Goldendale Observatory, Washington State Parks

In south-central Washington, near the Columbia River Gorge, lies the community of Goldendale. It is dry and roughly 1,600 feet high. Forty miles to the west, a long, volcanically-built, glacier-clad barrier—that keeps most drenching Pacific storms in the western part of the state—shapes the cloud-free days in this land that sits in a rain shadow. This topographical barrier, known as the Cascade Range, is a gift to stargazers who are drawn to Goldendale’s observatory for its remarkable telescope, and its equally remarkable clear skies.

A Washington State Park is Your Connection to the Cosmos

Goldendale Observatory sits on a hill above the sparsely populated town, a short a mile and half north of Main Street. The winding two-lane road that leads to the facility is a lesson in precipitation and topography, and how those elements combine to affect plant communities. The quick drive up reveals the abrupt shift in ecosystems, as bunch grasses and shrubs of the flat valley floor give way to oaks and ponderosa pines that dot the slopes north of town.  At 2,100 feet (640 meters) elevation, the observatory’s grounds cover roughly 5 acres (20,000 square meters), and encompass daytime views of distant hills, where wind turbines use weather energy to generate electricity. Mount Hood, a Cascade Range volcano, shimmers to the south. Two domed structures housing telescopes, an interpretive center, outdoor amphitheater and picnic area, and various sundials have stories to tell, revealed by talented astronomy interpreters.

When night settles at the observatory, there is scant light pollution from the town below. The rolling features of land are obscured by a sky so dark, the facility and grounds were given a special designation: Goldendale Observatory is recognized as an International Dark Sky Park. There are few in number worldwide. On one of the many clear nights here, you can stand outside and see, with your naked eye, why this is so. The night that is blacker than a city’s is punctuated by thousands of twinkling stars. Constellations, familiar to many, with their ancient stories of animals and characters, appear depending on the time of year at this geographic location of 45 degrees, 50 minutes, 20.104 seconds latitude, 120 degrees, 48 minutes, 49.787 seconds longitude. Meteor showers dazzle like celebratory fireworks.  Satellites zip by as fast-tracking points of light. Sometimes the International Space Station shows up overhead.

Seeing with Your Own Eyes through the Cassegrain Telescope

Dark skies are only part of the reason that Goldendale Observatory thrills visitors. Another rare feature of the facility is, of course, the large telescope that’s available to the public day and night. When Goldendale Observatory was opened to the public in 1973, its 24.5-inch (620 mm) Cassegrain reflecting telescope was the largest amateur-built telescope of its size available to the public in the entire United States. The telescope is large enough that you can see other galaxies that are many tens of millions of light-years from Earth. Two billion light-years is the farthest object that some observers have seen through Goldendale’s Cassegrain telescope.

More familiar objects that visitors observe to great delight are Saturn with its startling rings; Venus; Mercury; Mars; Jupiter; our Moon; binary stars; globular star clusters; and nebulas that make some late night stargazers crave doughnuts. The Cassegrain has two smaller telescopes mounted on it that function as finder telescopes to help locate features in the cosmos. Just as systems for measuring—such as latitude and longitude—allow people to locate cities, towns, neighborhoods, and streets on our home planet, using right ascension and declination helps astronomers and stargazers find planets, stars, comets, and many other objects in space.

Housed in a smaller domed building is another telescope that is outfitted with a hydrogen alpha filter to block all the colors of the color spectrum, except for red. This telescope allows visitors to safely look at the sun, and see churning blobs—known as prominences—erupt from our solar system’s number one star.

A Journey of Two Billion Light-years Begins with the First Step

Working in the 1960s, four amateur astronomers—M.W. McConnell, John Marshall, Don Conner and O.W. VanderVelden—built the Cassegrain telescope that’s housed at Goldendale Observatory. Six years went into grinding the glass for the reflecting mirror. The men had intended to donate the telescope to Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, a facility 120 miles west of Goldendale. But in that western Washington town, cloud cover is famously, significantly, and frequently present throughout the year. In trying to solve the problem of where to donate the telescope, one of the amateur astronomers took a road trip with his wife to a town in eastern Washington. The institute he visited, however, wanted the telescope for the exclusive use of research astronomers, and not for public access. Disappointed, the couple hit the road for home. But hunger struck along the way, as usually happens on road trips. This particular hunger coincided with the spot on the map that is Goldendale. The couple found a restaurant in the local Greyhound station. Conversation about the search for a home for the telescope ensued with the restaurant’s staff. That lunchtime exchange, coupled with the way news travels in a small town, led to Goldendale’s accepting, receiving, and building a facility to house the Cassegrain telescope, which was dedicated in October of 1973, with the specific mission of making this a facility for public stargazing. In December of 1980, Washington State Parks acquired Goldendale Observatory to continue its legacy of access and science education for the public.

There’s No Limit on This Space Adventure

It wasn’t until fairly recently that space-based telescopes, such as Kepler and Hubble, allowed us to see farther, and with more clarity into the cosmos. As recently as the 1990s, scientists first discovered that most stars in the cosmos have planets orbiting them. There are roughly 200 billion “sun-like” stars in our galaxy, and with most accompanied by planets, that makes hundreds of billions of planets just in our home galaxy. And our galaxy is only one of several hundred billion galaxies in the universe that humans can observe. After looking through the telescope, and seeing into the cosmos, what do you think about our place in the universe? Is there other life out there? Other intelligent life? Knowing that our planet is unique in our solar system, as its development led to complex life of which we are a part, how has your perception of Earth changed? Each time you come to Goldendale Observatory, there’s something new to see and discover. The limit on this adventure is two billion light-years—an awfully long distance in which to explore.

NOTE: Goldendale Observatory lost its designation as an International Dark Sky Park.