Winter Star Party

The Winter Star Party is held under Bortle 3 skies in the Florida Keys during the February new moon. It is hosted by the Southern Cross Astronomical Society and has just celebrated 40 years of operation.

This premier star party boasts an appealing climate and a unique location for star lovers. I’m not sure there is any other star party where you set your telescope on the beach to catch a glimpse of late evening/early morning southern targets.

So if you’re ready to trade your toques and gloves for sunglasses and sandals, get ready for a different star party experience at the Winter Star Party. This post includes everything you need to know.

Winter Star Party Registration

Registration for the star party was available starting October 28, though I believe this was later than usual. To stay up to date on when registration opens, you can join the Winter Star Party Facebook group.

In addition to the usual personal information during registration, you will be required to select:

  • Number of Attendees: the number of adults attending for registration fees which start at $205 per person (no charge for youth 15 and under). 
  • Camping Method: if you’re camping in an RV/trailer larger than 15′, a pop-up or trailer less than 15′, or the glam tent.
  • Camping Fees: if you are camping in a tent, trailer, or RV; you will also be required to pay camping fees for the week, starting at $145 per person. People staying in the glam tents are excluded from these fees. 
  • Parking: we were asked if we planned on parking while staying at Sawyer, which entitles us to a parking pass to park in the lot near the bathhouse. 

Winter Star Party Registration

2023 Winter Star Party registration details and pricing

Our Registration

We registered for the glam tent (more on this below). With the cost of the glam tent ($350 x 2) plus the registration fees ($205 x 2), our total star party cost was $1,110 USD (or $1,500 CDN) plus flights.

Though staying in the glam tent was (perhaps) the more expensive option, it made the most sense for us since we were flying in from Toronto. This meant we were limited to what we could bring in terms of camping supplies.

Winter Star Party

Trevor setting up his William Optics Pleiades 68 telescope for a night of astrophotography.

Staying at the Winter Star Party

There are two separate camps referenced when registering to stay onsite: Camp Wesumkee and Camp Sawyer. Your camp location will depend on which method of camping you selected during the registration process. 

Winter Star Party Map

Map Source: Satellites Pro via SCAS

Camp Wesumkee (Girl Scout Camp)

If you register to stay in a tent, trailer, or RV, this is the camp that you will be staying at. It is rustic camping with no flushing facilities (port-o-lets are available on-site). The shower facilities and flushing toilets are available at Camp Sawyer, not too far away. 

While there is no electricity at this camp, they do allow small, quiet (below 65 decibels) generators for electricity. Parking is at your campsite.

tent campsites

campsites at Winter Star Party

Camp Sawyer (Boy Scout Camp) 

Camp Sawyer has limited tent camping available and is the location for the glam tents. There are no trailers or RVs allowed on this camp. 

This camp has electricity and access to the flushing toilets and shower facilities. The facilities can be accessed by those at Camp Wesumkee by a path on the west side.

There is no vehicle traffic allowed on Camp Sawyer, so if you’re staying at Wesumkee, you must walk to the showers.

Camp Sawyer

Scout Key

Glam Tents

Glam tents are numbered 1- 8, and you can register for whichever glam tent you want.

The glam tents fit 4-5 people depending on the configuration of the tent, each equipped with a semi-private room for 2 people, electricity, and air conditioning. Depending on the tent you register for, there may be:

  • 1 queen bed in the main room with two bunks in the semi-private room
  • three bunks in the main room with two bunks in the semi-private room 

Glam tent main area with queen bed (left) with the semi-private area (right).

One thing to keep in mind, is the glam tents do not come with bedding. So you will need to bring your own blankets, pillowcases, sheets/sleeping bags (pillows are already there). You also have to rent the space for the full week of the star party, even if you are arriving at a later date or leaving early.

It’s helpful to have a group of 4-5 people ready to register for the same numbered glam tent if you’d like to stay with people you know. Otherwise, you register for a numbered glam tent (and bunk) to share the space with whoever else signs up for that particular tent. 

Glam Tent at the Winter Star Party

Our Glam Tent Crew

Off-Site Options

In addition to staying on-site, there are nearby alternatives on Big Pine Key, including:

We have not stayed at any of these places, they were just options I found while looking at options to avoid bringing/purchasing items we couldn’t bring home.

Keep in mind that staying offsite will require you to park outside the gates to the camp, as they close for the night at 7 p.m. 

Dark Skies at the Winter Star Party

Arriving at the Winter Star Party

We attended the star party from Wednesday – Sunday.

Based on conversations with others, there can be heavy traffic on opening day. There is parking available for those who show up the night before the star party at Big Pine United Methodist Church. You can arrange parking with the church staff, which looks to fill up early. 

This is in anticipation of the gates opening at 10 a.m. on the morning of opening day (Monday). All attendees are welcome to start lining up starting at 7 a.m. without blocking the camp entrances.

Our Arrival

We flew direct to Miami (3.5 hour flight) on Wednesday, and rented a car to drive the remaining distance (3 hours) to Camp Swayer on West Summerland Key. There is an airport in Key West, but flights from Canada had multiple stops and lengthy layovers. 

Driving also allowed us to load up on the needed supplies for staying at Camp Sawyer (i.e. blankets, snacks, and cooler) and was great for exploring the other key islands in our spare time. 

As usual, we arranged for an early flight (7:00 a.m.) to accommodate the drive from Miami and pick up supplies. Though our flight was delayed by an hour, we arrived at the star party by early evening to set up for the first night. 

The drive is really scenic as you cross multiple bridges connecting you to the rest of the key islands. 

Our first tent mate arrived on Monday and let us know that our glam tent actually had a queen bed and two bunks instead of the 5 bunks for 5 people. They made arrangements to get us an additional single bed, but it ended up working out because a member of our tent ended up not being able to make it to the star party.

Rental Car for Winter Star Party

We rented a convertible to soak up the sun, but could barely fit all our luggage into the vehicle (with the top down).

Meal and Food Options

Micki’s Kitchen was the food vendor on site, though it was announced that this was their last year. I imagine they will be looking for a replacement. 

There was the option to preorder meals, but there was limited information on how to do so (i.e. there was no menu or prices available) so we didn’t make arrangements to preorder food. They did have a variety of different foods available on site, including; snacks, sandwiches, burgers, and drinks. Full dinner meals were reserved for those who preordered.

There are several nearby restaurants and coffee shops in Big Pine Key (5 minutes) and Marathon (25 minutes), in addition to grocery stores for picking up food or snacks. There are grills onsite, though I don’t imagine you would be able to use them at dinner time, close to dusk.

Most days, we ate what we brought for breakfast, went off-site for big lunch, and ate dinner at Micki’s kitchen. 

Some of our favorite offsite restaurants included:

  • Key Fisheries (Marathon)
  • Sunset Grill (Marathon)
  • Bagel Island Sandwich Shop (Big Pine Key)

Sunset Grill

Lunch at Sunset Grill in Marathon


There were several speakers lined up for the event. Most of the talks took place from Tuesday – Thursday, with fewer events planned from Friday – Sunday. The door prize draw took place Friday morning. 

If you’re interested in seeing the talks, you are going to want to make sure you arrive at the beginning of the event. Similarly, if you are hoping to win a door prize, you will need to be there to win, so you’ll want to stay until at least Friday.

Things to Do

There is no shortage of things to do while you’re visiting the Keys for the Winter Star Party. 

There are plenty of great places to stop through the keys on the way to the star party from Miami if you’re looking to break up the drive. A few touristy options that I researched included:

Running/Walking Trails

We like to squeeze in some physical activity where we can while we’re away, so I always look for trails or paths where we can go for a run or hike. 

There is a great path just outside the entrance to the star party where you can run over the bridge to Big Pine Key, or the other direction back toward Marathon. We ran 2.5K (1.55M), to where the path ended and back, though the path continued just a ways up the road. 

There is also the 7 Mile Bridge in Marathon that runs alongside the Highway 1. Across from Sunset Grill, there is a parking lot where you can park and use the separate bridge to go for a run or walk. The path does not stretch across the entire 7-mile bridge, but it is around 3K (1.86M) one way.

Visit Key West

On Friday afternoon of the star party, we ventured into Key West with our tent mates to experience the island of Key West. We also stayed here for two days after the star party was over for some relaxation before heading home.

Sloppy Joe's in Key West

Our crew at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West 

We went to a few bars on Duval Street for some drinks and lunch and enjoyed some key lime pie. If you do venture out, be sure to return by 7 p.m., when the gates close.

There are lots of historic places to see, here are a few that might make your list:

  • Sloppy Joe’s
  • Hog’s Breath
  • The Smallest Bar
  • Amigos Tortilla Bar
  • Kermit’s Key Lime Pie
  • Southern Most Point Buoy

There are roosters and chickens everywhere, which is fun to see. If we had more time, we would have also liked to have visited the Hemingway Home and Museum (and the six toed cats) and booked a boat ride to get out on the water. 

Southern Most Point in Continental United States

There’s a line to wait for your picture at the Southernmost Point Buoy, we didn’t want to wait. 

Rules at Winter Star Party

Though there are no rules listed on the SCAS website, there were some gentle reminders listed in their event guide. 

  • No vehicle traffic is allowed inside the gates after 7 p.m. 
  • Supervise your children at all times, and keep them within sight and sound of you. 
  • Drive carefully and obey the speed limits in and around Big Pine Key. 
  • If you smoke, please be mindful of your neighbors and do not leave cigarette butts on the ground
  • Illegal drugs, alcoholic beverages, and firearms are strictly prohibited on both Scout properties
  • Use trash receptacles for all waste 
  • Water is a scarce resource in the Keys, preserve water by taking shorter showers
  • No white lights after dark and no loud music or noise in the mornings 

Helpful Items to Bring/Tips

In addition to your gear and extra cables, the following items are helpful to bring:

  • Red headlamp: these are always helpful at star parties but especially here with the star party being so spread out. You’ll need it to find the washroom at night, to walk over to the snack bar from Camp Sawyer, or visit other scopes for views. 
  • Telescope covers: rain comes and goes in the Keys, you are going to want something to protect your scope as the rain rolls in so you can leave it set up. Something that covers the scope and the cords is best.
  • Extension cords: be sure to bring extension cords with you. There is power at the back of each glam tent, but if you want to set up in front of the tent to capture those low-horizon targets, you will need to extend the power to the front of the tent. If you are tenting, you will need a long (maybe 100ft.) power cable to reach the power hookup.
  • Shorter Focal Lengths: it is windy at this star party so it’s a balance of setting up in front of your tent for the low targets, or setting up next to your tent to block the wind. You will also want to shoot with shorter focal lengths and consider bringing some weights for your setup. 
  • Warm clothes: even though you are in the Keys, the weather can cool off at night, especially if its windy. Be sure to bring a sweater and some sturdy shoes for walking around on the coral rock.
  • Re-useable mug: nice for getting coffee to cut down on waste, or keeping your drinks cool during the day. 

Southern Skies at the Winter Star Party

Ash setting under the dark skies of the Winter Star Party

Bortle 3 Skies

The skies of the Winter Star Party are an impressive Bortle 3. I imagine the skies were even better many years ago, before the keys were built up as they are now. 

At night, you can not only see the light dome of Key West (in the west), but also the light dome of Havana, Cuba, which is 90 miles off the southern coast.

It’s always interesting getting used to a new sky when you travel further south. The orientation of the Orion constellation being so high in the sky meant that the winter targets within Orion were in prime position for imaging. 


Bortle 3 skies over our glam tent.

New Targets

For us, coming from southern Ontario, there were quite a few new targets available.

Many of these targets were very low on the horizon across the Gulf of Mexico, including:

  • NGC 2736: Vela Supernova Remnant/Pencil Nebula – 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m.
  • NGC 3372: Eta Carina – 12:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m.
  • NGC 6188: Dragons of Ara – 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.
  • NGC 5128: Centaurus A – 1:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.
  • NGC1365: Fornax Galaxy Cluster – 7:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
  • Southern Cross Asterism – 3:00 – 4:00 a.m.

*list provided by Adam Toder.

Imaging these targets so low on the horizon was a challenge. For the majority of the star party, the skies were not clear long enough to capture these targets. 

Our neighbour in the next glam tent was Mike Lockwood, of Lockwood Custom Optics. He was kind enough to let us look through his f/2 night vision reflector for jaw-dropping views of Carina, the Monkeyhead Nebula, the Rosette Nebula, and so many other targets. Thanks, Mike!

Astrophotography travel

We packed two tracking mounts, cameras, and telescopes.

Deep-Sky Astrophotography

For astrophotography at the Winter Star Party, we brought two small refractor telescopes and strainwave drive mounts that do not require counterweights. 

Because flew to the event, we had to keep our equipment profile small and portable. We did not want to risk damaging our optics in our checked luggage, so we had to choose telescopes that would fit in our carry-on bag. 

The stocky, compact refractor telescopes were a great option for the high winds at this location as well. A larger telescope (such as a Newtonian) would have been much more susceptible to wind. 

Pleiades Winter Star Party

Trevor’s Setup

Trevor spent the majority of the star party collecting light on IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula. In total, he was able to stack 3 hours of data (60 x 3 minutes) for his final image. 

Witch Head Nebula

The Witch Head Nebula in Orion. Trevor Jones.

Ashley’s Setup 

I knew I wanted to try and capture Eta Carina, so I chose a focal length that would frame that target rather closely. Though I didn’t get many chances to shoot Carina, I did manage to get a sub or two. 

Eta Carina Nebula by Ash at Winter Star Party

The only 3 subs I managed to capture of Eta Carina.

I spent most of my time at the star party imaging NGC 2023, the Horsehead Nebula. This focal length was rather wide for this particular target, but it allowed me to capture the dark dust and nebulosity surrounding this target. 

The winds were so strong on the last night of the star party, I shut down my rig and moved it against the side of the tent. It was affecting my guiding and I was worried about the stability of the rig without any weights. Trevor moved his rig to the side of the tent to help block the wind, which improved his guiding. 

Horsehead Nebula captured by Ashley Northcotte at WSPAshley – 4 hours on the Horsehead Nebula

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time at the Winter Star Party. It was great to take a break from the cold weather and head down to the Florida Keys to enjoy some astronomy in shorts and sandals in February.

Russ, the President of Southern Cross Astronomical Society, was always around, constantly checking in with everyone and making sure things are going well. The staff was helpful and friendly throughout the event.

The glam tents were a great option, as they added a level of comfort for sleeping and protection from the rain and wind. You also can’t beat the views from the porch of the glam tent as the Great Egrets, Pelicans, and Frigatebirds fly around. 

Winter Star Party Glam Tent ViewGlam tent views

We were lucky to have a friend who had been to the star party for many years and could help us with some of the logistics and planning, which we have shared here with you. The website can be a little difficult to navigate and find the information you are looking for if you are new to the star party and looking at cost to attend, so we hope this is a helpful resource for you. 

We’d love to make this a regular thing – the Keys are a fun place to visit with a great vibe.

Ashley Northcotte

Ashley is an environmental educator, communication professional, and beginner astrophotographer from Ontario, Canada. She has extensive experience writing for diverse audiences to increase public awareness and engagement . Ashley is an active Advocate and Delegate with DarkSky International, helping to protect the nighttime environment from the harmful effects of light pollution through advocacy and outreach. 


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