COUDERSPORT— “In most cases, they’ve seen the moon and a bright star or two and that’s it. They see the Milky Way and go crazy.”

That’s former Lancaster County resident Curt Weinhold describing the reaction of many first-time visitors to Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, one of the best places on earth to see the night sky and its glittering denizens.

This former Depression-era airplane landing strip has been transformed into one of Pennsylvania’s most unique outdoors attractions, a place where the wonder happens only at night and you look up, not down.

Cherry Springs is about 60 miles due north of State College on Route 44, designated by the state Legislature in 2019 as “Highway To The Stars,” thanks to Weinhold’s campaign.

It’s rated as the best place in the Eastern U.S. to view a truly dark sky — something only 10% of Americans have experienced. In 2017, Smithsonian magazine ranked it among the eight best places in the world for stargazing, along with remote spots in Chile, Canary Islands, New Zealand, Hawaii, Namibia and Canada. It was the International Dark-Sky Association’s first Gold Tier park.

But it might never had become a dark-sky mecca for stargazers and astrophotographers without the creative thinking of one of its former park managers.

One fateful weekend in the mid-1990s, Chip Harrison was driving home from visiting his mother and spied someone with weird equipment camping in one of the fields.

The man said he was looking for a dark sky so his telescope could view otherwise hidden wonders. Intrigued, Harrison met again with the man, who produced a light pollution map showing a dark blob in northcentral Pennsylvania. Cherry Springs was right in the middle.

The park manager, who had been scheming to find a way to bring more people to the area, took the stargazing ball and ran with it.

Recognizing the preciousness of the untainted night, Cherry Springs in 2000 was designated by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as its first (and only) dark-sky state park. A number of night amenities and public programs — viewing events, laser-guided night sky tours and night-sky photography workshops — have been added through the years to secure its place among the best dark-sky places to visit.

Today, the park draws 85,000–90,000 people a year. On any clear night, year round, there are likely to be stargazers there. With no light pollution from the few towns tucked in valleys to wash out the night sky, the Milky Way, nebulae, constellations, meteors, the aurora borealis, the International Space Station, Andromeda galaxy and other star attractions are visible to telescopes, binoculars and even the naked eye.

On a clear night — and there are typically 60 to 85 of them annually here —some 10,000 stars are visible to the naked eye.

Interest and exposure are still growing. In fact, Weinhold, a photographer who sometimes teaches dark-sky photography at the park, worries that too many people are seeing stars. “It’s almost being loved to death,” he says.

But in a growing world where light is drowning out the night sights that were routinely visible to our forefathers, it’s not hard to see why.

“Mankind needs the connection to the night sky to maintain a sense of wonder,” Thom Bemus of the National Public Observatory told an interviewer.

“You come here to learn and you come here to gaze into the heavens like you haven’t seen before,” Brandon Lewis of Woodbridge, Virginia, told me before dusk as he set up set up two high-tech telescopes, a camera and two laptop computers that he would use to photograph two different nebulae over two long nights.

“I promise when you see it for yourself you will understand why people come back.”

No sooner had the sun set than a mass of white, like exploding clouds, rose among the evergreen trees. They weren’t clouds, of course, but stars, gas and space dust that collectively appear as white to our eyes. Think 400 billion stars or so.

Even though temperatures had fallen into the 20s, about 100 people, many of them families, made their way into the Night Sky Public Viewing Area fashioned from the old unpaved runway. They sat in portable chairs cocooned in blankets or lay flat on the ground wrapped in sleeping bags. All had their eyes toward the sky.

I looked at the Big Dipper. It was upside down, seemingly pouring stars into the night sky. I had never seen the constellation so enormous.

The only artificial light came from the occasional glow of a red-filtered flashlight or lantern. White light is banned in the field for obvious reasons — it ruins the average person’s night vision for about 15 minutes. Great mounds of dirt have been placed at the parking lot end of the field to keep vehicle headlights from spoiling the star party. Even the bulbs in the restroom are red.

The star-crossed raves Cherry Springs gets sometimes confuse the visiting public.

“Some people think it’s a movie, so to speak,” says Scott Morgan, current park manager. “We’ve had people ask when we are going to turn on the Northern Lights.” Another well-traveled story involves a visitor who showed up at the park office to complain that he had just visited Cherry Springs and there was no dark sky. It was in the afternoon.

In the former runway grass on one side of Route 44, the general public can set up and stargaze all night. For free.

On the other side of the highway is the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. This area is used by more serious stargazers with telescopes, and particularly by astrophotographers who use combinations of cameras, computers, telescopes and rotating tripods.

It’s serious business on this side of the road. Users pay a per-night fee and have access to electricity, Wi-Fi and randomly scattered concrete pads for their expensive equipment. At dark, a shrouded gate closes to keep people from driving in and spoiling exposures. If you turn on so much as a dome light in your vehicle, be prepared to be peppered with outrage.

It’s not uncommon for these high-tech folks to doze in camp chairs during the day and then tend to their equipment all night long.

Take John Sojka, who works for the federal government in space intelligence and is a part-time solar system ambassador for NASA. Over several nights, he and three friends, who dub themselves the Astro Bros, took deep-space images with telescopes that use mirrors to take Hubble Space Telescope-quality images of objects not visible to the naked eye.

Filters keep any light other than from celestial objects from seeping in and computer software stacks multiple exposure images into one crisp photo.

Even one visit to Cherry Springs tends to make one ponder existence and one’s place in the universe.

“I think it proves the existence of God,” says Sojka. “Quite often religion and science are talking about the same thing.”

Adds Jo-Ann Sun, who had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in neuroscience, “I think I’m a fairly spiritual person and it just made me feel more connected with humanity as a whole.

“At the very least,” she says, “tonight, when you see the sky, it will give you an immense appreciation for just being alive.”

The immensity of space also made Caelan Chapman, 23, of Mechanicsburg stop to ponder.

“Whenever I’m looking at stars here or at home, it just kinds of blows my mind that what I’m looking at happened so far in the past that the star I am looking at might not even be there anymore,” he says. “There is an incredible sense of scale to everything. We are so tiny and insignificant.”

For his friend, Olivia Christopherson, there is solace in the infinity of space. “It’s a different kind of peace, it’s a different form of nature,” she says. “We’re all part of it and it’s part of us.”

IF YOU GO

Where: Cherry Springs State Park is at 4639 Cherry Springs Road, Coudersport, PA. The park is always open and, with the exception of the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, admission is free. For more information, dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/CherrySpringsStatePark; 814-435-1037.

No pets or drones are allowed. You may or may not have cell service.

Accommodations: there is a 30-site primitive campground at the park, open April through October; reservations well in advance are advised. Go online to the park website above or call 1-888-727-2757. Nearby Lyman Run State Park also has primitive camping. Private rooms are available from nearby lodges, motels, cabins, house rentals and “glampgrounds.” Go to visitpottertioga.com/stay.

Other nearby attractions: the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest and its 550 miles of trails; the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, the 70th Woodsmen Show (August 2022), the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail, and the Eliot Ness Museum and annual Elliot Ness Fest (July 2022).

This article appeared in Bay Journal, which covers environmental issues in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and was distributed by the Bay Journal News Service. Ad Crable also covers the outdoors for LNP | LancasterOnline. 

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