What you need to know

dark sky viewing

The grounds, trails, shoreline viewing areas and restrooms at Headlands are open 24 hours a day, every day, at no charge. The facilities at Headlands (Waterfront Event Center and Observatory plus the Guest House) are only open to the public during regularly scheduled programs or by private rental. Please note that private rental does not include the Observatory. Plan accordingly and dress for temperatures 10 degrees below what you expect. The park is located on the shore of Lake Michigan and is always cooler than inland.

The road through the park is paved and mostly flat, with an incline near the entrance. At the fork in the road, the pavement continues right to the Waterfront Center and Observatory, while the road to the left winds down to the Guest House and wilderness shoreline along a gravel route. Guests are welcome to use bicycles and can utilize other wheeled carts, such as wagons, to carry supplies. There is handicap parking available at the Waterfront Event Center, available on a first-come, first-served basis. ALL GUESTS ARE ENCOURAGED TO PARK WITH THEIR HEADLIGHTS AIMING AWAY FROM THE BUILDING AND SHORELINE VIEWING AREAS, so that, when returning to your car after dark, your headlights don’t shine into the viewing areas. Your consideration is appreciated!

Download the Headlands Trail Map

Are there public restrooms available?

Restroom facilities are available 24/7 at the Observatory, ground floor (even when the observatory is not open).

Where do the Dark Sky Programs take place?

The public Dark Sky Park programs take place at the brand new Waterfont Event Center and Observatory stage area (unless otherwise noted); follow the signs through the park. There is some parking near the designated dark sky viewing area at the shore, and near the Waterfront Event Center and Observatory. If you’ve never been to Headlands, we advise that you arrive during daylight hours to get a sense of the park (and the parking!). When the parking lot near the facility fills up, we do allow some parking along the road, or visitors can take advantage of the beautiful environment and park near the Headlands entrance, and walk the one mile in to the shoreline viewing area and facilities. Be prepared with things you can easily carry. Call (231) 427-1001 or email darksky@emmetcounty.org if you have further program questions.

Is Camping Allowed?

Camping is not permitted. However, visitors are welcomed and encouraged to stay out through the night and early morning hours for night-sky viewing opportunities. You may bring blankets, sleeping bags, chairs, food, beverages, etc. Nearby campsites are listed with links below.

Where to camp nearby

For those who would like to camp near the Headlands, there are several options:

KOA Kampground (approx. 5 minutes away)

Wilderness State Park campground (approx. 15 minutes away)

Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping (approx. 10 minutes away)

Tee Pee Campground (approx. 10 minutes away)

Camp Pet-O-Se-Ga, owned and operated by Camp Pet-O-Se-Ga is located about 30 minutes away in Alanson.

Burt Lake State Park (approx. 45 minutes)

Are pets allowed at the park?

Dogs are allowed at the Headlands as long as they are on a leash. And please remember to pick up after your pet so everyone can enjoy the park experience! Dogs are not allowed inside the buildings at the Headlands.

Can I use a regular flashlight?

The Dark Sky Park is indeed very dark! We recommend that visitors bring red-filtered flashlights only, so as to not disturb the vision of other park users. White light can ruin the viewing opportunities presented at the Headlands, for yourself and others. You can make your own red-filtered flashlight by taking red plastic wrap (or coloring clear plastic wrap red) and covering the tip of the flashlight. (Check for the special red wrap around the winter holidays in particular and stock up!) Here’s one way to get started making a night-vision flashlight

What is a Dark Sky Park?

Emmet County achieved designation for the Headlands as an International Dark Sky Park in May 2011. The designation is awarded by the International Dark Sky Association in Tucson, Arizona, the oldest organization dedicated to protecting and stewarding natural darkness in the world. When we achieved the designation at Headlands, we were just the 6th such park in the US and only the 9th in the world. As a result, we have enjoyed a great deal of success, and more importantly, we have been part of a very dynamic, international movement to protect natural darkness worldwide. From our northwest corner of the Michigan mitt, we have been able to influence state legislation that now protects the dark skies over an additional 30,000 acres of state-owned land, and we are working in partnership with the National Parks Service on the dark skies over their properties in the Great Lakes region.

The International Dark Sky Association now recognizes over 40 international dark sky parks worldwide, and while Headlands is the only IDA designated dark sky park in Michigan, we proudly participate at the international level supporting programming and the cultural history of humanity’s relationship to the stars through our program director’s participation in IDA committee work and through an extensive schedule of events on-site every month at Headlands, through weekly radio broadcasts in Northern Michigan, and at conferences around the world.

According to the IDA Web site, only 1% of US population lives in gold-tier areas; 16% in silver; and 21% in bronze. Compare that to Australia at 29%, 9%, and 25%; Canada at 3%, 14%, and 12%; and Germany 0%, 34% and 41%. Thus Gold DSPs will likely be designated in areas of sparse population.