"Follow the glow-in-dark chalk all the way to the top of the hill. We meet directly beneath the star Vega."
Those were the directions we received when we called the Inwood Astronomy Project on a recent Saturday evening. We'd been hearing about this for a long time: Inwood Hill Park, way up at the very northern tip of Manhattan, has a 200-ft hill and no lights, and every Saturday night a guy named Jason brings a pro-grade telescope to the top of the hill and gives a free tour of the heavens.
In most of the city, the huge number and density of lights makes it difficult or even impossible to see any stars. But because Inwood Hill Park is of such historic significance -- it's (supposedly) where Peter Minuit bought Manhattan from the Lenape Indians and it (actually) contains the last piece of Manhattan's original forest cover and salt marsh-- the city designated it 'forever wild' and has left large sections of it undeveloped and unlit, which means that the artificial light that blocks the stars in the rest of the city is peripheral here. The park is well worth visiting during the day as well: its lower reaches have the standard ballfields and picnic areas, but its upper portions are the most rugged landscapes in Manhattan, with glacial erratics, natural trails, and caves. If you want to see what Manhattan looked like when Europeans showed up, IHP is the best place to do it. And bridge fans love the views of the Henry Hudson, which soars right out of the woods:
The Inwood Astronomy Project -- which is really just this guy Jason and a few other enthusiasts -- meets at the Payson and Beak entrance to the park about half an hour before sunset every clear Saturday night. They have a hotline (i.e., someone's cellphone) that you call to make sure that they'll be setting up that night. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk to the top of the hill. In case you're late, they've marked the path to the top with glowing chalk arrows and little orange flags.
We got our directions early then went to pick up dinner in Inwood, which is a very vibrant neighborhood full of good Latin American restaurants. People interested in less touristy sides of New York would do well to spend time strolling around Inwood, which is easy to pair with a visit to the Cloisters in nearby Fort Tryon Park. We grabbed delicious cachapas and patacones from (the aptly named) Cachapas Y Mas and went to the clearing at the summit, where we had a nice picnic watching the sun melt away over the Hudson.
Around 8pm, Jason arrived with the people who met up at the entrance to the park. There were ~15 people at the outset, but over the course of the night other folks trickled in and some left; between 30-40 people were there at some point. Ages ranged from mid-teens to late-60s, and there was a mix of parents with kids, couples, groups of friends, and the solitary curious. Some were regulars; others, like us, had long wanted to come; and still others had seen Jason carrying this huge telescope down the street and wondered what was going on. A fun and friendly atmosphere developed quickly -- a few people brought blankets and refreshments -- and Jason overflowed with cheer and excitement.
We were astonished by how much we could see with the naked eye from there -- the Big Dipper, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, Lyra, Aquila, Ursa Minor, and Cygnus, to pick some highlights. And with the telescope, we saw the Andromeda galaxy, the Ring Nebula, the Dumbell Nebula, the double stars of Albireo, and three of Jupiter's moons, a particularly striking and memorable sight. The night grew cool and breezy, but the sky was crystalline and endlessly engrossing. Jason told fascinating stories about the history of science, cracked delightfully bad jokes ("That hazy light to the east is the beautiful and rare phenomenon known as the Bronx Borealis."), taught people to see constellations, and radiated an infectious enthusiasm for everything astronomical.
One of the other pleasures of doing this is walking back down through the unlit park.* It's so rare in New York to be in actual darkness, and this section is very wild and rambling, so it has an appealingly eerie atmosphere by starlight. That atavistic fear of the woods at night deserves occasional savoring.
As I said, they go up every clear Saturday night, about 1/2 hour before sunset. We stayed until 11:00, but others stuck around past midnight. They also set up in Fort Tryon on the second Wednesday of the month and will be making special trips for the November and December meteor showers. The last stop on the A train (207th Street/Inwood) puts you very close to the park, but the stop prior to that (Dyckman) leaves you more in the thick of Inwood and its restaurants.
The Inwood Astronomy Project's website has more info about where to meet, what to bring, etc.:
Anyone interested in a lovely night in an undervisited gem of a park should check it out!
*Although you might want to bring a flashlight in case you can't find your way out of the park, we found that we could see much better without it, since our eyes had adjusted to being the dark for so long.Edited: 13 September 2010, 18:54