Chicago is called America’s “Second City,” in part because it is often eclipsed by the bright lights and pizzazz of New York City further east. But don’t let that fool you: Chicago is still a very bright city – speaking from the perspective of light pollution and its impact on stargazing in Chicago (and the surrounding area).
When I first started Space Tourism Guide, I wanted to write a city stargazing guide for stargazing in Chicago as it’s one of my favorite cities – but I quickly became discouraged when I realized just how bad the light pollution in Chicagoland is. In the years since, a number of communities have achieved dark sky certification, and people have become more aware about protecting the darkness that remains. As such, there are now a number of places near Chicago that are actually really good stargazing spots.
And while you won’t see the expanse of the Milky Way overhead while stargazing from the Adler Planetarium, there are places for stargazing in Chicago too. In this post, I’ll share the ones I’ve found and recommend, to help you enjoy the night sky over Chicago.
In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Peoria, Bodwéwadmi (Potawatomi), Myaamia, Kaskaskia, and Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo) peoples, among many others. 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.
The Best Places for Stargazing in Chicago
Chicago isn’t exactly known as a dream destination for stargazers. Quite the opposite. Still, despite its light pollution, you can find spots to appreciate the wondrous sky within the city.
Founded in 1930 by Max Adler, Adler Planetarium is one of the best places for stargazing in Chicago if you want a guided experience. Their staff and volunteers organize free stargazing programs through the “Scopes in the City program,” where they set up telescopes throughout various Chicago neighborhoods so visitors can gaze at the sky from different perspectives.
Northerly Island is a 91-acre, man-made peninsula along Chicago’s Lake Michigan lakefront. It’s an excellent spot to set up your telescope and view celestial objects, thanks to its location slightly east of the Loop, which cuts down the light pollution. For the best views, point your telescope east over Lake Michigan.
Set thirty minutes away from Chicago, Triton College houses the Cernan Earth and Space Center. The stunning center hosts Saturday Skywatch events throughout the year. Visitors can explore the cosmos, learn quirky facts about the space, and see the exhibit hall featuring space artifacts from the Apollo missions. Dates might change, so be sure to call in advance to check they are open.
Stargazing Spots Within One Hour of Chicago
Luckily, Chicago also has plenty of areas and state parks located far from urban areas. Below are some stunning spots to go stargazing in Chicago, where skies are dark, and the stars shine in all their splendor.
With 500-acres of natural beauty, Cantigny Park is an ideal choice to spend the whole day and night enjoying the outdoors. However, the grounds close at sunset most nights, so it’s a good spot for sunset stargazing (such as spotting planets or the ISS) before you’re asked to leave for the night.
This is also where the Adler Planetarium celebrates their annual Perseids Meteor Shower Star Party, so be sure to keep you eyes peeled for details about that as the date in August approaches each year.
Hickory Knolls Discovery Center
Not only is Hickory Knolls Discovery Center a supporter of environmental awareness, but it also is an advocate for dark skies. In 2011, the “One Star at a Time” program designated Hickory Knolls as a StarPark for their efforts to preserve and protect the night skies for present and future generations. Hickory Knolls closes at dusk; however, they occasionally host stargazing events and activities.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan in neighboring Indiana, this park has some of the metro region’s darkest skies above its 21,000 acres of wetlands, dunes, and oak savannas. Moreover, the park is nearby one of the finest spots to go stargazing in Chicago, Beverly Shores, which received the designation of Dark Sky Community in 2014.
Openlands Lakeshore Preserve
Openlands Lakeshore Preserve is a 77-acre nature preserve along the Lake Michigan shoreline. It’s only 30 miles north of Chicago, far enough to mitigate the skyglow from artificial lights. While the park closes at sunset, the Chicago Astronomical Society sometimes gains permission to host stargazing meetups there. So make sure you check their website for upcoming stargazing events!
Most people visit Palos Preserves to enjoy their hiking and hiking trails. What they might not know is that the Palos Preserves also boast some of the darkest skies in the area. So much so that the Dark Sky Association designated the location as an Urban Night Sky Place. It is for good reason since the Palos Preserves emits nearly 1,000 times less light than downtown Chicago and has four times as many stars visible in the night sky. Today, the site is the largest Urban Night Sky Place in the world.
You have to drive about an hour or so to explore Spring Valley Nature Center’s unpolluted skies. You can arrive early and spend the day relaxing or bird-watching. After sunset, bring out our telescope and explore the cosmos. Spring Valley Nature Center often hosts free stargazing parties. Make sure you check out their website for upcoming events.
Stargazing Spots within Two Hours of Chicago
If you have some free time and are willing to drive a couple of hours, you can find some prime spots for stargazing in Chicago.
Coral Woods Conservation Area
Coral Woods Conservation area doesn’t host stargazing events. However, you can find three stunning places to gaze at the stars only 10-15 minutes away from it. The three locations close at sunset, but you can ask for special permits to spend the night and stargaze from the front parking lots.
Pleasant Valley Conservation Area has 2,080 acres of natural beauty. Many people come here to observe wildlife, but thanks to its remoteness it also is a popular stargazing spot. You can also check Marengo Ridge Conservation Area, home to some of the best hiking in Illinois. They have a campground on site where you can set up your telescope. Finally, Winding Creek Conservation area also lends its land for some night sky viewing. Don’t miss the pond in its lovely wooded area.
Silver Springs State Park
Nothing but the sounds of nature surrounds stargazers at Silver Springs State Park. This 1,350 acres site is an absolute outdoor gem, with beautiful bodies of water that reflect the star-studded sky. Don’t miss taking a walk before your stargazing session to appreciate the scenery!
Best Times of Year to Go Stargazing in Chicago
Now that we’ve answered the question, where to go stargazing in Chicago, it’s time to talk about the best times to visit the city.
Colder months are the best time of the year to stargaze in Chicago. There’s less heat in the atmosphere during cold months, so it doesn’t distort the dim light from stars and cause waviness. Generally, Autumn, Winter, and Spring are the best times to go stargazing in the Windy City, with many astronomers referring to these times of the year as the “observing season.” If you want specific recommendations September to October and April to May are ideal months where the air quality is good, the humidity is low, and the temps aren’t so cold that you’ll want to escape to Florida.
You should also consider the moon phases to choose the ideal stargazing time. Natural moonlight overshadows the light from most stars leaving only the brightest visible. Simply said, try to avoid the full-Moon — when the Moon is at its brightest. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to go stargazing before, during, and after each new Moon.
Can You See the Milky Way in Chicago?
As you might know, big cities aren’t exactly the best place for spotting the Milky Way. All that light pollution and its ugly glow can completely hide the Milky Way. While not impossible, it’s challenging to find skies that are dark enough to see the Milky Way in Chicago. Your best bet would be to go as far as possible from sources of light pollution. Some sites mention that the middle of Lake Michigan is actually the best spot to see the milky way in Chicago. So, if you have a boat, this location could be an option.
Have any questions about stargazing in Chicago, or do you know of other locations I should add to this guide? Let me know in the comments!