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.

 Click here for the address and directions.
Download the Headlands Trail Map

There is no camping allowed.

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.

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 public Dark Sky Park programs take place at the  brand new Waterfont Event Center and Observatory stage area (un;ess otherwise noted); follow the signs through the park. It’s about a mile drive in from the park entrance. Also, the programs combine naked-eye observation with telescopic views and please note, the Observatory is open during programs weather-permitting.

Concrete walkways and stage area are ideal for telescopes.

If you are heading to the Headlands on a non-program outing, follow the signs for Dark Sky Viewing to the Waterfront Event Center main parking lot. There is outdoor seating and restroom access to the north of this parking lot, and a rustic trail for the shoreline viewing area to the south. When the main parking lot near the Event center is full, guests park at the Headlands entrance and take the one-mile paved walk from entrance to shoreline viewing areas. Always park with your headlights away from viewing areas, so as to not diminish the dark when returning to your car.

Call (231) 348-1713 or email darksky@emmetcounty.org if you have further questions.  Download Headlands Trail Map

Where to camp nearby

Camping is not allowed at the Headlands. 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.

Getting to the Headlands

The Headlands is located about two miles west of downtown Mackinaw City in northwest lower Michigan.

From downtown Mackinaw City, head west on Central Avenue — the main street through the downtown. Take it as far as it goes, to the T-intersection at Headlands Road. Turn left, or south, on Headlands Road. The Headlands will be a short ways down (about two blocks) on your right. Look for the sign at the entrance.

The physical address is 15675 Headlands Road, Mackinaw City, Michigan.

The Dark Sky Viewing Area: Distance, parking and restroom facilities

Construction at the Headlands is now complete (as of June 2017)! This means 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.

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!

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

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.

How rare is Dark Sky Park designation?

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.