The Blue Ridge Parkway is largely set apart from major cities, so from its roadway and overlooks, on clear nights, a visitor may see the night sky with so little light pollution that the Milky Way galaxy is visible to the naked eye. On nights without clouds or a bright, full moon, the Parkway’s overlooks are excellent locations from which to stargaze. Dress warmly, even in summer, as mountain nights are significantly colder than the days that precede them. Choose your overlook, turn off your lights, and sit for several minutes in the darkness to allow your eyes to adjust. On clear nights, Parkway visitor should be able to see about 2,500 stars.
Best Overlooks for Stargazing
- Humpback Gap Overlook, Milepost 6. From this overlook, it is a 0.9 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail to Humpback Rocks, which are higher than the surrounding peaks.
- Big Spy Overlook, Milepost 26.4
- View Arnold Overlook, Milepost 76.7. This is this highest point of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia
- Harvey’s Knob Overlook, Milepost 95.3
- Buck Mountain Overlook, Milepost 123.2. From this overlook, there is a 0.5 mile loop trail to the top of Buck Mountain.
- View Piedmont Overlook, Milepost 203.9
- Cumberland Knob Overlook, Milepost 217.5
- The Lump Overlook, Milepost 264.4
- Thunder Hill Overlook, Milepost 290.4
- Moses Cone Manor, Milepost 294. The parking area itself is not a good place to stargaze, but it is a 4 mile hike to Flat Top Tower, which is elevated above the treeline of the highest peak in the vicinity.
- Beacon Heights, Milepost 305.2. From this parking area, it is a 0.2 mile hike to the top of Beacon Heights, which is also a beautiful place to watch a sunrise.
- Licklog Ridge Overlook, Milepost 349.2
- Craggy Dome Overlook, Milepost 364.1. From this overlook, it is a 0.7 mile hike to the summit of Craggy Pinnacle.
- Mills Valley Overlook, Milepost 404.5
- Pounding Mill Overlook, Milepost 413.5
- Richland Balsam Overlook, Milepost 431.4. This is the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
From the Parkway, you can always see the North Star, Polaris. It is located at the end of the handle of the little dipper, and it neither rises nor sets during the course of the night. In the Northern hemisphere, it will always appear due north as it travels above the horizon line. Year-round, it remains at a fixed point while other stars circle around it. For these reasons, it is often used by stargazers as a fixed point from which to locate other constellations.
To find north, find the Big Dipper, which is seven stars appearing as a “bowl” and “handle” of a cup. The two stars outside of the bowl are called pointer stars; they point towards Polaris, which will appear brighter than other surrounding stars. Turn your body towards Polaris to face north.
Ursa Major, the Great Bear
The stars that form the “handle” of the Big Dipper also form the tail of the Great Bear. We see the Great Bear as if it is walking in a straight line and we are on its right side. Greco-Roman mythology tells us that a great king grabbed the bear by its tail, swung it in a circle, and then threw it into the sky to circle the North Pole forever. Native Americans believe that the three tail stars are hunters.
Ursa Minor, the Little Bear
Polaris is on the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
Orion, the Hunter
The constellation Orion is easiest to find in winter. Three bright stars in a close line form Orion’s belt, two brighter stars north of the belt are his shoulders, and two brighter stars south are his legs.
Canis Major, the Great Dog
To find Canis Major, picture a straight line running through Orion’s belt, and follow it south to find Sirius, the very bright star that is the nose of the Great Dog. Continue looking south until you find a triangle; it is the dog’s hindquarters.
The Orionids Meteor Shower
The Orionids Meteors are caused by Earth traveling through the debris trail of Halley’s Comet. What we call “shooting stars” are particles of comet dust falling into the atmosphere, burning brilliant, glowing trails when they collide with it. An observer may view the meteors throughout the month, but on the peak days they will be seen at rates of up to 20 meteors an hour.The Orionids Meteors begin appearing in the sky in early October and continue until the first week of November. The peak week centers on October 21, so expect the most abundant showers during those times.
Stargazers should consult the lunar calendar to catch a time when moonlight will cause the least interference with this famous autumn star show. The best time to look is shortly before local sunrise — around 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning. Sky watchers with clear dark skies will spot a meteor every five minutes or so.
Meteors will streak out of the constellation Orion (hence the name “Orionids”). The radiant point is near Orion’s left shoulder; it is also near the bright planet Saturn. Simply look south and up–you can’t miss it. But don’t stare too long at the bright star or planet, or Orionids that appear there will seem short and stubby due to foreshortening. Instead, look toward any dark region of the sky about 90 degrees away. You’ll see just as many Orionids, but they will seem longer and more dramatic.