On a pitch-black night in the Michigan community of Copper Harbor, a group gathers around regionally renowned astrophotographer Nate Betts to peer through a camera lens pointing toward the heavens. The collection of locals and tourists have traveled to what is arguably the most remote town in the continental United States to attend a workshop hosted by the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge to learn about dark sky photography. 

Located more than 250 miles from the nearest interstate, Copper Harbor rests in the heart of Lake Superior at the northern edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Thanks to its unobstructed views of the northern horizon, northern latitude and minimal light pollution, the town is quickly becoming a dark sky destination for enthusiasts enthralled by views of celestial constellations, the heavenly Milky Way Galaxy, and even the Northern Lights. 

Chasing the Northern Lights

Many dream of viewing the majestic bands of light dancing across a star-filled night sky. But very few ever get to see it in-person. Trips to destinations known for aura chasing, like Iceland and Alaska, often seem too expensive or time consuming. Especially when the chance of viewing the incredible phenomenon is reduced by events like cloud cover.  

Recently, several Midwest destinations have witnessed an increase in visitors interested in experiencing stargazing. Traveling from metros like Chicago and Grand Rapids, they are seeking out locations to escape the big city lights to witness what was once so common prior to the country’s electrification: a truly dark sky.

Exploring the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Dark Skies

What Makes the Keweenaw a Dark Sky Destination?

According to Nate Betts, the closer you are to the North Pole, the better. The Aurora Borealis phenomenon occurs because of the interaction between the Sun’s solar flares and the Earth’s magnetic field. The physical location of the Keweenaw is situated at a latitude of 47 degrees or as far north as one can travel in Michigan.

The Keweenaw’s high latitude coinciding with the Earth’s tilt and rotation yields shorter days and longer nights during the stretch of time from the autumnal equinox to the winter solstice. This decreases the amount of daylight hours and makes dark sky celestial opportunities more plentiful.

You also need dark skies. Avoiding large cities, which put off lots of ambient light is mandatory to see the full array of stars. Streetlights, billboards, high-rises, and traffic are all huge contributors to light pollution that prevents us from clearly seeing the beauty of a starry night sky. The Keweenaw’s city centers have the benefit of being small in comparison to the overall scale of the untamed and natural land surrounding. 

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“The Keweenaw is amazing for astrophotography,” explained Betts, “because it’s dark here. Very dark. It sounds overly simplistic, but that’s the real key. You need to get very far away from bright lights to get a great shot of the complexities of the night sky.” 

The greatest of lakes that surrounds the Keweenaw also means that for miles and miles, there is nothing to create or reflect light to impede night sky viewing. This same lake also creates vast, nearly limitless skylines. Dark sky watchers can get massive “real estate” in their celestial landscapes as there is nothing impeding their view of the horizon. 

A Quest to Become the First International Dark Sky Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

In Copper Harbor, the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge is seeking to become the Upper Peninsula’s first International Dark Sky Park. The effort requires an extensive application process and a dedication to preserving Copper Harbor’s dark skies through education and lighting modifications. “You have Lake Superior all around you…So you can actually look north, east, west, and south and see very little lights,” said John Mueller, owner of the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge.

The historic lodge has led numerous workshops on dark sky photography and star gazing events to help connect their customers and the local community with a dark sky experience. “Our dark skies encompass more than the lodge property, so we are naming the designated area the Keweenaw Dark Sky Wilderness,” said Mueller.

Image Captions:
  • Keweenaw-Mountain-Lodge: “The Keweenaw Mountain Lodge is applying to become the first International Dark Sky Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”
  • KML Night Sky Workshop: “The Keweenaw Mountain Lodge organizes stargazing events and night sky photography events in Copper Harbor, MI.”
  • NLights_Quincy_Origina_001: “A picture of the Northern Lights behind the Historic Quincy Mine in Hancock, MI.”
  • Roman_Kahler_3: “The Keweenaw’s pristine wilderness makes for an exceptional dark sky viewing experience. Photo credit: Roman Kahler.”
  • Roman_Kahler_2: “Low levels of ambient light from Keweenaw communities allow stunning views of the Milky Way. Photo credit: Roman Kahler.”
  • Roman_Kahler: “Interest in viewing the Northern Lights is growing among visitors to the Keweenaw Peninsula. Photo credit: Roman Kahler.”