The Last Dark Skies of Northwest Illinois

Silhouettes of trees against dark purple night sky full of stars

There’s a whole lot of nothing in northwest Illinois before you reach the Mississippi River. Between Savanna and Galena, it’s just cornfields and an occasional one-street farming town. So, what’s the awesome weekend sightseeing destination marked on my map? Nothing! It’s great because there’s nothing out there. There’s no cities, no big highways, and most importantly, no lights. It’s unusually dark at night. Perfect for stargazing.

Location matters, light pollution is the worst

Now let’s look at that map again, but this time with a light pollution overlay.

Heat map of Chicagoland's light pollution

Light pollution heat map, as seen on DarkSiteFinder.com, with cooler colors being dark skies

Now we’re talking. Notice how blue Northwest Illinois is? With little to no man-made light pollution, on a clear and moonless night you can see thousands of glittering stars in the night sky. Way more than you can count. Like this.

Behold! The Cosmos.

Behold! The Cosmos.

stargazing

More Cosmos. On and on it goes.

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Stars above the trees

I discovered for myself that the farmland near Elizabeth, IL, had a notably dark sky by looking at light pollution maps. It’s challenging to find a really dark sky within driving distance of Chicago. In any metropolitan area, and even near small towns, the ambient light and air pollution obscures the view above. At night in Chicagoland you can’t see anything beyond the brightest stars, the planets and the Moon. Even with a three hour’s drive from The Loop it’s hard to escape civilization’s glow. This is one of the few corners within our backyard that’s untouched by electric lights, where you can still peer out beyond the fog of modernity and gaze for a while into eternity. It’s one of the best darkest places around. Otherwise, to find completely pitch-black night sky I’d have to consider a real vacation instead of a day trip like this one. Anywhere where there’s simply no people.

I’m often envious of anyone who lives in remote places like the middle of the California desert or the top of a mountain. I’m especially envious during a new moon and after a fresh rainfall when the air is extra clear. People in the boonies have a sweeping vista of the heavens all to themselves. For the rest of us, a dark sky is one of the world’s forgotten natural treasures. With growing urban sprawl, patches of dark sky are disappearing fast. Many people don’t even know what we’re missing.

Time it right for maximum dark sky

Well I’ve been thinking about it, ever since I found those light pollution maps. Being an irrepressible night owl and fan of all things space-related, I wanted to see a super dark sky again. Since I don’t go camping anymore like I did when I was a kid, I’ve missed it. I also wanted to try my hand at astrophotography with my DSLR camera. So a couple of weeks ago my friend John and I rode out to Mississippi Palisades State Park for the afternoon. Before going I’d checked that the sky would be clear and that the moon was nearly new. At Mississippi Palisades we enjoyed the muddy hike up the steep bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. After sunset we got a bite to eat at a KFC in Savanna while waiting for astronomical twilight (when it’s truly dark) and then we drove out into… the dark sky zone.

Winding blue river and barren trees

Panorama of the Mississippi River as seen from Sentinel Rock bluff in Mississippi Palisades State Park

Steep hill and rocks among barren trees

Panorama of Mississippi Palisades State Park while climbing up bluffs

How to find a good stargazing spot

Once on the unlit winding country roads I discovered how useful a GPS would have been, provided we had used one. Many of the muddy, gravel roads didn’t have well-marked signs. Sometimes they just didn’t make sense even when we saw them. I should’ve also scoured Google’s Street View beforehand for suitable places to park. It was difficult to find a good place to pull over without flopping the car into a drainage ditch. Fortunately, we found a good spot at coordinates <42.271852, -90.085269>. It was by a grove of trees overlooking a fallow farm field. If you go out there I’m sure you’ll find an even better spot to stop.

It takes about 20 minutes for the eyes to adjust to the dark, and as they did I could see more and more stars. Simply stunning.

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ursa-major-big-dipper

Constellation of Ursa Major. It contains the Big Dipper. Can you find it? (It’s upside down)

This is the place to see constellations, shooting stars, artificial satellites, and if you time it right, the International Space Station and the faint arms of the Milky Way. I immediately spotted the band of stars that make up Orion’s Belt and then found the Big Dipper (Ursa Major). It’s way better than being at a planetarium. There it all is, right above you.

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The starry sky looking southwest

Stargazing’s for deep thoughts, man

I was quickly lost in a reverie, thinking about what it all means and trying to wrap my mind around the incredible age, strangeness and vastness of the universe. When we see space, time becomes relative. It’s incredible how during the day clocks and our interconnected communications give us a steady, reassuring exactness to our affairs. We’re rushing along to the ticking seconds. Yet when I watch the stars in the chilly quiet evening, the only time is my heartbeat. And just like that, before I’ve known it, a few hours have gone by.

Not bad for some seemingly random cornfields in the middle of nowhere.

the-cosmos