Sunriver night sky. Photo by Nate Wyeth Photography
Sunriver, Oregon, is an unincorporated small town at the base of the Cascade Mountains in beautiful Deschutes County in central Oregon, U.S.A. The Sunriver development was launched in the late 1960’s with a vision to build a community integrated with nature, a vision which has been achieved and is continued and valued by Sunriver residents. In September 2020, The Oregon Chapter of the International Dark Sky Association proudly announced the designation of Sunriver as aDark Sky Friendly Development of Distinction, and Oregon’s first designated International Dark Sky Place. Until recently Sunriver was the only International Dark Sky Place in the Pacific Northwest, and a premier location for observing the wonders of the night sky. On May 7, 2021, Sunriver was joined by Prineville Reservoir State Park to become the second International Dark Sky Place in Oregon.
Bob Grossfeld, Observatory Manager at the non-profit Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory (SNCO), spearheaded the Dark Sky Place effort. The SNCO’s mission is to “inspire present and future generations to cherish and understand our natural world.” The observatory takes maximum advantage of Sunriver’s dark skies. The domed observatory was constructed in 1990 and the large Starport roll-off roof observatory was added in 1999.
The observatory draws about 400 people on busy nights. A now underway expansion will double the capacity and allow people to have shorter waits to use the telescopes and speak with staff. The observatory will remain open during the construction. Once the work is finished, the larger space will allow for more school groups and university research projects. “This is going to be a huge asset for our educational K-12 programming,” Grossfeld said.
Sunriver is not only home to the Oregon Observatory, which has the largest number of astronomical instruments for public viewing in the United States with over 30 telescopes; the Nature Center(with 35 animals, representing 20 species) and a portable Star Dome Planetarium offer regular interpretive programs. The Nature Center has a lush evergreen landscape with well-kept curving roads and bicycle paths, all surrounded by the Deschutes National Forest.
The 20 inch f8 Ritchey-Chretien OGS research reflector telescope in its dome.
Starport roll-off roof open for a night of stargazing with telescopes up to 18 inches. Multiple daytime solar telescopes are also available.
Telescopes large (20 inch) and larger (30 inch) are available to view through at the Sunriver Observatory.
Several elements combine to make Central Oregon attractive for stargazers. East of the Cascade Mountains the lack of any large metropolitan cities makes for a darker night sky. Even with nearby Bend, Oregon’s rapid growth, outdoor lighting standards are helping to keep light pollution and associated sky glow minimized. Deschutes County adopted an outdoor lighting ordinance which limits the types of lighting that can be used in order to help keep the rural skies sparkling with stars and the Milky Way. Locals know that they’re lucky to live in an area with community support that will help to keep these dark night skies unspoiled. Even from their own backyards they are able to view thousands of stars.
The summer Milky Way shines in the night skies over Sunriver, Oregon. Photo by Jim Culpepper.
“Deschutes County has some strict light ordinances; Sunriver has even more strict light ordinances,” Grossfeld said. “That certainly helps us.” The strict guidelines have paid off with the official recognition from the International Dark-Sky Association as the first Dark Sky Place in Oregon, a rare distinction held by only 174 other areas located around the world.
The Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory has dedicated staff and has worked for 60 years toward preserving the natural environment, and should be proud to finally be recognized for their efforts at protecting the night skies from light pollution. With multiple observatories throughout the region, Central Oregon is one of the very best areas to gaze at stars, galaxies, nebulae and star clusters light-years away.
Enlarged open deck Starport observing area conceptual drawing.
Sunriver's mission is to “inspire present and future generations to cherish and understand our natural world.” Last month Sunriver broke ground on the first phase of their $5 million expansion, starting with the large Starport observing area. The second phase of the nature center expansion is scheduled to start in 2023. It will feature a larger 7,700-square-foot Discovery Center that will include a large planetarium theater with a full projection system and seating for up to 94 visitors. The center will also build a 1,800-square-foot pavilion on the back of Lake Aspen.
The stars at the Sunriver Nature Center will shine year-round even in cloudy weather. The Phase Two Earth & Sky Theater will feature a state-of-the-art full planetarium projection system which also allows for presentations of nature films, as well as hosting guest lectures.