As the weather in Central Iowa FINALLY warms up, it will be a great time to turn our eyes towards the night sky. With all the ambient light in the City, you might think it’s near impossible to do any star gazing at all. But even with all the lights, there are places in Des Moines where people can gather to discover the wonders of the nighttime skies.
At all of the places listed below, kids and families are more than welcome and encouraged to explore, they just need to be respectful of their surroundings and the equipment. First timers should expect to wait a little if sharing telescopes and binoculars with others and bring chairs and blankets for down-time when you’re just looking up and enjoying the sky sans lenses.
Here are the best places to go stargazing in Des Moines:
Ashton-Wildwood County Park • Mingo, IA 50168 • firstname.lastname@example.org
The night skies are waiting for you at the Ashton Observatory! The Des Moines Astronomical Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the general public about astronomy and astrophysics. The club operates the Ashton Observatory in Ashton-Wildwood Park in Jasper County. The observatory features two 16 inch diameter telescopes and a classroom.
On Saturdays at 8:00 to 11:00 pm, April through October, DMAS offers FREE Public Night events at the Observatory. Public Night features lectures and opportunities to view the night sky. You can also schedule private group visits for a small fee. It’s about a 30 minute drive from Des Moines to the Ashton Observatory, be sure to contact DMAS or watch their Facebook Page to confirm that there will be a Public Night viewing.
25141 260th Street • Dallas Center, Iowa 50063 • (515) 992-4211
The Brenton Arboretum is in rural Dallas County and is a special type of public garden dedicated to trees and shrubs. Admission to the Arboretum is FREE and families are welcome to visit during their regular hours, 9:00 am to sunset daily.
The Arboretum will be hosting a Perseid Party on August 11, 2018 from 10:00 pm to 1:00 am. Bring your family, your blankets, and your midnight snacks (or even a bottle of wine!) to watch for up to 100 meteors per hour in one of the darkest places in the greater Des Moines metro. Glow games will keep you entertained while you wait for the star show to peak around midnight. The Arboretum will close at sunset, as usual, and will re-open for visitors to arrive any time between 10:00 pm and 12:00 Midnight. $5 per car for non-members, FREE for members.
4898 Observatory Road • Des Moines, IA 50311 • (515) 271-3141
The Observatory is operated jointly by the City of Des Moines and Drake University. The building contains an eight and a half inch refracting telescope, which was built in 1894 and donated to Drake University by Francis Marion Drake.
Drake Municipal Observatory is located on the grounds of Waveland Golf Course and is open to the public during Public Night, a series held during the spring, summer and fall on Friday nights. Lectures begin at 8:00 pm and skyviewing begins at dark, if the weather is clear. The Spring 2018 Lecture Series, “Star Stuff and Temporal Discoveries”, runs March 16 to May 14, 2018. The Summer 2018 Lecture Series, “…in a galaxy far, far away: What I Learned from Watching Movies”, runs June 1 to July 13, 2018. The Lecture Series are FREE and open to the public.
Iowa State University • B57 Physics Hall • Ames, IA • (515) 294-2298
Are you curious about space? Do you wonder about what you can see in the night sky? If so, bring your questions and visit the ISU Planetarium for an evening under the stars! FREE Planetarium Shows are regularly open to the public. Seating is limited to about 30 people. Weather permitting, stick around until it gets dark and put your new knowledge to the test at their outdoor observing session after the last show.
The next and last show of spring, Planetarium Show: Backyard Astronomy, will be held on Friday, April 20, 2018. The first viewing, which is specifically for kids (Pre-K and early elementary grades) starts at 6:30 pm. Subsequent shows start at 7:00 and 7:30 pm and are suitable for all ages.
401 W Martin Luther King Jr Parkway • Des Moines, IA 50309 • (515) 274-6868
Explore the solar system at the Science Center of Iowa’s Why the Sky? Exhibit and enjoy a show in the Planetarium.
Families can also attend one of the Center’s FREE Star Parties for some after-hours fun. SCI staff and members of the Des Moines Astronomical Society will set up telescopes on the south side of the Science Center, at Ewing Park in conjunction with Des Moines Park and Recreation or at Ashton Observatory. Please note Star Parties are weather dependent and are subject to cancellation. Check SCI’s Facebook page for updates on the event.
SCI spring and summer Star Parties:
- April 21, 8:30–11:30 pm at Ashton Observatory
Lyrid meteor shower, Moon, Venus and Jupiter
- May 12, 9:30–11:30 pm at Ewing Park
Venus, Jupiter and Saturn
- June 30, 9:45–11:45 pm at SCI
Jupiter, Moon, Mars and Saturn
- July 21, 9:30–11:30 pm at Ewing Park
Venus, Jupiter, Moon, Saturn and Mars
PLUS: One Small Step program at 10:00 pm
- August 11, 6:00 pm–12:00 am at Ewing Park
Perseid meteor shower
PLUS: Activities, crafts and a movie under the stars
- September 1, 8:30–10:30 pm at SCI
Jupiter, Saturn and Mars
1436 Hwy 141 • Coon Rapids, IA 50058 • (712) 684-2697
Whiterock Conservancy is about an hour and 20-minute drive from Des Moines and has some of the darkest skies in Iowa. Find a quiet hill and look up to take in the spring or summer night sky, the myriad of stars never fail to please. Weather you have a telescope or not, the Milky Way can be seen by the naked eye most nights.
The public is invited to join the Conservancy’s Star Party Public Viewing Night on Friday, August 31, 2018 at 7:30 to 10:00 pm. If you have a passion for the stars and the mysteries that they hold, then, you’ll enjoy a night of looking at the dark sky through telescopes set up by the Ames Area Amateur Astronomers. Bring your friends and family to be entertained by a starry night.
In town, the glare of the lights can make it hard to see the stars in the night sky. Local county and state parks located in rural areas make a great place to stargaze with the family. Look up what constellations are showing online, use a constellation app or use a sky map to help locate stars in the sky. Sit back and relax in the great outdoors and you’ll be amazed how many stars you can see.
Headquarters • 14581 K Avenue • Perry, Iowa 50220 • (515) 465-3577
Administrative Office • 11407 NW Jester Park Drive • Granger, IA 50109 • (515) 323-5300
Annett Nature Center • 15565 118th Avenue • Indianola, IA 50125 • (515) 961-6169
Iowa DNR Headquarters • Wallace State Office Building • 502 East 9th Street, 4th Floor • Des Moines, IA 50319 • Customer Service: (515) 725-8200
Have you checked out any of these cool stargazing spots in the Des Moines area? Tell us about it in the comments section below.