Night skies in Pennsylvania: State parks offer clear views for stargazers, astrotourists

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoors Columnist

Sometimes in life you have to find the darkness to enjoy the light.

That’s the reality for those who want to appreciate the stars and experience nighttime observations.

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Pennsylvania state parks have embraced a growing interest in astronomy. Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County is well known for its dark skies, but other parks also offer places for people to enjoy astrotourism and become immersed into the universe.

The view of the night sky at Cherry Springs State Park.

It's awe-inspiring to see the the skies unmasked from the light pollution in and around population centers. But runaway artificial light isn't just an impediment to a good view; the International Dark-Sky Association's research suggests it is increasing globally by an average of 2.2% per year, adversely affecting the environment and our safety, energy consumption and health. In other words, appreciating the view and doing what we can to preserve it might also be good for us.

Stargazing in southwestern Pennsylvania

Laurel Hill State Park in Somerset County has a field for stargazers and work is underway to build an observatory for public programs.

Mike Mumau, park operations manager of the Laurel Hill State Park Complex, said parks are recognizing that stargazing is becoming more popular and are trying to accommodate the interest. 

Laurel Hill has designated for stargazing the parking lot and field across from the beach parking area where the annual Bluegrass Festival weekend is held.

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“People can park there and be in that lot and also go up to the field where the Bluegrass Festival is held (Aug. 20-21) in the field, the Group Camp 8 area, to stargaze and view the night skies.The only thing we ask them to do is reach out to us in advance.”

The field at Laurel Hill State Park where visitors can watch the night sky. Because much of the park closes at dusk, the staff asks visitors to call in advance to let them know they will be stargazing.

Telling the park staff you are planning to be there will help the park rangers during their patrols.

“We have had some star parties where we partnered with amateur astronomers out of Pittsburgh and our staff and it’s probably been one of our biggest-attended programs we’ve had,” he said, pointing out more than 125 people have signed up.

Telescopes are set up for people to observe and the astronomers share their knowledge of the night skies. He’s looking forward to scheduling programs in the future.

The park is looking to make its own small observatory for programs atop a hill known as Scenic View. “We had an individual donate a pretty elaborate telescope and our friends group, in working with this individual, also donated funding for a small observatory.”

Laurel Hill State Park is working to build an observatory at its Scenic View Overlook.

The observatory is being designed to protect the telescope as well as allow the park to expand its public programming opportunities.

“By the end of summer, early fall, we will have our little observatory in place and we will plan to utilize that for opportunities for the public to come out and better appreciate that,” Mumau said.

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“We’re blessed with some beautiful dark skies in the Laurel Highlands. It’s sparsely populated and there’s not a lot of light pollution.”

He believes people are looking to immerse themselves in nature and get a new perspective on life by appreciating stars and the night skies.

“There’s a great solitude, sort of a calmness when you are stargazing. … State parks, I think, are starting to adapt pretty quickly,” he said about creating new programs.

Stargazing in northcentral Pennsylvania

A state park that is dedicated to the night skies is Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County.

The DCNR declared Cherry Springs State Park in 2000 as its first Dark Sky Park. The International Dark-Sky Association gave it Dark Sky Park status in 2008.

“It’s a special place that can’t be created anywhere. It’s the gold at the end of the rainbow,” Ben Stone, park operations manager, said about it being an ideal spot for those who want to see into the night.

Ben Stone is park operations manager at Cherry Springs State Park, a noted Dark Sky Park.

Cherry Springs is only 82 acres but it’s surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest. The combination of being on top of the mountain and far from man-made lights creates the perfect combination to see stars and galaxies like the Milky Way.

See the night:Gaze at the starry sky at Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County

“Because there is so much untapped public land (and) forest that surrounds Cherry Springs State Park, it really puts itself in a dark hole for star gazing. You don’t see all the urban light sprawls,” he said about glows that are common in cities.

The park is seeing an increased interest in stargazing. “The users are just different for us. We are getting more of the urban users,” Stone said. “They are in pursuit of finding a night sky, a dark sky.”

He explained that those who spend a lot of time in city areas do not see the sky so clear as it is to viewers in remote wilderness areas.

“It’s really great to get people from urban areas to have an appreciation for the outdoors, wild living and an area free of light pollution,” he said.

The park has a rustic campground with 30 campsites. “It’s full for the whole camping season,” Stone said.

There is a public night sky area, which is a large field made on the site of a former air strip. 

At 2,300 feet above sea level, Stone said he can look horizontally and see stars straight in front of him. “It’s almost like you are standing in the night sky,” he said about being on top of a mountain in a dark place. “That’s what makes Cherry Springs so cool.”

Visitors can set up telescopes and should plan to take basic steps to reduce the white light glare. Visitors are urged to put red cellophane over phone screens and flashlights to reduce light pollution.

Stone urges people to arrive before dark to find a location to scout, set up and reduce the number of car headlights that will be shining in the area. Expect to spend about 30 minutes allowing their eyes to adjust to the night sky to fully appreciate the view.

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The park hosts short public education programs about the night skies at an amphitheater and then visitors can stay and watch the the stars for hours. 

“It’s a really nice outdoor experience,” he said.

The third opportunity at Cherry Springs is for the serious stargazers and amateur astronomers at the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. Stone said some bring expensive equipment to use to view the night sky. He said there are regulations for people in this area to eliminate all white light sources. “We really pride ourselves in eliminating any white light,” he said. The precautions include a tarped gate in order to reduce the chances of headlights shining in the field.

Stone said the park is always adapting to improve the visitors’ experience, and a variety of improvements are in the final stages of design. They are looking at changing the entrances to reduce white light noise from vehicles and they want to place low-output red glow lights along the pathways. “Moving people around at nighttime is always a challenge,” he said about trip hazards and barriers.

Stone is in charge of the Hills Creek State Park Complex that includes Hills Creek, Colton Point and Leonard Harrison state parks, all in Tioga County, and Lyman Run, Cherry Springs, Patterson and Denton Hill, all in Potter County.

The future for night skies is looking brighter.

“Night-sky viewing has really changed the way we look at these open areas that have been traditionally been day-use-only facilities. Cherry Springs has been that location that people are directed to, but that’s not always convenient.”

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Stone said other parks have looked at Cherry Springs and are thinking about other places to designate as sky viewing areas.

He said people should call the rural state parks and ask about the options that might be available.

He suggests planning to go when there is a new moon, which means you can barely see the moon. 

“The dark of the moon makes the night skies brighter,” he said about avoiding the glare of a full moon.

He believes there is a strong appeal to the perspective that stars can give. “You realize how small you are in this large universe. I guess this helps your little problems, go away,” he said. 

Stargazing in southeastern Pennsylvania

French Creek State Park in Chester and Berks counties has several areas that are open to those who enjoy the night skies.

A different view:An aerial view of two eastern state parks

“You’re not going to get much better than this,” Jared Brandt, environmental education specialist at French Creek State Park, said about inviting people to experience the night skies.

For those who like to stargaze, he said the left side of Hopewell Lake is open. “We just ask people to avoid the day-use areas,” he said. Those areas close at dusk.

“Hopewell Lake is great for star viewing,” he said about its open field area. The park is also home to Scotts Run Lake, which has become another popular spot for star viewing. No reservations are necessary.

The park is seeing people travel from the nearby cities to evade light pollution.

“It’s definitely growing in interest,” he said about stargazing and people calling when there are lunar events. 

Another park complex in the region, Samuel S. Lewis State Park in York County and Susquehannock State Park in Lancaster  County, has offered specialized events for stargazing.

Nathaniel Brown, park manager, said “Keep an eye out for our programs that our environmental educator posts to our DCNR calendar of events or our park’s Facebook page.

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He said the parks do have events like star parties with external organizations from time to time. 

The parks are mostly day-use areas, but keep following the park’s calendar to see when they announce public star party viewing.

When visiting any park, check its DCNR online calendar page, at events.dcnr.pa.gov and Facebook page to see what’s being planned. 

If there isn’t a park option near you, consider going to a large lake to view the night sky. For example, Sara’s Campground in Erie is located along Lake Erie. A spokeswoman for the campground said they don’t cater to stargazers, but their guests do experience some beautiful sunsets and night skies over the vast waterway.

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There are numerous options across Pennsylvania. Just find an escape from man-made lights and enjoy the summer nights that Mother Nature has to offer near you.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.