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The Blue Ridge region, aside from around its larger cities, is full of great places to enjoy a dark sky filled with stars.
People travel the world to see its wonders, but you need only to tilt your head to view the greatest sight of all. What can be more captivating than a dark sky filled with stars, planets, and the Milky Way?
Before Edison lit up the world, every place provided a great location to view the night sky. Today, light pollution dictates the best sites. You won’t see many stars from downtown Asheville or Roanoke, and you’ll never see the Milky Way from a light-polluted site.
While the best locations are far from artificial lights, you’ll still have a good viewing experience closer to a city if you choose the right site. Pick a spot where a mountain blocks the view toward the city, but where you can still see most of the sky overhead. I live less than 10 minutes from Waynesville and 25 minutes from Asheville, but since mountains surround my house, the Milky Way is clearly visible. Regardless of the location, if the moon is up, you won’t see as many stars. Even a half-full moon will completely overpower the Milky Way.
The Blue Ridge region offers many great locations for viewing the night sky, with several providing opportunities for learning about astronomy as well. And do seek out more information about viewing opportunities in your area. Astronomy clubs have regular meetings and outings for viewing the night sky. Find a club in your area on the Night Sky Network website nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/index.cfm. Another good resource is the Sea & Sky website seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-clubs.html.
Here are a few sites to get you started:
Blue Ridge Parkway. Pick an overlook. Any overlook. Some are better than others, but nearly all provide at least a partial view of the night sky. Overlooks that provide a view to the horizon will show more of the sky, but you’ll likely see some light pollution close to the horizon. Because most of the overlooks are along the crest of the Blue Ridge rather than in the valleys surrounded by mountains, very few of them give you a perfectly dark view of the sky. With that said, as long as you aren’t very close to Asheville or Roanoke, it’s hard to beat the Blue Ridge Parkway as a location for night-sky viewing. nps.gov/blri/index.htm
Highland Scenic Highway. Located in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest, this beautiful byway provides terrific opportunities for viewing the night sky along its higher elevations. Big Spruce Overlook on Black Mountain is a great choice. fs.usda.gov/recarea/mnf/recarea/?recid=7011
Shenandoah National Park. The overlooks along Skyline Drive offer terrific viewing opportunities, just like those along the Blue Ridge Parkway do. A popular site for night-sky viewing is the Big Meadows area. The Park Service offers presentations and guided viewing sessions here. nps.gov/shen/index.htm
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Newfound Gap Road, which runs from Cherokee to Gatlinburg and crosses the crest of the Smokies at Newfound Gap, offers several good overlooks, including the large one at Newfound Gap. Also, the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road is a good choice. Add a little exercise to your viewing experience by hiking the 0.5-mile trail and view from the tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome. nps.gov/grsm/index.htm