Unwrapping The Milky Way at Riverbend Park

The Milky Way Galaxy can be seen on dark,clear nights. Photo by Derek Rowley.

The Milky Way Galaxy can be seen on dark, clear nights. Photo by Derek Rowley.

A few months ago, in anticipation of our upcoming Winter Astronomy festivals, Assistant Park Manager John Callow and I shook a year’s worth of cobwebs off of Riverbend Park’s Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, lugged it down to the Potomac riverbank and proceeded to explore the night sky at 100x magnification. It was a cold, clear December night, perfect for stargazing. As the sun set and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the stars appeared one by one. At the last hint of sunlight I remember looking up and staring in amazement at a faint swath of billions of stars banded across the sky: the Milky Way.

As a D.C. resident, I’m usually attuned to an orange haze that descends when the sun goes down and thousands of my city’s streetlights reflect off of clouds. At Riverbend, it feels like I’m a million miles away. That December night was the first time I had seen the Milky Way in the Washington metropolitan area, and the first time I could appreciate what a special place the park is both at day and at night.

The fact that viewers can observe the Milky Way at Riverbend is astonishing when you consider the park’s proximity to urban, highly developed areas. The swath of parkland that separates Riverbend from the hustle and bustle of communities further away from the river is complimented by the semi-rural character of the park’s immediate neighbor, Great Falls. When night falls at Riverbend, inky shadows, starlit islands and moonlight reflecting off the water dominate the landscape. The singsong of birds and occasional rumble of traffic is replaced by the ambient noise of Great Falls downriver and the occasional hoot of an owl. But what really draws folks to the park at night is the unfiltered view of the night sky; it helps when we have a powerful telescope to explore it.

The sky, telescope and a variety of activities and demonstrations are on full display during our Winter Astronomy festivals, held monthly from November to March. Riverbend alternates between hosting festivals for Girl Scouts and for the general public.

A crowd of close to 300 Girl Scouts was at the park on a recent January weekend, and they had great views of the festival’s “featured planet,” Jupiter. A look through the powerful scope, purchased for us by the Friends of Riverbend, revealed the planet’s four Galilean moons and suggestions of Jupiter’s famous red bands. While a film of clouds prevented a clear view of the Milky Way that night, scouts and their families enjoyed constellation tours, arts and crafts, constellation stories around the campfire and, of course, hot chocolate.

Nights like those show the worth of shaking off cobwebs and exploring what’s in, and above, Fairfax County parks.

By Ethan Kuhnhenn, park/recreation specialist, Riverbend Park

Here’s more about astronomy programs in the parks and about programs at Riverbend.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

3 thoughts on “Unwrapping The Milky Way at Riverbend Park

  1. ninanarang


    I am interested in using this image on my own blog, Hurling Through Space. May I have permission to do so?

    Thank you,

    1. Fairfax County Park Authority Post author

      We found this photo on Google Images. It was shot by Derek Rowley.


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