I grew up in the country with very few neighbors, and thought I had a pretty good view of the night sky. But at Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, I saw the night sky like I had never seen it before.
It was a beautiful June night, and my husband and I headed out with some comfy blankets, a thermos full of coffee, two Milky Ways (what other snack could be more appropriate?), and flashlights covered with red tissue paper. The public viewing area was busy, but there was plenty of room to spread out.
We thought it would be fun to relax and look at the stars, but we had no idea just how amazing the night sky could be when you get away from the lights and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.
Stargazing at Cherry Springs State Park
Cherry Springs State Park spans 82 acres in northern Pennsylvania and is bordered by the Susquehannock State Forest. The combination of surrounding forest and its 2300’ elevation on the Allegheny Plateau creates night skies rarely seen elsewhere.
The dark skies of Cherry Springs are so striking that the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources named it the first Dark Sky Park, noting that dark night skies are a natural resource.
The first thing on your list should be to see the stars, but if you’re looking for other activities, you’ll find them. There are 85 miles of hiking trails in the Susquehannock State Forest, or you can hit the ATV trails, swim, and fish in nearby Lyman Run State Park. Hunting is prohibited within Cherry Springs, but you can hunt in Susquehannock. When not actively hunting, be sure to keep your firearm and archery equipment in your vehicle.
When to Visit Cherry Springs for the Best Night Sky Experience
When you visit depends largely on what you want to see in the night sky. Check out the clear sky chart for Cherry Springs to make sure there won’t be too much cloud cover. You can also find out what’s in the sky on any given night, helpful if you’re looking for certain planets or stars.
Camping in Pennsylvania at Cherry Springs State Park is only available seasonally, from the second Friday in April to November 1st. The park often offers events and tours of the night sky, which can be found on the Cherry Springs website.
Consider the pros and cons of visiting during different seasons. I took my trip to Cherry Springs in June. In retrospect, literally any other month might have been better because I wouldn’t have had to stay up so late waiting for the sky to get completely dark. Visiting during the fall or winter will give you more time to look at the night sky. It can get very cold up on the mountain, even in the summer months, so bundle up.
How To See The Stars at Cherry Springs State Park
Seeing the stars at Cherry Springs State Park forces you to slow down and unplug. You won’t get any cell service, and the park isn’t close to anything, which is what you’d expect of the darkest sky east of the Mississippi. Don’t show up and expect to immediately experience the night sky in all its splendor, either. You have to give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness, at least 30 minutes, to be able to see everything.
The park is at the top of a mountain surrounded by a state forest, so you get 360-degree views of the night sky with very little light pollution. At Cherry Springs, you can see the Milky Way, thousands of stars, planets, the International Space Station, and more. There are two different areas designated within the park to view the sky. In both viewing areas, feel free to bring binoculars, telescopes, or other equipment, but note that pets are prohibited.
Public Viewing Area
This area has no overnight camping, so you will have to return to your camp to sleep. White light is permitted, but it is discouraged, and you should always point any light down. To help preserve your night vision, cover your flashlights with red tissue paper or cellophane. While you’re waiting for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, set up a blanket or some lawn chairs and check out the summer sky map along the path to the viewing area.
The public night sky viewing area is north of Route 44, across from the Astronomy Observation Field, and public parking lots are available.
Overnight Astronomy Observation Field
In this viewing area you can stay all night, but you must register and pay a per-person usage fee. Fees can be paid per night, or you can buy a galaxy pass from Lyman Run State Park to access the field year-round. For information on the fee schedule and how to pay, see the park bulletin board.
Some benefits of using the overnight astronomy observation field include being able to drive onto the field, and having access to concrete telescope pads, electricity, and wi-fi. White light is prohibited in this area, so any light must be converted to red light. Most people who use this field are serious about their stargazing, so if you just want to kick back and enjoy the view, you might be better off heading to the public viewing area.
Where To Camp Near Cherry Springs State Park
If you don’t stay overnight on the astronomy observation field, you can stay in the rustic Cherry Springs State Park campground. The campground has 30 campsites, each with a picnic table, lantern hanger, fire ring, and there are basic toilets nearby.
Several campers have noted that the park isn’t exaggerating when they call the campground rustic, so be prepared for a back-to-nature camping experience. Fees vary depending on date, and campsites can be reserved online.
“There are no trees here so you can see the stars more easily; but keep in mind that means there isn’t an easy way to hang a tarp if it rains so be prepared. Sites are far apart and pretty large.” —The Dyrt camper Katy R.
For a campground with more amenities, try the Lyman Run State Park campground, a 20-minute drive from Cherry Springs. There are two reservable campgrounds in the state park, for a total of 36 tent and RV sites, some with electric hookups.
“The sites are affordable, spacious, and they allow dogs. The campground is quiet at night and the stars are sensational. It’s also super close to Cherry Springs if you want the full dark sky experience.” —The Dyrt camper Jennifer P.