Focusing on Mackinaw’s Northern Lights

By Rachel Rolland, Great Lakes Aurora Hunters™

Did you know that the Straits of Mackinac has the same geomagnetic latitude as southern portion of Norway, Sweden and Finland, which is just south of the some of the best Northern Lights viewing in the world?

Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a spectacular natural phenomenon that are hard to predict, often rare to see and nearly impossible to forget. Their occurrence is tied to the activity of the sun, and the solar wind caused by the eruption of spots on the sun’s surface. They occur in an oval that surrounds the geomagnetic north pole, which is south of the geographic north pole. This allows for sky watchers in the northern U.S. to see this magnificent night sky display—including the Mackinaw area. The Northern Lights can appear as soon as 30-45 minutes after sunset but are more likely to be seen during the darkest time of the night, typically from midnight to 2am. However, the Northern Lights are not out every night.

The Northern Lights are caused when charged particles from the sun interact with earth’s magnetosphere, and these disturbances are ranked on a scale of 0-9, known as the Kp scale. A Kp of 5 or above will usually bring the lights to the Mackinaw area, but it’s not out of the question to see the lights out when the Kp is at a 4. There are numerous additional factors that contribute to aurora visibility but knowing the Kp is a good place to start.

A successful northern lights hunt requires patience, so be prepared to spend a fair amount of time watching and waiting for the lights to appear. There is an ebb and flow to the aurora, and it can often involve hours of waiting for a jaw-dropping period of heightened activity, known as a substorm. If you’re only seeing the faintest, pale glow on the northern horizon—keep waiting! This low glow could be a great sign of things to come. If conditions are right, that low glow will rise, brighten and burst with ripples, pillars and waves of shimmering light.

To the naked eye, the Northern Lights range from a pale, white glow to a variety of visible colors depending on the brightness of the aurora at the time. A camera will pick up more of the color than the naked eye is able to see, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t see colors during stronger storms. The lights will primarily be in the northern portion of the sky but can stretch all the way overhead and into the southern skies during intense aurora activity (typically Kp 7+).

After you’ve watched the Northern Lights dance across the Mackinaw sky, you’ll fully understand why the aurora is one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of the World.” Although a successful aurora hunt requires planning and patience, you will be rewarded with the experience of a lifetime when the aurora ignites the dark night in front of you. It is an incredible and majestic experience that will leave you in total awe of the night sky.

The Great Lakes Aurora Hunters maintains a Facebook page with regular alerts when conditions are prime. Follow them here:



Spring Blossoms in the Straits of Mackinac

Spring is a beautiful time of year in the Mackinaw City area, as the winter melts away and nature comes out of its deep slumber. Plenty of seasonal activities are planned to celebrate the arrival of spring and all its beauty—from the flora to fauna to astronomy to aviary.

Savoring Michigan’s sweet treat…maple syrup

The longer, warmer days means sap begins to flow in the maple trees that dot the landscape around the miles of woodland trails. In the furthest reaches of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park visitors can find the Maple Sugar Shack, nestled along one of the hiking trails. While the sugaring season will have wrapped up by the time the interpretive season begins at here in May, guests can still find the shack and interpretive panels detailing the history of sugaring in this area and the process of doing it.

Beauty from the ground…wildflowers abound!

One of the surest signs that spring has arrived in the north woods is the appearance of an abundance of beautiful wildflowers covering the forest floor, including the Yellow Trout-lily, Spring-beauty, the Large-flowered Trillium and the smaller Nodding Trillium, Marsh Marigold or Cowslip and Jack-in -the-Pulpit. Head out along the hiking trails at Wilderness State Park, The Headlands International Dark Sky Park,  at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park and along sections of the North Country Trail. Please remember that trillium are protected in Michigan and that picking them is illegal (but photographing them is recommended).

Foraging from the forest floor…morels, ramps and fiddleheads!

In addition to an abundance of wildflowers, spring means the arrival of wild edibles – such as morels, ramps and fiddleheads – the most hunted spring treasures. May is morel month in Michigan but depending on the weather these illusive fungi can be found as early as April and as late as mid-June, especially the further north you go. Morels begin to pop up along the woodland floor when the daytime temps reach around 60–65 degrees while the evening temps stay above 50 degrees. As you search, look along southwest facing hills where the sun’s rays warm the ground around tree groves mixed with living, dead and dying ash, elm, oak and aspen trees. Given there are a lot of “false morels” and other poisonous mushrooms, it is advised to take a guide (either a person or a printed book) to help you identify a true morel. If you can’t find them in the woods, look for them on the menu of area restaurants during the spring season – topping fish, chicken or steak, fried to a crispy goodness or cooked into a creamy bisque.

Mackinaw City…for the birds!

The 2018 Mackinaw Raptor Fest, April 6-8, provides an entertaining and educational showcase to promote public awareness and knowledge of raptors and waterbirds and the significance of the Straits area during migration. Located at the junction of two peninsulas and two Great Lakes, Mackinaw City creates a unique confluence of migrating birds every spring and fall. A variety of activities are planned throughout the weekend, including field trips, bird counts, watches, banding, star gazing, live raptor presentations and special programs focused on identification, photography and ecology, among other activities. For the complete schedule of events, please click here.

Cast a hook, line and sinker!

Fishing really is a four-season activity here in the Great Lakes State, but as the ice melts and the temperatures rise, the rivers, streams and lakes become a hotbed for a variety of species. The Straits area offers opportunities for migratory steelhead and salmon, as well as other freshwater fish. Spring fishing begins in April when the smelt begin to run, followed by trout season in late April and walleye season which opens mid-May. As we move into summer, look for lake perch and bass off the coast of Wilderness State Park or head to Paradise Lake, just five miles south of Mackinaw City, where bass, pike, walleye and panfish are plentiful. Be sure to check the Michigan Department of Natural Resourcest for specific season dates and licensing information.

Hunting Michigan’s beloved Petoskey Stone!

Many people think that Petoskey Stones can only be found in Petoskey. Yet this hexagon fossilized coral (Hexagonaria pericarnata) from a coral reef that existed during the Devonian era 350 million years ago, can be found along the Lake Michigan shoreline from the Sleeping Bear Dunes area as far north as the Straits of Mackinac. Spring is the ideal time to scour the beaches for rocks that have been churned up over the winter, before the thousands of tourists have had the time begin their search. Established as Michigan’s state stone in 1965, the Petoskey Stones were formed as a result of glaciation, in which sheets of ice plucked stones from the bedrock, grinding off their rough edges and depositing them in the northwestern portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Look to the skies…and beyond!

Although there is no way to predict when Northern Lights (aurora borealis) will light up the sky, the Straits area provides the perfect night sky conditions for viewing this unique phenomenon. Northern Lights are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere, creating dancing color of lights such as green, pink and purple. Located along the Lake Michigan shoreline just south of Mackinaw City, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park is a popular place for settling in for the sky show. Mark your calendar for April 20 to attend a special program on Statewide Astronomy Night under the Lyrid Meteor Shower and a waxing crescent moon. Spring full moons will grace the sky March 31 (a blue moon – the second full moon of the month), April 29 and May 29.

For list of events taking place in the Straits of Mackinac during the spring season (such as the Spring Meltdown, Spring Break Splash, Taste of Mackinac and Mackinac International Bridal Expo), click here.

Those wanting to venture over to historic Mackinac Island during the pre-season should note that ferry service begins April 1. Mackinac State Historic Parks (Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek and Fort Mackinac) open in early May.

For spring travel ideas and lodging options, visit

Discover Michigan’s Only Internationally-Designated Dark Sky Park—The Headlands—in Mackinaw City

A conversation with Mary Stewart Adams, Director – The Headlands Dark Sky Park

For visitors coming to the Mackinaw Area and may have never heard of a “Dark Sky Park,” what is it and what should they expect?

A Dark Sky Park is an area of land over which the night sky has been protected from light pollution, which is stray light that spills up into the sky, diminishing views of the stars. Most residents of the United States now live where they can’t see most of the stars at night.

Given that the stars and a striving to understand them has motivated some of the highest achievements in humanity, this poses a significant threat to culture everywhere. Conscientious use of light at night also helps us support and sustain healthy habitat, particularly for bird migration through the Straits area; it allows us to be better stewards of natural resources that are used for energy; and it supports human health and well-being, since we now know that exposure to artificial light at night disrupts the production of important sleep hormones.

Michigan is home to only one Internationally-designated Dark Sky Park, and to several thousand acres of state park lands where the night sky is celebrated and protected. What visitors can expect at The Headlands is several miles of hiking trails where they can take in some of the area’s best old-growth untouched forest and maybe catch a glimpse of the rare Dwarf Lake Iris, which only grows in this region of the world. The Headlands also has two miles of undeveloped Lake Michigan shoreline which is dedicated to night sky observing, taking in beautiful sunsets, wishing on stars, watching the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights).

This summer we are also opening our new Waterfront Event Center and Observatory, where we will host regular programs, both indoors and out, as well as public viewing nights with the telescopes, to enhance the experience of the natural environment.

What makes a Dark Sky Park so unique? This is the only one in Michigan and one of only how many in the US and the World?

An internationally-designated dark sky park such as The Headlands is owned and managed locally (in this case, by Emmet County) but reports annually with sky quality meter readings and hosts regular educational program to sustain a standard and quality of dark commensurate with the rigors of the designation.

Headlands is still the only internationally-designated Dark Sky Park in Michigan (it was the 6th in the US and 9th in the world) when it was designated in 2011. There are now over 40 international Dark Sky Parks worldwide, and they can be found at the website

How accessible is the facility – the trails, the viewing areas, the new Waterfront Event Center.

The Headlands is located just two miles west of downtown Mackinaw City at 15675 Headlands Road. Guests to the park can drive in and park near the Waterfront Event Center and access the grounds by sidewalks, or park near the entrance and walk the beautiful one mile route to viewing areas along the shore. We have 24-hour ADA accessible restrooms; and the building is also universally accessible, both lower and upper levels. However, there are 20 steps up into the Observatory, so guests who cannot handle stairs for programs we offer with the telescope can view the screens in our event space.

What can people find inside the new waterfront event center – in terms of exhibits and events?

The Waterfront Event Center is designed for rental and is not open daily like a visitor center would be. When we host programs in the space, visitors can take in the exhibit area and restrooms. We have two large format screens in the event space that will display what is being seen by our 20-inch PlaneWave deep space imaging telescope. There is a commercial kitchen; and an indoor/outdoor fireplace.

What is planned regarding this August’s Solar Eclipse?

During the Great American Eclipse on Monday, August 21 the Sun will appear to be about 80% eclipsed by the Moon. We have a terrific solar telescope through which we will be projecting images, and we intend to have live stream from the path of Totality on screens in the event space.

What about this Pure Michigan Award you received earlier this year?

The first Pure Award was presented in 2016, and the second was awarded earlier this year to The Headlands, at the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism held in Detroit in April. The Headlands was selected “based on its recognition of the night sky as a vast and vanishing natural resource that is essential to today’s global conversation about habitat protection, energy resource management and tourism.” The award itself was designed specifically for us by artisan glassblowers at Greenfield Village and is a single blown piece in the shape of the north star, inlaid with silver leaf to evoke a sense of the Milky Way.

Final thoughts on admission, accessibility, hours and such?

Visitors to The Headlands can always access the site free of charge. We are busiest through the summer months, so even though we have paved parking near the Waterfront Event Center, the lot gets full, which means guest park at the entrance and walk one mile to the shoreline viewing areas. It’s a beautiful walk, but you should be prepared with things you can carry, like chairs or sleeping bags, and red filter flashlights (see below). The park is always open, and you should come by in the day the first time, so you can see the lay of the land, because it gets really dark at night.

Some things to note:

Occasionally we host programs that are ticketed, and there will be a fee for public viewing in the Observatory. These things can be check ahead of time on our website at