Big Meadows Entrance
While not an official NOVAC observing site, at 3,500 feet elevation Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park offers some of the darkest skies within two hours’ drive of Washington along with decent horizons and glorious, unobstructed views of the Milky Way.
Situated about halfway down the length of Skyline Drive, Big Meadows is approximately 100 miles from downtown Washington. From Northern Virginia, the closest park entrance is via US 211 at Thornton Gap (Sperryville, VA). It can be reached by taking I-66 west to either US 29 or US 17 to Warrenton and then west on US 211 to the park.
Shenandoah National Park charges a $10 per car entrance fee for a minimum 7-day period. One-year passes can be purchased for $30. For those unfamiliar with Skyline Drive, the two-lane roadway is very curvy and requires slow speeds (25 to 35 mph). Deer and other wildlife are frequent sights and often create traffic stops and slowdowns. Be prepared to stop quickly.
At the Thornton Gap entrance, turn south on Skyline Drive and proceed for approximately 20 miles. The Big Meadows observing area is immediately past the Harry F. Byrd Visitors Center at mile marker 51. Look for the visitors’ center on your right opposite the large Big Meadows sign. On the left, just after the sign is a small parking lot. The grassy area beyond the parking area is the observing field.
There is a chain link gate barring non-ranger vehicle access to the observing area and adjacent gravel road. Equipment must be transported on foot from the parking lot. While the observing area is part of the “wild” meadow, the grass is usually cut, allowing comfortable observing. Views to the north and northeast are impacted by passing vehicle headlights as well as several outdoor lights at the visitors’ center. However, on clear nights limiting magnitude can approach 6.2. Those viewing at Big Meadows need to dress warmly as the elevation and frequent windy conditions combine to bring a rapid drop in temperatures even in the summer months.
The observing area is a small portion of a huge meadow which draws many park visitors hoping to spy wildlife, particularly deer, grazing in the morning and evening hours. While you will have to compete with park visitors for parking spaces in the small lot, it is also an opportunity to share views of the heavens with many curious families.
Since Big Meadows observing area is in a national park, all park rules apply, including no camping or camp fires on the site. Camping facilities and motel style rooms are available at the nearby Big Meadows lodge complex.
See links for park maps and information: