The Western U.S. might get all the glory – and all the certifications – for its dark sky destinations, but most of us don’t live in those remote, rural areas where the stars shine so brightly. In fact, an estimated 37% of Americans live in the South (source), so a good number of folks are trying to see the stars in that part of the country.
While I’ve already covered stargazing city guides for Southern cities like Orlando, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Memphis, I thought it was time to give Alabama a little love. Huntsville – home to Space Camp and Marshall Space Flight Center – is ‘Bama’s biggest city*, but Birmingham is third-most populous, and a cultural and historic destination in its own right.
That’s why I thought it was time to put together a guide to stargazing in Birmingham. From spots near the city center to places further afield, here are 10 great places to plan a stargazing session in and near Birmingham, Alabama.
*Birmingham used to be the most populated city in Alabama, but the 2020 census suggests that Huntsville has grown substantially in the past few years and taken the top spot.
In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Mvskoke (Muscogee) and Shawandasse Tula (Shawanwaki/Shawnee) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Stargazing Spots in Birmingham
Like in most cities, finding un-light-polluted skies in Birmingham is a challenge. Don’t despair, though. There are a couple of decent spots for stargazing in Birmingham that will satiate your craving for a starry night if you can’t get out of the city.
Vulcan Park is one of Birmingham’s greatest prides and probably one of the first stops you make if you’re visiting. Located right in the heart of the city, Vulcan Park has lovely grounds where you can set up your telescope.
It’s worth visiting during the day, too. The park is home to the largest cast iron statue in the world and offers sprawling views of the city. There’s also a museum where you can learn about early Birmingham, including tidbits on Coca-Cola rivals in the early days of the soft drink.
Lake Purdy is always inviting whether you choose to kayak or fish. But, this lovely lake also offers pretty dark skies to take in the beauty of the cosmos. The 1050-acre water reservoir is surrounded by 7800 acres of wilderness area only, meaning you won’t encounter pesky city lights that hamper your viewing session.
The grounds have many walking trails if you want to explore the area and find a suitable place for stargazing.
Stargazing Spots within 1 hour of Birmingham
As I always say, the further you drive from the city, the better the quality of dark skies will be. To help with that, here’s a list of places for stargazing within an hour of Birmingham city center. Believe me, the difference a few miles can make in your stargazing session is astounding.
Located 30 minutes away from Birmingham, Bluff Park sits on the summit of Shades Mountain. The setting is beautiful, with the park surrounded by Shades Valley and Red Mountain to the north and by gentle land slopes to the south.
One of the perks of stargazing in Bluff Park is the altitude. The park sits 500 feet above sea level, getting you closer to the night sky – while the Western U.S. might have lots of high altitude stargazing spots, we’ll take what we can get in Alabama!
Cahaba River Park
Cahaba River Park, just south of Birmingham, is an overlooked diamond in the rough for stargazing. The park is about 1,500 acres and is located at the confluence of the Cahaba River and Shades Creek. It is one of the best Birmingham stargazing spots as it is far from big urban areas. You’ll find the best stargazing areas down River Road near the park entrance.
Horse Pens 40
If you hold a fascination for stars and rocks, Horse Pens is a great place to go stargazing in Birmingham. This privately-owned outdoor nature park is perched atop Chandler Mountain, in the foothills of The Appalachian Mountains. It is famous among the rock climbing community as a prime bouldering destination – I mean, the park has 40 acres of epic rock formations to admire.
As for stargazing, you’ll find plenty of places to soak in the night sky; the park does stay open after sunset and offers primitive camping sites if you want to stay overnight.
James Wylie Shepherd Observatory
Observatories are fantastic places to get your astronomy fix. Located in Montevallo, James Wylie Shepherd Observatory is Alabama’s most state-of-the-art astronomical facility. It sits three miles out from Montevallo’s campus, far away from most of the light pollution that might spoil views of the night sky. The observatory features a robotic dome and a state-of-the-art 20-inch PlaneWave CDK20 telescope.
The University of Montevallo hosts public observing nights at the observatory, although dates aren’t fixed. Make sure to check out their website for further information.
Oak Mountain State Park
If you’re willing to combine camping and stargazing, Oak Mountain State Park is one of the best Birmingham stargazing places you’ll find. This state park in Alabama is just outside the city but feels as though you’ve gone to a remote location.
The grounds are huge, covering about 50 miles of trails and a couple of large beautiful lakes. Since the park closes at 7 pm, you’ll have to stay overnight to explore the cosmos. It’s worth it. You’ll witness some incredible stargazing views.
Sipsey Wilderness Area is one of the coolest places to go in northwest Alabama for outdoor enthusiasts. It features hiking trails in all directions, waterfalls in abundance, and beautiful scenery all the way through. The park is fairly wooded and the tall trees can affect your visibility of the sky. You can find open areas near the river canyons or close to the property’s entrances.
As a heads-up, this place is beautiful, but grab a local map if you are not familiar because you will have no cell phone service and the roads and some trails are unmarked.
Stargazing Spots within 2.5 hours of Birmingham
If you’re up for a stargazing trip, this section is for you. The locations mentioned below are shielded from the glare of our cities, providing majestic views of the night sky. So hop in the car and let’s go!
Moundville Archaeological Park
One of the nation’s premier Native American heritage sites, Moundville Archaeological Park is a stunning place to visit for a stargazing session. The park sits on the Black Warrior River and preserves 326 acres where, 800 years ago, Mississippian Indians constructed 28 massive mounds.
If you’re into astrophotography, the mounds will be the best asset for your photos, which look beautiful against the dark sky and shining stars.
Cheaha State Park
Many locals mention Cheaha State Park as the best place to go stargazing in Birmingham. The park is located at the highest point in Alabama at about 2,400 feet above sea level (2,407 feet, to be exact!). It feels like you’re on top of the world. No matter where you look, Cheaha offers breathtaking natural beauty with spectacular views.
The only downside is that the park closes at 9 pm. However, it offers tons of accommodation alternatives, from campgrounds to rock cabins.
Planetariums in Birmingham
Planetariums are a great alternative for getting started in the amazing world of astronomy. They provide entertainment with an educative touch, which is an unforgettable experience for children and adults alike.
Birmingham is home to the Christenberry Planetarium. The building offers excellent programs throughout the year to get people interested in astronomy. Most presentations are interactive and elicit tons of oohs and aahs of amazement in the guests that are seeing the galaxies in a way they never have before. Moreover, the presentations are generally free admission and first come, first served seating unless otherwise stated.
Best Time of the Year to Go Stargazing in Birmingham
If you’ve got the flexibility to choose when you visit Birmingham and try stargazing, it helps to know when the weather and atmospheric conditions are most agreeable.
As Birmingham is located in the heart of the South (the Southern U.S., for any non-American readers), it’s known for pretty mild but often overcast winters and hot, muggy (aka humid) summers. When then to go stargazing in Birmingham? The in-between!
The best months for stargazing in Birmingham are September and October – but October is better than September if you have the flexibility in your travel schedule. (October is also a better month for astronomical events like meteor showers.)
Can you See the Milky Way in Birmingham?
In addition to seeing stars, planets, moons, and meteors, you might wonder if the Milky Way is visible in Birmingham. As you might expect given the limited number of great stargazing spots in Birmingham, there’s a fair amount of light pollution in this Alabama city – and thus seeing the Milky Way is tricky, nigh impossible.
However, you can see the Milky Way in more remote areas, like Cheaha State Park and the other areas I recommend further from the city lights.
Have any questions about these places for stargazing in Birmingham and the surrounding region? Let me know in the comments!