Located in the mountains above Burnsville, NC is a place that is truly–Out of this world: The Earth to Sky Park! This “park” is an educational compound that is run and managed by Mayland Community College (MCC) and home to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory.
The park is a truly special place to visit in the current day and time. With the world's night skies being taken over by many lights, most people can no longer enjoy the wonders that lie in the heavens above us.
The park, however, sits on six acres in a remote area that’s roughly 10 miles away from both Burnsville and Spruce Pine, NC.
It is here, tucked away in the mountains you find out why this location is special–it is one of only three places in NC to be recognized by the International Dark Sky Association (along with Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute and Cape Lookout National Seashore).
Even more impressive is the fact that this little place in the middle of nowhere, is one of only two locations in the WORLD to have both a planetarium (inside with a projection system) AND an observatory (outside with a telescope) that are open to the public, with the other being at the National Science Museum in Daejeon, South Korea.
Unless otherwise noted, all the photos were taken by the author Philip Kay.
Earth to Sky Park - Burnsville NC
The Earth to Sky Park (ESP) was founded in 2016 at the old Mitchell/Yancey county landfill and was originally called the EnergyXchange. It was a project by MCC to make use of releasing methane gases and has since grown into quite the attraction.
With the creation of the BareDark Sky Observatory (2017), the Glenn and Carol Arthur Planetarium (2021), and recently their pollinator meadow and hydro/aquaponics laboratory (currently underway), this place excels in educating visitors about the not only the world around them (such as local pollinators-even the nighttime ones!) but also, the sights and even sounds of the vast universe around us!
Bare Dark Sky Observatory
The Bare Dark Sky Observatory opened to the public In June 2017 and houses not one, but two telescopes inside! The principal attraction is by far the 34-inch Newtonian telescope.
It was custom-built and is the largest telescope for public use in the Southeast US. With its gigantic mirror, it takes in enough light to allow viewers to peer deep into space for an amazing view of planets, nebulas, galaxies, and other astrological sights. Also at the site is a smaller 14-in Meade telescope for viewing closer and brighter celestial objects such as the moon and planets.
The observatory has received several improvements over the last few years and is now a gorgeous place surrounded by local plants and flowers that help support pollinating insects. Other recent additions are multiple “telescope pads” for personal use by individuals with their own telescopes or astrophotography setups and a paved walkway/ramp up to the observatory.
Now, while the observatory itself is not always open to the public, MCC offers multiple nights each month with their “Community Nights” and “Moon Madness Nights”. These events are often a couple hours long after dark and run by knowledgeable and friendly staff that allows for each visit to be unique from the last depending on weather and what objects are viewable that night.
The Glenn and Carrol Arthur Planetarium
The Glenn and Carrol Arthur Planetarium was opened in 2021 and features many unique features.
The main sight is the 36-ft dome that allows for an almost complete 360-degree field-of-view when looking up. Watching a show or demonstration here gives you the feeling of being able to fly through space.
The planetarium is also unique that it has a brand-new state-of-the-art projector that allows for visitors to experience shows such as the James Webb Space Telescope experience; one of only two planetariums in the country that offer this interactive experience that’s updated monthly to show the most recent images from the James Webb Telescope.
Another amazing function–what if it's too cloudy or bad weather outside? Well, now you can go inside and see the night sky clear as, well… day! You can recline back in a comfy zero-gravity chair to a view of the night sky in its full glory with no light pollution or distractions.
Zoom into your favorite celestial objects or enjoy the show about the history of the different constellations that can be seen. Like the observatory, they offer several options to come and experience weekly movies, shows/presentations, laser light shows and musical experiences, plus so much more.
Other sights and Experiences
Speaking of things that can “bee” seen, the planetarium is the location of a gorgeous mural that wraps all the way from the inside to most of the outside wall.
This work of art was done by muralist Matthew Willey, who is traveling around the world with his “Good of the Hive” murals to paint 50,000 bees.
His goal is to promote honeybee health and raise awareness of how connected life is. The planetarium is the host of his 10,000th bee, a queen bee, drone bee, and a collection of other night time pollinators such as lightning bugs and a giant luna moth!
There is also an aquaponics and hydroponics lab that is currently growing tomatoes in an environment with no soil. These experiments are just one way that we can study and test ideas on Earth that may one day be the foundation for life outside our planet.
If you are looking for a place to hold a meeting, there is the Paul and Susie O’Connell Conference Center that is available.
Or if you are looking for something less work related, there is an outdoor picnic area and hiking trails you can get out on and experience. Have a group of people and looking for something unique, all areas and most events can be rented out for private parties and functions!
One of the focus points that this location teaches about is the problem of light pollution and how it affects not only the night sky, but the world.
Light pollution is, simply put, the extra light shining up into the sky from unshielded light fixtures such as street lights.
This is a problem so large, you can see it from space!
Why is this a big deal? To start, it affects all life around us; from the smallest of insects to ourselves.
This extra light disrupts the normal rhythm of the world by interfering with insect and animal activities (pollination, mating, hunting, etc.), plant activity (growing and blooming), altering sleep patterns, obscuring obstacles and hindering vision, confusing directional markers (migrating birds or sea turtles), and even increasing risks for a multitude of health issues and diseases.
On top of this, this light causes the sky to become muted and hides the stars and wonders of space from view with only the brightest of exceptions. Leading to fewer and fewer places where you can go to see the stars and astrological sights.
This also heavily affects what and where we can study the sky above and do important research on the universe around us.
Last, is the waste that it causes. All of this extra light comes from a source and what isn’t used becomes waste.
This means resources such as electricity, that could be conserved, are being used up at a higher rate for nothing. It leads to excess heat and spending more money on having to replace bulbs and light fixtures sooner due to a decreased life span if they are always on.
When you visit here, you will learn how important it is to try to reduce light pollution. By using alternatives such as timers, directional lamps and coverings, to even turning off lights that aren’t necessary, you can make an impact on not only the area around you, but the world as a whole.
Tips for Visiting the Bare Dark Sky Observatory
Here are a few tips to make your visit to the Bare Dark Sky Observatory and the Planetarium more enjoyable:
- If you are coming to one of the community night shows, be aware that to look through the large telescope, you may have to climb a couple of steps on a ladder to see through the eyepiece.
- Since most of the shows are outside after it gets dark, you may want to bring a flashlight or use your phone’s light. If so, remember to be respectful to those around you.
- Depending on the time of year, it may get cooler in the evenings. I recommend having a light jacket, just in case.
- Be sure to wear proper shoes and watch your step when walking around the park. Most places are paved or have gravel, but there are still areas in progress, plus the insects that live there.
- The shows and community night's events normally sell out in advance, so look ahead to find your time to visit. However, every night is not guaranteed and depending on weather, may be cancelled or moved down to the planetarium instead (From the Editors: This happened to us on our visit).
- Last, HAVE FUN! There is so much there to see and do, there’s something for everyone.
of all ages to enjoy.
Final Thoughts on the Bare Dark Sky Observatory
This is a place of exploration and discovery for all ages. The exhibits are interesting, the planetarium can be educational, and the night shows offer a unique experience in nature. Don’t forget to take time to look up at the stars! You will thank yourself later that you did.
Where: 66 Energy Exchange Drive, Burnsville, NC 28714
Phone Number: (828)-470-7584