City lights aren’t the only wonders in the night sky over Grand Rapids. Just minutes from the gleaming streetlamps and twinkling buildings of the city’s downtown, you’ll encounter dark country skies filled with the far-away glow of stars, planets and other celestial objects.

Want to get a closer look at these wonders of the universe? Head to the James C. Veen Observatory in Lowell, about 25 minutes from Grand Rapids. This education and research facility is owned and operated by the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association (GRAAA), and is named after GRAAA co-founder James Veen. The Observatory was constructed primarily by GRAAA members over five years, with support from community foundations and the Grand Rapids Public Museum, and it became fully operational in 1970.

The Observatory houses three permanently mounted astronomical telescopes and several portable instruments along with a large meeting room, extensive library and an audio-visual system for presentations to GRAAA members and the public.

A sign out front of the observatory that says John C. Veen observatory
A large telescope pointed towards the sky

The observatory is equipped with three telescopes.

Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids

Attending A Public Night

While primarily used by members of the GRAAA, the Veen Observatory also offers Public Observing Nights on select Saturdays from spring through fall. For a small fee (see FAQs below), members of the general public can use the Observatory’s equipment to view the night sky, tour the facility and enjoy a presentation about the history of the GRAAA and the Observatory.

Check the GRAAA website for the Public Observing Night Schedule. Note that these events will proceed only if skies are clear – call the Starwatch number (616-897-7065) or visit GRAA’s Facebook page for updates and the status of a particular night if weather conditions are questionable.

Be aware that the parking lot for the Observatory is about a quarter mile from the facility and it’s an uphill walk on a sparsely lit paved road. If that’s daunting, you can take a golf cart ride to and from the parking lot.

an audio visual presentation inside a classroom at john c. veen observatory
A bookshelf full of book next to a stairwell

A 15-minute presentation about the history of GRAAA and Veen Observatory runs on a loop during Public Observing Nights.

Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids

Programming and Stargazing

Immediately inside the Observatory you can watch a 15-minute video about the history of GRAAA and Veen Observatory. It runs on a loop throughout Public Observing Nights, so you can view it whenever you arrive. A library of in the basement contains hundreds of astronomy books going back decades.

Any or all of the Observatory’s three telescopes might be in operation the night you visit. Knowledgeable astronomers will monitor celestial coordinates (outer space’s version of latitude and longitude) and type into keypads to cause the massive telescopes to swivel around the room. You can look through these telescopes at stars millions of light years away.

GRAAA members bring their own telescopes and equipment on these nights to give you even more opportunities to view the sky. They’re happy to answer your questions and help explain what you’re seeing through the telescopes.

The Observatory also offers special programming in conjunction with celestial events. For instance, they’ve hosted all-night watch parties for the annual Perseid meteor shower. Visitors can bring snacks, chairs and blankets to settle in while awaiting a glimpse of the spectacular show.

Seeing the big telescopes in operation, and then actually viewing craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, or satellites of Jupiter—those are unique impressions that will stay with them for a long time.

Dave DeBruyn, a long-time GRAAA board member, once explained the rationale behind Public Observing Nights:

"I have had the good fortune to have been with this project from the time the Veen Observatory first opened in 1970. That will be 50 years ago next year. Throughout that long period, in which we have welcomed tens of thousands of visitors to the facility, I am still thrilled when people, particularly families, depart with enthusiastic exclamations about what a worthwhile experience it has been for them.

“Seeing the big telescopes in operation, and then actually viewing craters on the moon, the rings of Saturn, or satellites of Jupiter—those are unique impressions that will stay with them for a long time. It is satisfying to members of GRAAA to be able to offer such memorable experiences to so many."

The front of the john c. veen observatory at night

The Veen Observatory at night is illuminated with red lights to keep your eyes in "night mode."

Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids

FAQs for attending Public Observing Nights

When are Public Observing Nights?

On select Saturday nights beginning in late March or early April and ending in late October or early November. You can find a schedule for upcoming Public Nights on the GRAAA’s Public Nights page

Does the weather affect Public Observing Nights? 

Weather does affect Public Nights. Before attending one, check the GRAAA homepage or any of their social media platforms for updates. You can also call the Starwatch number (616-897-7065) for the status of a night if the weather is questionable.

What will I see? 

What’s visible depends on the time of year. Viewing objects may include: the moon, Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter, star clusters, galaxies, nebulas, and more. The GRAAA website typically mentions what will be visible at each event. 

What time does it start and end?

Start times vary throughout the season. Start times range from 8 – 9:30 PM depending on sunset. Each Public Observing Night lasts about two and a half hours. 

What should I bring? 

Plan to bring a flashlight (pointed at the ground) for help walking around the grounds, binoculars, as well as bug spray and warm clothes.

How much does it cost? 

Adult admission is $5, ages 5 – 17 get in for $3, and ages 5 and under are free. Admission is also free for Grand Rapids Public Museum members. 

How do I get there? 

The address is 3308 Kissing Rock Ave SE, Lowell, MI 49331.

Public Night at the Veen Observatory is a unique experience, one we are lucky to have in West Michigan. It's a great idea for an off-the-beaten-path date night or just something different to do on the weekend. 

And if you’re looking for more ways to spend a Saturday night, check out the Experience Grand Rapids nightlife page.