Washington D.C. is the nation’s capital, and home to arguably the best space museum in the country. Each day, visitors head to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum to learn about the history of American spaceflight and NASA, or to see the Space Shuttle Discovery in her permanent home in Virginia. That makes D.C. one of those must-visit places at least once in your life if you’re a space enthusiast.
You might also want to try stargazing when you’re in the area (or if you’re a local). We’ve put together this guide to help you see the night sky during your time in Washington D.C. Some will take a little travel to reach, but there are some great options within easy reach.
The Best Spots for Stargazing in Washington D.C.
Unfortunately, your stargazing options in D.C. itself are limited – mostly due to light pollution. There are a few spots that might work, detailed below, or you can read on to see better options a bit further out of the city.
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum is a must for space-lovers visiting Washington D.C., but did you know they also host astronomical observing sessions? Most days, they have solar telescopes set up during the daytime so visitors can take a closer look at the sun. Occasionally, they also host nighttime stargazing events including at the Observatory which is usually closed to the public. You can see their upcoming schedule on their website.
600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC, airandspace.si.edu
U.S. Naval Observatory
We’ve heard rumors that the U.S. Naval Observatory offers tours that include stargazing… but we’re unfortunately unable to confirm this for sure. (The Navy website is currently inaccessible due to security issues.) We’ll update this section if we get confirmation of these tours and the details you need to know.
3450 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC, usno.navy.mil
Stargazing Spots within One Hour from D.C.
In every city stargazing guide, we note that if you’re willing to drive 30-60 minutes out of town, you’ll be shocked at how quickly the skies get dark. The same holds true for Washington D.C. Plan for up to an hour’s drive to one of these spots and you’ll have a great night of stargazing.
The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal
Also called the C&O Canal by locals, this National Historic Park stretches over 180 miles along the Potomac River from West Virginia to the Chesapeake Bay. Because this historic canal is preserved through the National Park Service, it offers a small band of undeveloped land where you can find more darkness and clearer star views. If you’re planning an overnight trip to try and stargaze along the C&O Canal, consider basing yourself near Harper’s Ferry, where the Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia borders meet.
Located on the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus, you can get to the Montgomery College Planetarium in about 20 minutes. This planetarium hosts shows regularly. For special astronomical occasions like meteor showers and passing comets, they also host observation night using the two telescopes they have available. All events are noted on the campus calendar and most are free and open to the public.
51 Mannakee St, Rockville, MD, montgomerycollege.edu
George Mason University Observatory
The GMU Observatory is located on the George Mason University campus near Fairfax, Virginia. It takes about 40 minutes to drive from central D.C. to Fairfax, making it a good option for stargazing outside the Beltway when you don’t want to do an overnight trip. The GMU Observatory is currently home to several telescopes. The school offers ‘Evening Under the Stars’ programs for the public to come and view the sky through them.
Research Hall, 10401 York River Rd, Fairfax, VA, cos.gmu.edu
Seneca Creek State Park
Seneca Creek State Park is about 40 minutes outside of central D.C., making it another good option for an evening of stargazing – especially if you’re keen to have an unstructured/unhosted evening. The park technically closes at sunset, so be sure to check about where you can stay later after the sun goes down. You can also rent a campsite, yurt, or cabin and stay the night to have all the time you desire to see the stars whirl overhead.
11950 Clopper Rd, Gaithersburg, MD, dnr.maryland.gov
When you hear of a place called ‘Observatory Park,’ you know it’s perfect for stargazing, right? Located in Great Falls, Virginia, about 35 minutes outside of D.C., Observatory Park is a dedicated stargazing spot on The Turner Farm, a public area managed by Fairfax County. It’s popular with amateur astronomers and astronomy clubs because it’s far enough from the city lights to offer good dark sky quality. They host regular events and classes, so it’s one of the best spots to go if you want to be guided by fellow astronomy-lovers.
Great Falls, VA, fairfaxcounty.gov
Sky Meadows State Park
Sky Meadows, as its name suggests, is a great place to view the open sky. It takes about an hour to get out to Sky Meadows State Park from Washington D.C., so it might be better as an overnight or weekend trip. However, it’s worth making that trip because they host regular astronomy events (monthly, according to their calendar) and you’ll be far enough away from the city lights to really see the stars.
11012 Edmonds Ln, Delaplane, VA, dnr.virginia.gov
C.M. Crockett Park
C.M. Crockett Park, located in Fauquier County, Virginia, is on the far end of the hour limit for this section of our stargazing guide. It takes about 60-70 minutes to get to the park from D.C. depending on traffic and construction. Once you’re there, you can stargaze over the large lake in the park. The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club also hosts events out at C.M. Crockett Park, which lets you know it’s a good dark sky spot.
10066 Rogues Rd, Midland, VA, fauquiercounty.gov
Stargazing Spots within Two Hours from D.C.
Within two hours’ drive from the Beltway, you can get to some truly spectacular dark skies. Since you have to head west to escape the lights of the Eastern Seaboard, if you want to go somewhere other than these spots, anywhere in the Appalachians will probably be good!
Shenandoah National Park
It takes about two hours to reach Shenandoah National Park from Washington D.C., but that doesn’t include time to get into a spot within the park. For that reason, it’s best to plan at least an overnight – if not a weekend – trip if you want to go stargazing in Shenandoah National Park.
Shenandoah National Park is one of the most popular national parks for stargazing, and for good reason. There are regular astronomy events in the park, and every year they host a Night Sky Festival (usually in August near the Perseids peak). Within the park, both Big Meadows and Skyland are popular stargazing spots.
To help you plan your trip, you can also check out our Blue Ridge Mountains stargazing guide.
Big Schloss in George Washington National Forest
George Washington National Forest is a popular escape for Beltway folks who are looking to get away from it all and experience nature. Within the Forest, Big Schloss is one of the primary hiking peaks in the forest, and from the top, you can look out over both Virginia and West Virginia. The Big Schloss Trail is 4.4 miles and most hikers advise taking 2-4 hours to make the summit.
You can also enjoy some great stargazing from the parking area if you time your hike right to arrive back at your car in time for sundown. You can also base yourself from the Wolf Gap Recreation Area for a weekend of camping, hiking, and stargazing.
Wardensville, WV, fs.usda.gov
Planetariums in the Washington D.C. Area
If you can’t make it out to one of these stargazing spots, never fear. There is a surprisingly high number of planetariums in the D.C. area where you can see the stars in a different way. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- National Air & Space Albert Einstein Planetarium – Located at the Air & Space Museum on the National Mall (website)
- Maryland Science Center Davis Planetarium – Located in Baltimore at the Maryland Science Center on the Baltimore Harbor (website)
- Mongomery College Takoma Park Planetarium – As mentioned above, this planetarium hosts events for the public in the Takoma Park/Silver Spring area (website)
- Rock Creek Park Planetarium – Located at the Rock Creek Park Nature Center, this is a great way to get some outdoors time and learn about space (website)
- David M. Brown Planetarium – Located right near downtown Arlington, this is a good option on the Virginia side of the Potomac (website)
- Howard B. Owens Science Center Planetarium – Just outside the Beltway in Berwyn, MD, this is a great family-friendly option (website)
All of these planetariums host weekly or daily shows. Check the website for each to find out when you can see a show that interests you.
Can You See the Milky Way in Washington D.C.?
Unfortunately – as is the case with most major cities – you can’t see the Milky Way in Washington D.C. If you want to see our galaxy, plan to travel up to 60 minutes out of the city. Your best chances for clear, dark skies will occur if you visit one of the two-hour destinations we mentioned above. Or you can attend a star party hosted by a local astronomy club so that an astronomer can help you spot the stars and milky shape of our galaxy.
Best Times of Year to Go Stargazing in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. and the surrounding area experience four distinct seasons. Summers are hot, muggy, and marked by thunderstorms – especially in the late summer months. In the winter, it’s not uncommon to have snow several times during the colder months. That makes the spring and autumn months best for stargazing in D.C. If you’re planning a trip to Washington D.C. and stargazing is on your itinerary, plan to visit in September to October or April to May.
Other Space Experiences in Washington D.C.
In addition to stargazing, there are some other space experiences worth mentioning in Washington D.C.
First, of course, is the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. This museum is the heart of air and space history in the U.S., and it’s easy to spend an entire day enjoying all of the displays and exhibits. Don’t forget to visit the Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which is part of the museum but is located in Fairfax County, Virginia.
You’ll probably be surprised to learn that as a space enthusiast, there’s a good reason to visit the National Cathedral. Inside, you’ll find a ‘space window,’ which was designed to house a piece of moon rock. Astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin presented the souvenir from their historic moon landing to the Cathedral in 1974, and the stained glass has been its home ever since. While you’re visiting, don’t forget to look for the Darth Vader Grotesque on the outside of the cathedral. Vader can be spotted on the northwest tower.
Lastly, you probably shouldn’t plan to visit Space Adventures unless you have the $20 million on hand to book one of their signature trips to the International Space Station. Nevertheless, it’s fun to note that this space tourism company has its headquarters in Vienna, Virginia, about 30 minutes outside D.C.
Do you have other questions about stargazing in Washington, D.C.? Ask in the comments.
Featured photo credit: John Brighenti via Flickr