Visiting Cherry Springs State Park, PA is a must-do! Due to its exceptionally dark skies, Cherry Springs State Park has incredible public viewing of the Milky Way with the bare eye!
There are a few experiences that I’ve had in my life, and as a travel blogger, that has made me look at the world differently. Sure, learning how to make pasta in Rome made me look at my own kitchen a bit differently – but to be in awe at our planet as a whole is something that only a few places have done. Visiting Cherry Springs State Park, PA was not my idea of a life-altering experience.
The first time – I was on safari in South Africa (I love safaris so much I did another one in Kenya) – being that close to the beauty of wild animals is a feeling I can’t describe. The second – seeing the snow-capped mountains of Antarctica. The sheer size, power, and (literally) breathtaking views of the ice continent is something everyone should see at least once in their life (yes – the price tag is worth it!) The most recent time though – seeing the Milky Way for the first time.
During my safaris, light pollution was limited, so I got to see more stars than I’ve ever seen – but it is nothing when compared to actually seeing the Milky Way. Luckily, it was just a short three-and-a-half-hour drive – no flights required – to get to Cherry Spring Dark Sky Park!
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Let me start this with full honesty – the most interest I actually have in space is watching Star Wars. I never really understood the fascination with space exploration – we have enough issues right here on Earth. Then I married a nerd who is into all tech things- including space exploration and development. Needless to say, I’ve learned some things (even without trying to). So while I don’t fully understand everything about space ( like WHY is the distance measured in years?) – I can appreciate it more than I ever did before. When COVID-19 threw a wrench into our plans, it was time to get creative. A weekend away visiting a Dark Sky Park sounded like a great idea! Stargazing in Pennsylvania is a great weekend getaway idea!
What is a Dark Sky Park?
A great introduction into space is visiting a Dark Sky Park (a term I am a bit embarassed to say that I learned in 2018). The International Dark Sky Association (IDSP) registers dark parks. Cherry Springs State Park became a dark sky park in 2008. It’s the darkest park on the east side of the Mississppi.
They now offer public programs including viewing events, laser-guided night sky tours, and photography workshops. The summer Perseid meteor shower (which I unknowingly booked our VRBO for- go me!), the Cherry Springs Star Party in June, and the Black Forest Star Party in October are some of the biggest events. The two star parties are fee-based and are sponsored by astronomy clubs that bring high-powered telescopes and cameras to capture the celestial bodies. The Perseid meteor shower tends to be a bit more relaxed since it runs for a few weeks.
How to get to Cherry Springs?
Located in North-Central Pennsylvania, the easiest way to get to Cherry Springs is to drive. The closest airport would be Philadelphia International Airport or smaller regional airports like Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE) Airport – but you’d still have to drive a number of hours. It’s about four hours west of New York City, then an hour north of that. If you’re visiting in the winter months, four-wheel drive is highly recommended as not all the roads are paved. Service is spotty at best, so be sure to download Google Maps offline so you don’t get lost!
Where to stay at Cherry Springs?
There are a few campgrounds in the area that make it easy to visit Cherry Springs State Park.
While we looked into camping, we were also planning this trip in the middle of August and didn’t want to be sweating up a storm or be eaten alive by bugs. I was able to find this cute accommodation that even allowed dogs.
It was remote (absolutely NO cell service), had a picnic bench, fire pit, queen size bed, kitchen, bathroom with shower, and a living room. It was also pet-friendly. We typically don’t bring our dog because he’s high energy around other people but because of the remoteness we decided to try it out – and he LOVED it. Our host was responsive and we loved our time there.
Our cabin was the perfect place to stay! We could see plenty of stars at the house, but we chose to go to the park for a wider look at the sky. You can book accommodation here.
There is a Cherry Springs Country Store for any essentials you may have left behind (like s’mores sticks) or treats you want to have (like ice cream!)
Travel Tip: Check the clear sky chart to help you choose the optimal time to visit, but in general the best stargazing happens in the fall and winter (so we’ll definitely be back!)
Best Things to do near Cherry Springs State Park
Honestly, there isn’t much to do during the day (other than hiking!). You’re in the woods with limited service so bring a book or two if you don’t want to hike. However, you’re close to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, and Cherry Springs is actually IN the Susquehannock State Forest. There are a number of hiking trails all around – pack your hiking boots and a bottle of water and hit the trails. Even if you’re not a hiker, you’ll find incredible views no matter what trail.
You didn’t drive to the middle of nowhere to read a book and take a hike though – you came to go stargazing in Pennsylvania. So post-hike, take a shower, take a nap, and relax before heading out to the park.
Important Things to Know for visiting Cherry Springs Dark Sky Park, PA
White light is limited. You’ll read this on every post about a dark sky park. You may even think like me – how bright can my cell phone be? – well pretty freaking bright. Flashlights should be covered in red cellophane or buy a flashlight with a red setting. We also changed our cell phone backs to black pictures to hide it. The reason for this is your eyes need 15 minutes to adjust to the dark to see the stars. Every time a white light is on – your eyes need that 15 minutes to adjust again (maybe this is why they say don’t look at your phone when you can’t sleep?)
Set up around sunset. Our first night, we had NO idea what to expect, so we headed out around 7:45 with sunset around 8. This was a little early – as it didn’t get dark till about 9-9:30. So we planned accordingly for our next night (but we got rained out anyway)
Decide if you want the moon or not ahead of time. For best star sighting, you don’t want the moon as it reflects a lot of light. Look at a night sky calendar to find the moon’s phases and look at when the moon is rising and setting and what phase the moon is in (the new moon is best).
If you’re visiting for a celestial event – such as meteor showers, planets, and even the northern lights – get to the field earlier than sundown. It can get quite busy in the park.
There are no reserved seating areas in the public viewing area, but the park has views of the night sky from every angle, so you don’t have to worry about missing something.
Travel tip: The photos you see of the Milky Way do bring out more color and detail than is visible to your eye, so don’t expect it to be quite as jaw-dropping as you see in photos.
Overnight Astronomy Observation Field
If you’re more into space than us, and you want the ultimate stargazing in Pennsylvania experience, then spend the night in the Astronomy Observation Field. It’s located across the street from the main viewing area. You must have astronomy equipment – either a telescope or astrophotography equipment to use this side of the park.
This is a smaller field, and spaces are on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is a small fee per person (not per site). The rules are much more strict here – you are not allowed white light even on the back of your camera or on your cell phone. For a full list of rules and regulations, visit here: http://csspdarkskyfund.org/home/stargazing_information
What to Pack for Cherry Springs State Park:
- A telescope or binoculars
- DSLR that has manual focus so you can photograph the night sky
- Red flashlight
- Red cellophane to cover cell phones or the back of cameras. We also changed our background
- photo to black to help with accidental light-ups.
- Comfortable camping chairs
- or a gravity chair to lay back in (we were envious of the people who brought these!)
- Blanket and pillows for laying on the ground
- Sweatshirt or warm shirt – even in August, it got a little chilly at night!
Final Thoughts on Stargazing in Pennsylvania
While I’m not a lover of space, I can’t recommend stargazing in Pennsylvania at Cherry Springs enough! Seeing the Milky Way in person was an incredible experience that everyone should have at least once in their life! If you’re in Pennsylvania and want to experience something unlike anything else, then head up to Cherry Springs State Park for a wonderful getaway!