Raise Your Gaze – Sugarloaf Observatory

Grab a sweater and head out for a spectacular sparkly show in Mother Nature's own theater.

Photos by John Burgess

The star-scattered Sonoma sky is particularly captivating on a summer night, when the Milky Way twinkles high above. The viewing pleasure is free, of course, but there are also local experts eager to show others the big bowl of sky they see through their telescopes.

“Our mission is to bring the night sky to the public,” said Steve Smith, a volunteer docent at the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Kenwood’s Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. By attending one of the observatory’s nighttime Star Parties, typically held on Saturdays closest to the new moon, one can view planets, constellations, nebulae, galaxies and more, identified by docents.

Summer Star Parties, which begin at 9 p.m., start with a presentation in the observatory’s classroom, with kid-friendly topics raised early and more complicated and esoteric information provided later in the evening.

SRJC student Melanie Queiroz sees the stars through a telescope belonging to amateur astronomer Dickson Yeager during the monthly public viewing night at the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

The observatory has three telescopes, two for viewing and one that photographs deep space. Parties can last into the wee hours, as long as eager stargazers remain. Approximately 300 people attend on a given night, and the price can’t be beat: free for those under age 18 and $3 for everyone else. There is also an $8 parking fee. Reservations are not taken, and guests can bring refreshments (no alcoholic beverages allowed).

Summer dates this year include July 19, July 26 and Aug. 23.

The observatory also hosts private parties. Its location adjacent to a group campground that accommodates 50 makes it an ideal destination for an overnight adventure at a reasonable price: $330 for the entire campground, the observatory and docents. A private Star Party without an overnight stay is $165.

Although the observatory is the jewel of local astronomy, there are other locations and resources for passionate stargazers.

The Sonoma County Astronomical Society hosts Astronomy Nights, when members set up telescopes in the parking lots of schools and invite folks to peer through the lenses. Society members also offer “sidewalk astronomy” at the Santa Rosa Downtown Market on Wednesday evenings, May through August.

The Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium, which hosts public shows throughout the school year, has seating for 90; its dome is 40 feet in diameter and 27 feet high.  First Friday Night Sky programs, which take place on the first Friday evening of each month of the academic year, are free, on a first-come, first-served basis.