Watching the Milky Way at Mount Rainier. Brie Hawkins/Hawkins Photography
One summer while camping at Mount Rainier National Park, my two children and I went up to Paradise to catch the sunset and look at the stars. We were pleasantly surprised to find park rangers and volunteers setting up for an evening of stargazing with telescopes. We hung around until almost midnight, taking turns with other park visitors looking through large telescopes at distant stars, planets and even other galaxies. My kids were entranced.
A star party at Mount Rainier is just one of the stellar opportunities around Puget Sound to learn about the night sky during the summer. And one of the peak stargazing events of the year is approaching: The Perseid meteor showers, which you can view from Puget Sound urban areas, will peak tonight, the night of Aug. 12–13. The Perseids produce the most star trails after midnight.
The Perseids happen when the earth travels through the debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Families can also enjoy watching for the International Space Station as it passes overhead. And the aurora borealis sometimes makes an appearance — keep track on spaceweather.com for possible magnetic storms.
Stargazing in the city
Dark and cloudless skies are required for stargazing, which makes Seattle and other urban areas less than ideal. But for families just starting out, there are still some urban spots dark enough to lay your blanket out and see the night sky.
Alice Enevoldsen, a local expert on astronomy and education, recommends several different sites in the city for urban stargazing, including Myrtle Reservoir, Lincoln Park and Solstice Park in West Seattle.
Green Lake is also a popular stargazing site, as it is one of the few city parks open after 11:30 p.m. Once a month, the Seattle Astronomical Society hosts a star party at Green Lake, as well as at Paramount School Park in Shoreline, weather permitting. Members of the Society bring telescopes for the general public to use, and enjoy sharing astronomical facts with people of all ages.
In the South Sound, the Tacoma Astronomical Society also hosts star parties for the public at Pierce College. Battle Point Astronomical Association has public star parties and indoor planetarium shows on Bainbridge Island. If you’re headed to the Tri-Cities, the Tri-City Astronomy Club hosts public star parties from March through October.
Brie Hawkins, a local weather enthusiast and photographer, also recommends Lighthouse Park in Mukilteo for urban stargazing. Some of her favorite spots away from the city include the Diablo Lake and Washington Pass overlooks along Highway 20 in the North Cascades. These places are open at night and have toilets available. You can find camping at Newhalem or Colonial Creek near Diablo Lake or Lone Fir, Klipchuck or Early Winters campgrounds near Washington Pass.
Stargazing gear and tips
- Find a place with a dark, open sky.
- Turn off lights and electronic devices.
- Let your eyes adjust to the dark for at least 10–15 minutes.
- Binoculars can work for some planets and the moon.
- Bring reclining lawn chairs, and blankets and coats.
- Bring a paper star finder.
- Use apps such as SkyView Free.
- If you must use a light, put a red filter over your flashlight.
- Check clearskycharts.com.
A quick, accessible spot outside the city but not far, especially from Eastside locales, is Rattlesnake Lake in North Bend (park outside the gate so your car doesn’t get locked inside after they close).
Starry camping and backpacking
Getting further away from the city, of course, will earn you more Perseids action. One of Enevoldsen’s favorite spots is the boat dock at Lake Kachess along I-90, and Staircase Campground in Olympic National Park. (If you’re not staying overnight at the campground, talk to the ranger to get permission to be there.)
For families who are looking for more adventure, consider attending an event at one of our national parks or monuments. At Hurricane Ridge, you can join a star party or full moon night hike with the Olympia Astronomical Society (OAS).
Star parties happen in summer around the new moon; check the OAS calendar for details.
Families who enjoy backpacking will find even more places to be away from city lights.
Other popular camping and photography areas include Tipsoo Lake near Mount Rainier, Slate Peak out of Mazama, Salmon La Sac and the surrounding camping areas and Sun Lakes – Dry Falls State Park in Central Washington.
More stargazing spots and resources for curious families
Read the Washington Trails Association article on dark-sky backpacking trips.
Editor's notes: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated for 2019. It's wildfire season in Washington; check conditions carefully before heading out on any trail or to a wilderness area.