When I declared, at the end of high school, that I was going to Iowa for college, people generally responded: really?
You see, Iowa is one of the “fly-over” states – or that’s what most people from the coasts do anyway. Having now lived on both the coasts and in the heart of the Midwest, I can say that there’s something special about each, and my four years spent among the corn and under Iowa’s dark starry skies are a memorable chapter in my life.
You see, Iowa does have some great starry skies, though I admittedly under-appreciated them as a college student. If you know where to go, there are great places for stargazing in Iowa, and I’ve put together a list of some of those spots in this post.
So whether you call Iowa home, are traveling through by car (not flying over!), or are considering college in the the Hawkeye State, don’t worry: you can definitely go stargazing in Iowa during your time there!
Map of Where to Go Stargazing in Iowa
Annett Nature Center
Nestled in Warren County, Annett Nature Center is a well-known spot for stargazing in Iowa.
The park opened in 1997 with the purpose of bringing nature closer to people in an educational way. It spans 160 acres and sits on a hillside above a six-acre pond and a 10-acre wetland. When it comes to stargazing, the park enjoys a privileged location away from the Des Moines metro area. It is also surrounded by rural properties and is adjacent to Lake Ahquabi State Park. So there’s literally no menace of pesky lights.
The Ashton Observatory
For those who live in or are near Jasper County, the Ashton Observatory offers fabulous stargazing events for anyone who wants to “get their feet wet” and experience the night sky for the first time.
Perched on a hilltop away from all noise and light, the Ashton Observatory is operated by the Des Moines Astronomical Society. They host public nights and events to educate the general public about astronomy. The observatory has two motorized domes, one housing a 16 inch Newtonian style telescope and the other a 16 inch Meade GPS Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. To visit, you need to book a date by calling the Ashton Observatory directly.
Drake Municipal Observatory
The observatory is operated jointly by the City of Des Moines and Drake University and is home to an eight-and-a-half inch refracting telescope. They open their doors every Friday Night to host the weekly Public Night Series held each spring, summer and fall. Before the viewing session, astronomers give a lecture on an astronomical topic to help attendees better understand the cosmos.
Eden Valley Wildlife Refuge
Spanning over 200 acres, the Eden Valley Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to escape the hustle and bustle from big cities. It is about two miles south of Baldwin, Iowa off state route 64.
This park offers primitive campsites, hikes for all fitness levels, some of the most stunning natural beauty in eastern Iowa, and pitch dark skies. There are numerous areas to set up your telescope. However, the park’s prime stargazing spot is the observation tower, which has become a top spot among stargazers and astrophotographers as it offers uninterrupted views of the night sky and horizon.
Eastern Iowa Observatory
Home to the Cedar Amateur Astronomers, the Eastern Iowa Observatory is your gateway to the cosmos.
Thanks to its facilities and knowledgeable staff, the observatory has grown to become one of best places to go stargazing in Iowa. The building houses two permanent telescopes and several portable telescopes. It also has a 5,000 square foot lecture facility with hands-on exhibits for all ages. They host some of the state’s most special astronomy events as well as public viewing sessions throughout the year to experience the beauty of the night. You can visit the Cedar Astronomers website to learn about their events and available dates.
Lake Sugema, near Keosauqua, is one of the prime Iowa stargazing spots. The lake sits under some of the darkest skies in the Midwest and offers plenty of spots to carry on your stargazing sessions. When the night comes, a thousand stars cover the sky and you can even see the Milky Way.
As a general rule, local stargazers recommend sticking to the northwest side of the lake. There are two parking lots around the lake that offer the best views and clear skies. Try to avoid the two large parking lots on the east side (they’re too close to the campground and lights).
Nine Eagles State Park
One of the best kept secrets of southern Iowa, Nine Eagles State Park is a 1,100-acre state park in Decatur County. This gorgeous park has so much to offer for campers, fishermen, or anyone looking for a place to relax and enjoy nature.
As for stargazing, Nine Eagles is one of the lesser light-polluted parts of the state. You can find good viewing spots near the lake. However, local stargazers suggest you arrive early and explore the area to find a suitable spot. You can spend the night at one of the campsites or go for the day, although the park closes at 10:30 pm.
Preparation Canyon State Park
Defined as a Midwest paradise, Preparation Canyon State Park is a unique place to go stargazing in Iowa. This remote 344-acre area sits in the middle of Loess Hills. It is incredibly hard to find, but that only means it is isolated from stargazers’ biggest enemy: big cities and lights.
The park has only eight campgrounds, so there’s very little people and noise around. During the day, you can go hiking and take in the beautiful scenery. At night, set up a telescope, turn it above, and surf the sky.
South-central Iowa boasts some of the darkest skies in the state. We’ve covered some of these places on the list. However, this portion of the state is filled with unknown places that offer excellent conditions for stargazing. According to local stargazers, you’ll find the best spots at the Missouri Border – right before you hit Missouri should be pretty dark. There are numerous huge open fields where you can pull over and explore the cosmos.
Located in Coon Rapids, Whiterock Conservancy is said to have the “darkest skies in Iowa.” A 5,500-acre nonprofit, Whiterock Conservancy takes sustainability and environmental protection seriously. Artificial light is kept to a minimum at the conservancy, ensuring there’s no light pollution to hinder visibility. You can see the stars and Milky Way with the naked eye!
Moreover, the property is isolated from most urban areas. Given the privileged location and sky conditions, Whiterock Conservancy hosts numerous stargazing events, including the Iowa Star Party. Make sure you visit the conservancy website for the latest news and regulations on visiting the conservancy.
Know of any other great spots for stargazing in Iowa, or have questions about these ones? Let me know in the comments below!