25,000 keys decorating the bars, tables, and walls.
The menu here is huge and customers can find everything from barbecue ribs to chicken to steak to Mexican food to sandwiches and wraps. Additionally, the bar is stocked with a good wine selection and a variety of beers.
Mama Mia’s is a seasonal pizza joint that serves mouthwatering pies, but it also doubles as a museum. Above the restaurant, visitors can check out the free Mackinaw Bridge Museum, which tells the story of the Mighty Mac and features items used in the construction of the bridge.
Lodging Near Headlands International Dark Sky Park
Mackinaw City has plenty of hotels, campgrounds, and vacation rentals, so visitors have plenty of lodging options when they come to town.
Parkside Inn Bridgeview
Visitors staying at Parkside Inn Bridgeview will get some of the best views that Mackinaw Ciy hotels offer. They can see both the Mackinac Bridge and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, as well as have beach access at Henry Park. During the morning, travelers can enjoy breakfast in the Bridge View Room while soaking up scenic views.
Vindel Motel may be one of the simplest hotels in Mackinaw City, but it doesn’t skimp on comfort. Visitors will find a quiet setting and comfortable rooms with amenities like minifridges and microwaves. The beach is a short walk away, and the motel grounds have a picnic area and an outdoor pool.
Brigadoon Bed & Breakfast
One of the most beautiful hotels in Mackinaw City is the Brigadoon Bed & Breakfast, which can feel like a home away from home. This inn offers stunning rooms close to lots of great attractions, shops, and restaurants. The rooms offer fireplaces, private balconies, and other amenities to make visitors feel like they’re living a life of luxury.
Have you been to a Dark Sky Park? Tell us what you thought in the comments!