Alabama is known for its beautiful wilderness in many different ways. Trails, parks, rivers and lakes are constantly the focus of outdoor living during an Alabama summer. Although one of Alabama’s most beautiful sights is often forgotten, through dense forest and trees, a gorgeous night sky awaits to be explored. Often the moon and stars tend to cast a fairytale light among the woods and parts of forest that hedge into a lot of the suburban area surrounding the local metropolitan, though most people don’t know how to take advantage of it.
“I’ve always loved looking at the stars. I would check the encyclopedias databases for the seasonal constellations and learned the names of a few bright stars,” Fred Rains, outreach coordinator for the Birmingham Astronomical Society of Alabama, says. “I received a Sears and Roebuck 60 mm refractor for Christmas one year, and it showed me the rings of Saturn, the moving moons of Jupiter, the shadows cast by the mountains on the moon and the phases of Venus. From there, I got a pair of binoculars and found star clusters and brighter galaxies.”
All of that may sound complicated, but Rains points out that it’s really quite simple to begin a stargazing hobby, despite how intricate it was when he began.
“The best way to get started is to attend a star party. We host them at Oak Mountain State Park once a month around the new moon. There you’ll find telescopes of all sizes, including one that you have to stand on an 8-foot orchard ladder to see. We can also show you the different objects such as colorful double stars, cloudlike nebulae, planets and distant galaxies.”
As for what will be needed, it varies with the experience of the individual. Though Rains throws caution to the wind when it comes to purchasing equipment.
“You need a clear night and a star chart showing the constellations,” he says. “With binoculars you can see a large number of the objects mentioned above and begin to learn your way around. Go to a star party before you buy a telescope and look through a few first.”
There are also inside options for those who really don’t want to go trekking through nature in the middle of the night. The Samford Christenberry Planetarium and Montevallo’s Shepherd Observatory offer great chances to look at the night sky without having to do a lot of legwork.
There are still plenty of big events for the nature lover though, Rains explains.
“The biggest event this year, or just about any other, is the total eclipse of the sun on August 21. This is a rare event in the U.S. and the path of totality will be a narrow swath across the entire country including Nashville and the Smokies. The day will turn to total darkness and the temperature will drop in midday. With special dark glasses you’ll see a feature called the diamond ring where the sun will shine through valleys on the moon. Plan on that one!”
The Birmingham Astronomical Society of Birmingham also keeps track of meteor showers and other events that may be of interest to those first starting out. You can contact them via Facebook or their website, BAS-Astro.com.
1214 81st St. S., Birmingham, Al 35206
Ruffner, a true urban nature preserve, is nestled in between Irondale and Woodlawn. It offers a variety of trails, habitats, clubs and exercise. Contact for more information.
Oak Mountain State Park
200 Terrace Drive, Pelham, AL 35124
Just off State Route 119 in Pelham, this state park offers so many things it’s hard to keep track. Cabins, trails, lakes, beaches and nature classes have made this a grounding place for many wishing to get away from the city. Easy to find and easy to navigate, this is a favorite spot of local stargazers.
Christenberry Planetarium at Samford
800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, Al 35229
The Summer Skies Series is offered during the summer months, helping to educate and entertain in the comfort of Samford’s elegant collegiate grounds. Close to Interstate 65, and off of Lakeshore near Brookwood, it’s a close and easy way to look at the stars inside of city lights. Check schedule and dates for more information.
The Shepherd Observatory
1093 Pebble Road, Montevallo, Al 35115
A little farther off course than most other offerings, the Shepherd Observatory lies in Montevallo, a couple of miles off the University of Montevallo campus. This is one of the more off grid listings, and will probably have a better view of the night sky with less light pollution. Contact the observatory for more information and viewing dates.
What to Bring
2824 18th St. S., Homewood, AL 35209
Giant Farm Fresh Burlap Bag, $24.99
No Bite Me Mosquito Repellant, $12.95
Woven Cotton Blanket, $45
Little Professor Book Center
2844 18th St. S., Homewood, AL 35209
The Stars: The Definitive Visual Guide to The Cosmos, $30
Homewood Toy and Hobby
2830 18th St. S., Birmingham, AL 35209
Orca Cooler, $199
Kidz Closet & More
640 Montgomery Highway,
Birmingham, AL 35216
Stainless Steel Water Bottles, $18.99