Think about this: When did you last look up at night and saw a star-studded sky that truly blew your mind? Chances are, you will not even be able to answer that question.
Only one in ten Americans has ever (!) seen a truly dark sky. Tucked away in the hilly solitude of northern central Pennsylvania, located just off of Route 44 and surrounded by 262,000 acres of the Susquehannock State Forest, the Cherry Springs State Park is your opportunity to experience something extraordinary, to see the stars in a way most of you very likely never have before. On a clear night, up to 30,000 stars illuminate the night sky here. And if your timing and conditions are just right, you might even get lucky enough to witness the grande dame Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights – dance across the sky.
My wife and I camped in Cherry Springs State Park on a balmy and clear summer night in early July – just a day before the New Moon, which, as I will explain later on, is one of the deciding factors you will want to look at as you plan your adventure here.
But before I unload my advice on enjoying Cherry Springs Park onto you, I`d love for you guys to take a minute and read these “Outdoor Lighting Basics” from the International Dark Sky Association for responsible, “Dark Sky Approved” outdoor lighting on our homes and in our yards. Because we can all do our part to keep further light pollution in check.
The Best Times to Visit Cherry Springs State Park
So when should you visit Cherry Springs State Park? The answer is a resounding… it depends. A general rule of thumb is that the best time to come out and see the stars is during the New Moon or up to four days before/after — unless, of course, you want to watch the moon. I have been to some remote places out West, including staying with the Navajos in Monument Valley, but never have I seen the Milky Way as clear in the sky without the help of any technology as I did at Cherry Springs State Park. If your prime objective is to see the Milky Way (keep reading for a list of constellations and celestial objects you might be able to see at Cherry Springs), you will have to visit between March and October, which is when the Galactic Core is visible in the Northern Hemisphere.
If you go beyond being the hobbyist stargazer, you might want to consider an update and plant your telescope on the walled-off astronomy field. Unlike for the public watching area, you will need to make a reservation in advance, though! Step it up even further, and you could stay in one of the private Astro Cabins that are open year round. Or reserve one of the astronomy domes. As you can see, opportunities abound.
If you don't care too much for the Milky Way (which is almost unfathomable to me personally, I love photographing it…), the best times to visit Cherry Springs State Park are fall and winter. Why? Because less humidity and longer nights make for some amazing stargazing opportunities – never mind the colder temperatures. So pack a warm coat and a thermos full of tea, and get ready for a night you won't soon forget.
If you are really into the night sky – and let's face it, you are reading a blog post about a Dark Sky site – then the twice-annual Star Parties at Cherry Springs State Park might be for you. I have never been, but the concept sounds really fun. So check it out if you are interested – and do let me know about your experience if you decide to go!
What You Need To Know As You Plan Your Visit to Cherry Springs State Park
To make your stargazing adventure an immediate success, keeping an eye on the weather forecast is crucial. It will not come as a shock to you that cloud cover seriously impacts your stargazing adventure. In addition to religiously checking the local weather report (I use and recommend the Wunderground app), as the day of your planned visit approaches, you can also use more advanced tools like this Clear Sky Chart that offers a "Cloud Cover," "Transparency" and "Seeing" hourly forecast for optimal astronomical observing within the next 48 hours. If that sounds intimidating, don't fret – the chart comes with handy, easy to understand explanations how to accurately and quickly read it. By the way: If Cherry Springs State Park is too far a trip for you, check out this Light Pollution Map that will show you the darkest places in your more immediate area.
Especially during the days of the New Moon in the busy summer months, reserve your campsite way in advance. The sites available are spacious but primitive and sparse – and particularly during the weeks of the New Moon, they tend to book up early. If the Cherry Springs State Park campground is full, you could try your luck at the more scenic Lyman Run State Park ten miles down the road, which wraps around a beautiful lakeshore. Also note that no alcohol is allowed on site. Beware: Rangers both on foot and by car patrol the area — including the campsite - more regularly and thoroughly than in most other parks I have been to, though that was just my personal impression. The campsite and area are pet-friendly, but know that your four-legged friends are not allowed in the observation area while it is in use.
Also note that in the whole park, including the campsite, usage of white light after dark is frowned upon - though only explicitly forbidden in the walled-off astronomy field. I chuckled when a maybe 10-year old kid on the campsite next to ours sternly scolded his little sister that her glow sticks she was innocently playing with were contributing to light pollution. In fact, before you come to the park, it might be a good idea to read the Cherry Springs Dark Sky Fund Observation Field Etiquette. Most people walking around are using infrared lights, and there is a station with a supply of red cellophane to put over and dim your regular flash light or hand lamp.
If you want to brush up on your knowledge of the night sky, there are private stargazing tours available. Combine the endless amazement of the night sky with learning about the universe! “Crystal Spheres: Adventures in Stargazing” definitely sounds enticing to me – although when my wife and I visited Cherry Springs lately, I was too busy taking photos to be part of a tour. There are other night sky programs offered by park staff as well.
What You Need To Bring When You Visit Cherry Springs State Park
Bring a blanket or camping chair, a pair of binoculars (at least a 7 x 50 power is recommended for stargazing – this one or this one test well and don´t break the bank) and a constellation map or app. I personally use the Photo Pills app, which has a depth of tools that really help in planning and spotting constellations. The AR feature is really helpful to anticipate while it's still light out where exactly for example the Milky Way will be at any given time during the night.
And again, note that if you stay at the Cherry Springs State Park campground, it is primitive — so plan accordingly. Also, during the summer months, bug spray will be your best friend. Even during that time, long sleeves might also be a good idea since temperatures at night can easily dip into the chilly 50s. Oh, and don´t forget your S`mores kit for the fire!
What You Will See When You Visit Cherry Springs State Park
(If Conditions Are Right)
Here's a list of what to keep an eye out for when you visit the park at night: Constellations, Asteroids, Venus (the Evening Star), Aurora Borealis, Omega Nebula, Meteor Showers, Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way, Zodiacal Light and the Space Station, among others. In short: You better make plans for sleeping the next day, if you can — you will not want to go to sleep at night while you are here. A nice little camping hack on the side: Leave off the rain cover of your tent - weather and temperature permitting. Even after you call it a day, or, more accurately, a night, depending on what tent you own, the view through the roof as you contently cuddle up in your sleeping bag will be unlike most other nights out in the wild.
The area is truly remote, which doesn't just show in the low amounts of light pollution but also the amounts of wildlife we saw just driving through the area on our way out. At the campsite, a bear had recently been spotted and proper food storage was required. Driving in and out of the park at dusk and dawn requires special attention and a steady foot on the brake. Leaving, we easily had 15 deer encounters, saw various rabbits frantically crossing the road as well as a skunk, multiple badgers, eagles and a turkey mama with her lil' gobblin' ones in tow.
If you have the time, visit the nearby town of Coudersport. We stopped at ”Mosch's Tavern and Restaurant” on Route 40 on our way into the picturesque downtown area. As we pulled up, the “Welcome Hunters and Bikers” sign foreshadowed the clientele of a place that revels in its proud aura of days of yore. Amid the Genesee-slurpin` local Yinzers, NFL banners and handwritten signs on walls and doors imposing clear rules that in this establishment, one would have to quietly stand and remove one's (presumably camo) hat to the sound of the Star Spangled Banner, I actually found an opportunity to watch the France-Belgium soccer World Cup semifinal. But rest assured: Even if you find yourself coming here outside the quadrennial spectacle that is the World Cup, stopping at Mosch´s for their cheeseburgers alone is well worth your time.
Lastly, a word on camera equipment and astro photography technique for the fellow photo aficionados out there: I made all these images with my Canon 5D Mark III and a Rokinon 24mm lens (an affordable and fantastic astro piece of glass!), as well as a remote shutter and a sturdy tripod. ISO and shutter speed depend on your camera, but generally use the “Rule of 500” to determine maximum shutter speed and see what maximum ISO your camera lets you get away with - knowing that noise can be substantially reduced in post processing. I used Lightroom, Photoshop and Starry Stacker to post-process and stack my images to maximize image quality and creative opportunities while minimizing noise. Check out “Milky Way Mike´s” YouTube tutorials to learn more about the concept of stacking astro photos. With all that technical stuff out of the way, get creative and take advantage of the unreal sky — but make sure you do not fall into the trap of focusing solely on the sky — your images usually still need a compelling foreground element and subject as well to keep the viewer's attention.
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