Just imagine. You finished a long day hiking. You’re sitting in a chair surrounded by friends and you look up at the night sky to discover the darkest skies you’ve ever seen. Your eyes are filled with an awe-inspiring view of stars and planets.
The blue, yellow, and purple ethereal views of the Milky Way show you a glimpse of what is out there above us and around us. This moment is something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
And while that sounds like something only available in the darkest corners of the Earth, it actually can be found right here in Pennsylvania at Cherry Springs State Park.
Located in Potter County, Cherry Springs is one of the most special parks we have in the Commonwealth. That’s because it is Pennsylvania’s first Dark Sky Park.
All of Cherry Springs facilities have been developed to significantly limit the amount of white light being seen. I was lucky enough to visit Cherry Springs during a meteor shower in 2022. My friend and I sat for hours, spotting meteors that lit up across the sky. It was truly magical and an experience I want you all to have.
So, here are a couple of tips to remember when planning your Cherry Springs adventure.
Campfires are not allowed in most areas
If you plan to spend the night at Cherry Springs, it’s important to know that campfires are not allowed in the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. Why? Because the brightness of campfires would take away from the darkness of the skies.
A dark night sky is a natural resource, just like plants, waterways, and wildlife. As a result, this unique resource needs to be managed and protected.
The Overnight Astronomy Observation Field is an area set aside for serious stargazers who bring their own observation equipment. This area has strict lighting restrictions and prohibits campfires and all forms of white light.
However, there are no lighting restrictions at the park’s Rustic Campground. To aid in creating a more enjoyable experience for all visitors, it is recommended to use red filters on all lights. DCNR says that campfires should be kept as small as possible and interior vehicle or camper lights should be turned off or shielded with red filters.
Red flashlights only
Do not bring your bright LED lanterns and flashlights. Be sure to pack a flashlight with a red light or a headlamp with a red light setting. Red lights help you see in the dark, minimize light pollution and allow you to navigate in the dark without ruining your – and everyone elses – night vision.
Every time someone walked into the Night Sky Viewing Area with a bright white flashlight, the collective crowd groaned and jeered for them to either stop using the light or to use a red light. Bright white lights absolutely ruin the atmosphere and stargazing experience for everyone.
Don’t have a red flashlight, put some red tape over the light.
Bring a telescope or (politely) ask to use someones
While the views from both the Night Sky Viewing Area and Overnight Astronomy Observation Field are incredible with just your eyes, a little magnified help really opens up the views.
A telescope allows you to see the beauty and intricacies of space. Since many of us don’t own a telescope, you could always ask to peer through someone else’s. I have found that people love sharing their hobbies. If you see someone with a telescope, politely ask to look through it.
The detailed views of galaxies, nebulae, stars, planets and other heavenly bodies are something to behold.
Check the weather before you book
If you’re ONLY going up to Cherry Springs to see a clear, dark sky, check the weather reports. While I think there’s plenty to enjoy other than the views, a storm will ruin your trip if you are going up for stargazing.
Make sure to see if the night sky will be obscured with clouds. If so, choose another night so that you have the best chance at great views.
Attend a ranger talk, activity
Pennsylvania’s park rangers are some of the most knowledgeable people on the outdoors that you will find. And the programs and activities they host are top tier.
They offer private telescope tours, interactive activities, night sky tours and a lot more. Not only will you learn something, but you’ll often have access to a telescope to see even more of the universe.
Bring a comfortable chair
Stargazing requires a comfy chair. It’s just that simple. Be sure to pack a chair that you feel comfortable sitting in for hours. I found a turkey hunting chair, which sits low to the ground, is great for stargazing. It leans you back and cocks your head up so that you’re not straining your neck.
But, any camping chair will do. If you want to really get comfortable, bring a picnic blanket and pillows so you can lay under the stars. I’d also pack a light blanket as the weather is often colder up north.
Those are my tips for having an awesome stargazing experience at Cherry Springs State Park. Let us know if you have any to add!
Written by Christian Alexandersen
Christian Alexandersen ran one mile in each of Pennsylvania’s 124 state parks and has been sharing his passion for public lands with us since 2021. Christian is the host of the Hemlocks to Hellbenders Podcast – which highlights our state parks, forests and great outdoors. You can listen wherever podcasts are found, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.