One of the best places in Pennsylvania to see the stars is Cherry Springs State Park, which is renowned for its dark skies. But why is Cherry Springs State Park so dark?
Cherry Springs State Park is so dark because it is far away from major sources of light pollution. It is located near the remote hamlet of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, in the depths of the Susquehannock State Forest. There are no major cities or towns nearby, and as such, almost no light pollution.
So can you see the Milky Way or Northern Lights at Cherry Springs State Park? Do you need reservations for stargazing, and is there any WiFi? Read on to learn the answers to these questions and more.
Dark Skies at Cherry Springs
Cherry Springs State Park is an 82-acre park located within the 262,000 acres of the Susquehannock State Forest. The history of the park dates back to 1818, when Jonathan Edgcomb constructed a log house that was known as the Cherry Springs Hotel. The hotel was in an extremely remote location, visited mainly by travelers on the Jersey Shore Pike.
During the Civilian Conservation Corps era, Cherry Springs was the site of a work camp for workers who constructed an airfield at Cherry Springs. The park remained relatively obscure until the late 1990s, when it was featured on an astronomy website as a prime location for dark sky astronomy. In 1999, the first annual Black Forest Star Party was held at the park, and since then, it has been an exceedingly popular location for both professional and amateur astronomers, who love gazing into the deep skies of Cherry Springs.
The main reason Cherry Springs State Park is so dark is that it is very far away from sources of light pollution. Light pollution is the glare and glow of industrial civilization, the excess light cast off from streetlights, office buildings, highways, billboards, factories, airports, and so on. The excess light spills into the sky, blocking starlight. As a result, most people live underneath bright, polluted skies and never get a chance to see true darkness.
When you go to Cherry Springs, you should bring some optical equipment. While you can see things like the Milky Way with the naked eye at Cherry Springs, basic equipment like binoculars can help elevate your experience. If you have a spotting scope or a telescope, you should bring it with you. If you don’t own any binoculars or a telescope, the park periodically offers guided stargazing programs where professionals will display the view through their telescopes.
One way to see the dark skies is to camp at Cherry Springs. The campsites at the park can be described as “rustic,” so be sure you are ready to go camping camping. If you can’t get a campsite at Cherry Springs or prefer a less rustic campsite, there are also plenty of campsites available at nearby Lyman Run State Park.
The dark skies of Cherry Springs State Park have become increasingly important to the economy of the Pennsylvania Wilds. As a result, a section of nearby Route 44 has officially been designated the Highway to the Stars to recognize the importance of the skies. The Highway to the Stars section of PA-44 spans from the intersection with Scenic Route 6 all the way to Lycoming County. It is a very remote but beautiful drive.
Can You See the Milky Way at Cherry Springs State Park?
Cherry Springs State Park’s location in remote northern Pennsylvania is excellent for viewing the Milky Way! The super-dark skies over Cherry Springs give the Milky Way an opportunity to shine. In fact, the Milky Way can shine so brightly here that it casts a shadow. You don’t even need a telescope to see the Milky Way at Cherry Springs, although bringing a telescope or some binoculars will definitely enhance your experience.
The best time of year to view the Milky Way at Cherry Springs is between April and October. However, you’ll also want to consider the phase of the moon. While the skies over Cherry Springs are darker than almost anywhere else in Pennsylvania, a full moon can flood the sky with reflected sunlight, which reduces the visibility of other celestial objects. So check a Lunar Calendar and try to time your visit for a new moon to minimize light pollution from the moon.
Keystone Answers Fun Fact: The skies at Cherry Springs are so dark that they’ve been recognized by the International Dark Sky Association.
When is the Best Time to go to Cherry Springs for Stargazing?
The best time of year for stargazing at Cherry Springs is during the fall and winter, between October and April. While it is colder during these seasons, the low humidity and long nights make for very clear skies with excellent visibility.
However, the Milky Way is not visible during the winter months (it is best seen between April and October), and occasional cloud cover can be frustrating.
Many people like to visit the park during the summer, as it is warmer. However, visiting during the summer means long days and short nights, which reduces your viewing time. The humidity and heat of the summer also often generate cloud cover, which is a bummer when you’re hoping to see the stars.
Stargazers who are looking for deep-sky objects or wanting to see the entire canopy of stars should time their visit around the phase of the moon. A new moon is the best time to see the stars, and a full moon is the worst time to see stars. The moon’s light can be surprisingly bright in dark skies: some visitors have reported being able to read a book by moonlight at Cherry Springs.
Can You See the Northern Lights at Cherry Springs State Park?
The northern lights, or the aurora borealis, are incredible displays of magnetic energy that are sometimes visible in the night skies. The northern lights are best viewed at high latitudes, often in places like Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. However, the northern lights are sometimes visible from Cherry Springs State Park.
The best time to view the aurora is generally from September through March. They’re usually most visible during the darkest hours of the night, between about 11 and 2. Since the aurora is caused by electromagnetic disturbances caused by the colossal power of the sun, the best way to predict the northern lights is by paying attention to sunspots and solar weather. NASA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is able to predict the aurora to within about 30 minutes.
Can You go to Cherry Springs State Park Without a Reservation?
If you only want to stargaze for a couple of hours, you can go to the Night Sky Public Viewing Area of Cherry Springs State Park without a reservation, and entrance to the park is free. There is a parking area and then a short walkway to an amphitheater with benches. You may bring your own lawn chairs, binoculars, telescopes, and blankets, but pets are not allowed. Guests are asked to only use red-filtered flashlights to help everybody’s eyes stay adjusted to the darkness.
If you want to do serious, all-night stargazing with a nice telescope, you’ll want to book a reservation for the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. Use of this field requires you to pay a fee and abide by strict rules about light, but it’s worth it if you’re a real star lover. The dark skies of Cherry Springs are a fantastic thing to experience.
Does Cherry Springs State Park Have WiFi?
Cherry Springs State Park does have WiFi available but only on the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. There is no WiFi in the day-use areas, the campground, or the Night Sky Viewing areas. You can bring your cell phone, but the bright blue light from your phone’s screen will ruin your night vision unless you set up a red screen mode. Also, cellular service is spotty at best, as Cherry Springs is very rural.
Pro Tip: You will likely not have cellular service at Cherry Springs, so plan ahead. Bring paper maps or a standalone GPS, know your driving and hiking routes, and bring entertainment that doesn’t require a wireless signal.
There are some electric pedestals throughout the astronomy areas of the park, but these are intended for charging or powering astronomical equipment. Guests should not use the electrical pylons for things like laptops or cell phones.
Cherry Springs State Park: A Special Kind of Dark Place
Most of us live in places where you can’t see the stars too well: the bright lights of cities and suburbs smother the starlight and keep our eyes on the ground.
Cherry Springs State Park, however, is situated far away from streetlights and skyscrapers. If you’ve never really seen the stars before, you’ll be amazed as your eyes adjust to the darkness and thousands of points of light shine out of the sky. It’s an experience you’ll be thrilled you had.