Clear skies can’t lose: Where Kansans go to stargaze

In a July 23, 2014 photo, the Milky Way galaxy is seen on a moonless night from a cattle pasture in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The photo was shot with a 20-second exposure at ISO 5000. The extended exposure makes the Milky Way even more visible than it is to the naked eye. Kansas provides a number of places for stargazing to be a fun, family-friendly activity. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle via AP)

? Where there are dark skies, you will find them.

Stargazers, from casual novices to astronomers with heavy-duty telescopes, use warm summer nights to look up at the sky. The show features a diverse cast, with constellations and planets like Jupiter and Saturn making appearances.

And Kansas provides a number of places for stargazing to be a fun, family-friendly activity.

“I grew up in rural Kansas so I’ve been watching stars since I was a kid,” said Rick Henderson, president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City. “I’m just addicted to this, to the night sky.”

The Wichita Eagle reports that Kansas is not perfect. Lights from population centers like Wichita, Topeka and the Kansas City area can still get in the way.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find places that you can get away from the city lights,” said Fred Gassert, president of the Wichita-based Kansas Astronomical Observers. “That’s probably the biggest complaint wherever you go.”

“It’s amazing. You get out in the middle of the Flint Hills and still have light problems,” he added. “The perfect spot doesn’t exist, so you got to live with the spot you find.”

Here are some places Kansans interested in astronomy like to go to stargaze:


Some astronomy clubs operate observatories as non-profit organizations.

Farpoint Observatory, about 30 miles southwest of Topeka, is owned by the Northeast Kansas Amateur Astronomers’ League. It has open houses at 9 p.m. July 9 and July 23.

“For open houses, we set up telescopes and show people with laser pointers what the constellations are,” said Janelle Burgardt, the education coordinator for the Topeka-based group. “We also do . open houses for groups, classrooms and whatnot on request.”

“We got a real nice dark sky out there,” she added.

The Astronomical Society of Kansas City operates two observatories.

The Warkoczewski Observatory, also known as the “Warko,” is on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus. It’s open to the public on Friday nights between May and October.

There’s also the Powell Observatory, near Louisburg. Henderson says it’s a “much, much darker location” than the Warko.

It’s open on Saturday nights between May and October and is run by volunteers.

“We just do it because we’re nuts, I guess,” Henderson said, laughing. “We do ask for donations because that’s what supports the observatory.”

People are welcome to bring their own telescopes and binoculars even though the observatory already has equipment.

“We actually end up showing a lot of people how to use their equipment,” Henderson said. “They buy these toys and go ‘What do I do with it now?'”

State parks, nature and science centers

Knowing a property owner out in the country is one way to find a place to look at the night sky.

“It may just be a field out in the middle of nothing,” Gassert said.

But science centers, nature centers and state parks can also be good places to stargaze outside an observatory.

“I would go to any of the Kansas state parks,” Gassert said. “Anywhere you can go that’s got dark skies as far as public-access places.”

Burgardt said her group typically calls ahead to check the times stargazers can be out there.

“Part of the problem is a lot of them close before it even gets dark now,” Burgardt said. “You almost have to camp out a lot of them.”

Banner Creek Science Center, near Holton, hosts observatory open houses throughout the summer, including one on July 2. They normally start at 9 p.m.

Groups also host “star parties” that involve camping out deep into the night. There’s one at 8 p.m. July 30 at Fall River State Park.

Hillsdale Lake State Park south of Olathe and Chaplin Nature Center in Arkansas City have hosted events in the past, but have none scheduled for this summer so far.

Gassert recommends going to El Dorado State Park and Butler State Lake.

The stargazing location may also depend on what planets, stars and constellations you’re looking for.

“Sky glow is really hard to get away from so we just learn to live with it,” Gassert said. “If you’re at (Lake) Afton, the sky glow is to the east. If you’re at El Dorado, then the sky glow is going to be to the southwest. So it’s all in what part of the sky you want to observe in as to where you end up going.”

Star parties for the ‘hard-core’

Some star-watchers flock to star parties out of state. Some events are free but others have registration fees.

“Those tend to be populated by or visited by the serious astronomers, people with telescopes that don’t mind driving 300 miles to get to a dark sky,” Henderson said.

The Kansas City group hosts the Heart of America Star Party between Sept. 29 and Oct. 2 at a dark-sky site near Butler, Mo.

Some Kansans also go to the Okie-Tex Star Party, one of the country’s top star parties that’s held around the same time in western Oklahoma’s panhandle. It’s near the Cimarron National Grassland, but it’s so far west that it’s closer to New Mexico than Kansas.

“That’s a really popular, week-long event,” Gassert said. “The Okie-Tex Star Party will have 450 to 500 people from all over the country. Because people look for that opportunity to have dark skies.”

Maybe Lake Afton again

Wichitans used to have an observatory close to home.

The Lake Afton Observatory south of Goddard opened in 1981. It closed late last summer because of financial struggles.

“It’s just a shame,” Henderson said. “It’s so close to Wichita that I would think it would be a natural.”

Gassert’s group, the Kansas Astronomical Observers, wants to resurrect and run the facility.

“We’re hoping that at some point Lake Afton is going to reopen and we’ll go out there,” Gassert said. “There is a place to observe now – it just doesn’t have facilities.”

Gassert said the group has control of the nonprofit that would run a Lake Afton Observatory. It is trying to negotiate a lease with Sedgwick County for the facility.

“It’ll happen whenever it happens,” he said. “I’m still hoping for sometime this summer. But I don’t want to even put my hopes on that.”

‘The vastness of it’

Whereever you go, astronomy enthusiasts say summer is an exciting time to study the subject.

“There’s just a lot things going on up in the heavens,” Henderson said. “It’s fun to get a telescope out and look at that stuff.”

In August 2017, a total eclipse will be visible across a swath of the U.S., including parts of northeast Kansas.

And three planets farther from the sun – Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – are prominently visible for a decent part of this summer.

“The more you get into it, the more interesting it becomes because there are so many branches in astronomy,” Burgardt said. “I like the observing but I also like some of the stories behind it, the mythology.”

“It’s just the vastness of it out there. And you can observe something one night and it changes the next and you just never know what you’re going to find.”