Lonely Planet Writer

A dark corner of the US is about to become an incredible astronomy park

There’s not much in the Hocking Hills, an undulating, bucolic realm in the far southeast corner of Ohio. Not much, that is, but some of the nation’s darkest skies, where the stars dazzle beyond belief and the Milky Way feels so close you can reach out and touch it. Indeed, in a country where more than 80% of the population can’t even spot the Milky Way, there’s no light pollution here, that anathema to star viewing. Which is why astronomers have long flocked here.

Hocking Hills night sky. Image by Aaron Rigsby

And now star gazers, amateur and expert alike, will have an official place to flock, with the building of the John Glenn Observatory and Astronomy Park within the confines of Hocking Hills State Park. Opening day is slated for the Spring Equinox in 2018. “The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and advance the kind of science, math and education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel,” once said the late astronaut and senator John Glenn, who offered the park naming rights about a year before his death in 2016. This astronomy park is destined to do just that, and more.

Hocking Hills by night. Image by Aaron Rigsby

The intimate, roll-off-roof, $1.6-million observatory will allow visitors to experience the night sky through a 28-inch permanent telescope (plus smaller moveable telescopes). They’ll be able to view the moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies—and, with luck, comets—accompanied by astronomers and other star experts who will offer guidance and interpretation.

But it’s not only about the night sky. An adjacent, 80-foot Solar Plaza has been designed with six different sun slots to capture the sun’s rays on key days—a tradition that has been practiced at Stonehenge, England; Machu Picchu, Peru; Chaco Canyon, New Mexico; and elsewhere for centuries. In addition, all kinds of fun educational programming is being planned by astronomers, state park rangers, and professors from Ohio State University, including a “solar system walk” that demonstrates how big the solar system is.

John Glenn Astronomy Park’s Solar Plaza.

“We can’t stop development, but the goal of a place like this is to make people aware of what they’re missing,” said Brad Hoehne, the park’s executive director. The John Glenn Observatory and Astronomy Park is spearheaded by the Friends of Hocking Hills State Park, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering a partnership between outdoor enthusiasts and the state park as a way to provide nature education and high conservation standards for future generations.

By Barbara Noe Kennedy