As many states roll back COVID restrictions, stargazers across the continent are excited to meet up with old and new friends at their favorite observing sites.

Canyonlands Star Party
This star party was held in 2015 to celebrate the designation of Canyonlands National Park in Utah as an International Dark Sky Park.
NPS / Chris Wonderly

Almost every year for as long as I can remember, my extended family has packed their camping gear and telescopes into as many as three cars. Together, we paraded to the top of Breezy Hill near Springfield, Vermont, to attend the granddaddy of all star parties, Stellafane.

Last year the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of almost all gatherings and events across the globe. Like many of you, I watched with a heavy heart as star parties around the country canceled one after another. Together we spent the summer enjoying the stars from our backyards alone. But as we start to see the light at the end of this long dark tunnel, life is slowly returning to (mostly) normal. 

Field of Telescopes at Stellafane
Telescope makers and spectators wait in front of the Pink Club House at Stellafane as judges make their rounds.
Courtesy Sabrina Garvin

Now, many clubs are once again preparing to hold their annual star parties. That means we’ll be back to staying up all night chasing after faint nebulae and globular clusters under some of the darkest skies in the country. If you’re new to the hobby, or it’s your first time attending a star party, here’s what to expect. (Scroll down for a list of upcoming star parties.)

The largest attraction at star parties is, of course, the stars. Observing in a crowd under dark skies is a different experience from doing it alone in your backyard. Even if you don’t have your own telescope, you can still join in on the fun by telescope hopping (though please follow your star party’s restrictions on sharing telescopes this year). Star parties are also a great place to try out astronomy equipment if you are looking to buy a telescope. Of course, if you just want to take a peek through one of the monster scopes, that’s okay, too.

Girl looking through telescope
Solar telescopes and filters allow us to observe during the day as well.
Courtesy Sabrina Garvin

Make sure to drag yourself out of your sleeping bag the next morning. There are often plenty of things to do during the day, including a variety of informal lectures and workshops directed towards a range of skill levels. As a kid, I spent many summer weekends racing my cousin and siblings up and down the mountain between Stellafane’s mirror-grinding workshops and the children’s arts and crafts classes at McGreggor Observatory. And if you’re attending a star party that holds an amateur telescope-making competition, be sure to check it out! Also be sure to stop by the swap tables, where amateurs sell a myriad of used items, including telescopes, lenses, accessories, binoculars, and books. That’s where I bought my first telescope and my first clarinet.

Two young women listen intently to one of Stellafane’s famous mirror-grinding workshops.
Courtesy Sabrina Garvin

Of course, star parties probably aren’t going to be the same this year. Astronomy clubs want to make sure that all of their attendees can enjoy the star party safely, so many are restricting the number of people in attendance. Some star parties who usually make use of indoor facilities are holding their lectures outside. And many vendors won’t be able to attend this year. Event planners are asking participants to follow state-recommended social distancing guidelines. And some clubs have opted to still hold their events online.

Stargazing from Your Computer

Virtual Texas Star Party 2021
The Texas Star Party went live on June 10th this year on several social media sites, including Sky & Telescope’s Facebook page.
Sky & Telescope

A few innovative individuals and organizations have found that virtual star parties work as a placeholder for outreach events that clubs had to cancel. While virtual star parties already existed before the pandemic, they became more prevalent as it progressed. Some events are staying online this year, too, including the Texas Star Party and the Grand Canyon Star Party.

Like their in-person counterparts, virtual star parties feature a range of activities, including lectures and panel discussions. Plus, presenters are taking full advantage of online resources like interactive 3D models and planetarium software to enhance their talks. Event hosts keep viewers involved with raffles, Q&As, and trivia.

Don’t worry. There’s still plenty of observing at virtual star parties. Experienced astrophotographers take advantage of their video cameras and home observatories to share their love of the universe with others live. Some professional observatories have even gotten in on the fun, offering looks through their massive telescopes and tours of their facilities.

Good Stars with Good Friends

Large Telescope at Stellafane
Telescope enthusiasts wait in line for a closer look at this massive scope.
Courtesy Sabrina Garvin

Whether you’re a star-party veteran or newbie, there will always be a horde of friendly faces to welcome you and something new to learn. Just don’t shine any white lights on the dark-adapted eyes of sleep-deprived observers. S&T staff members and contributing editors love to attend star parties. If you happen to spot one of us (or our virtual avatars), say hello.  

Below is a list of some of the star parties, both in-person and virtual, happening across North America this year. Due to the pandemic, the status, location, and dates of these star parties can change suddenly. Be sure to check their websites for up-to-date information and COVID-19 guidelines. You can also check out our Event Calendar for even more events.  

Stay safe and clear skies!

Star Parties Happening in 2021

NameLocationDate
Nebraska Star PartyValentine, NEAugust 1-6
Oregon Star PartyIndian Trail Spring, ORAugust 3-8
Saskatchewan Summer Star PartyMaple Creek, SKAugust 4-9
Stellafane ConventionSpringfield, VTAugust 5-8
Northwoods StarfestFall Creek, WIAugust 6-8
Mount Kobau Star PartyOsoyoos, BCAugust 7-15
Maine Astronomy RetreatWashington, MEAugust 8-14
ALCON 2021VirtualAugust 19-21
Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky FestivalFort Smith, NWTAugust 19-22
Northern Nights Star FestPalisade, NMSeptember 1-6
Rocky Mountain Star StareGardner, COSeptember 2-6
Alberta Star PartyStarland County, ABSeptember 3-5
Michiana Star PartyVandalia, MISeptember 3-6
Merritt Star QuestLoon Lake, BCSeptember 4-12
York County Star partySusquehannock State Park, PASeptember 8-12
Great Lakes Star GazeGladwin, MISeptember 9-12
Idaho Star PartyBruneau Dunes State Park, IDSeptember 10-11
Connecticut Star PartyGoshen, CTSeptember 10-12
Astronomy at the BeachIsland Lake State Recreation Area, MISeptember 24-25
Acadia Night Sky FestivalMount Desert Island, MESeptember 29- October 3
Black Forest Star PartyCherry Springs State Park, PAOctober 1-3
Okie-Tex Star PartyKenton, OKOctober 1-9
York County Star partySusquehannock State Park, PAOctober 6-10
Hidden Hollow Star PartyBellville, OHOctober 7-10
Illinois Dark Skies Star PartyChandlerville, ILOctober 7-10
Fall Astronomy DayEverywhereOctober 9
Jasper Dark Sky FestivalJasper National Park, ABOctober 15-24
Peach State Star GazeDeerlick Astronomy Village, GAOctober 31- November 7
Eldorado Star PartyEldorado, TXNovember 1-6
Deep South Star GazeSandy Hook, MSNovember 2-7

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