See the stars: Former Potter County Airport among the best in the world for night sky views [outdoors] | Outside


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.

Former Lancaster County resident Curt Weinhold describes the reaction of many first-time visitors to Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, one of the best places in the world to view the night sky and its glittering inhabitants.

This former Depression-era airplane airstrip has been transformed into one of Pennsylvania’s most unique outdoor attractions, a place where wonder only happens at night and you watch in up, not down.

Cherry Springs is approximately 60 miles 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 considered the best place in the eastern United States to see a truly dark sky – something only 10% of Americans have experienced. In 2017, Smithsonian magazine ranked it among the top eight places in the world for stargazing, as well as remote locations in Chile, the Canary Islands, New Zealand, Hawaii, Namibia, and Canada. It was the first Gold Tier park of the International Dark-Sky Association.

But it might never have become a black sky mecca for astronomers and astrophotographers without the creative thinking of one of its former park managers.

One fateful weekend in the mid-1990s, Chip Harrison was returning home after visiting his mother and spying on someone with strange equipment camping out in one of the fields.

The man said he was looking for dark skies for his telescope to see otherwise hidden wonders. Intrigued, Harrison again encountered the man, who produced a light pollution map showing a dark spot in north-central Pennsylvania. Cherry Springs was right in the middle.

The park warden, who was looking for a way to get more people to the area, took the stargazing balloon and ran with it.

Recognizing the pricelessness of the unspoiled night, Cherry Springs was named in 2000 by the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources as its first (and only) Dark Sky State Park. A number of nightly amenities and public programs – viewing events, guided night sky laser tours, and night sky photography workshops – have been added over the years to secure its place among the best places in the world. visit in the starry sky.

Today, the park attracts 85,000 to 90,000 people per year. On any clear night, all year round, there are likely to be stargazers. In the absence of light pollution from the few cities nestled in valleys to wash away the night sky, the Milky Way, nebulae, constellations, meteors, northern lights, the International Space Station, the Andromeda galaxy and other stellar attractions are visible with telescopes, binoculars and even with the naked eye.

On a clear night – and there are typically 60 to 85 a year here – some 10,000 stars are visible to the naked eye.

Interest and exposure continue to grow. In fact, Weinhold, a photographer who sometimes teaches dark sky photography in 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 drowns out the nocturnal sights that were regularly seen by our ancestors, it’s not hard to see why.

“Humanity needs to connect 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 at the sky like you’ve never seen it before,” Brandon Lewis of Woodbridge, Va., Told me before dusk as he set up two high-tech telescopes. , a camera and two laptops that he would use to photograph two different nebulae for two long nights.

“I promise you that when you see it for yourself, you will understand why people are coming back. “

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

Even though temperatures had fallen in the 1920s, around 100 people, many of them families, made it to the public night sky viewing area designed from the old unpaved runway. They were seated on portable chairs wrapped in blankets or lying flat on the floor wrapped in sleeping bags. All had their eyes turned to the sky.

I watched the Big Dipper. It was upside down, seeming to pour stars into the night sky. I had never seen the constellation so huge.

The only artificial light came from the occasional glow of a flashlight or red filter lantern. White light is prohibited in the field for obvious reasons – it impairs the average person’s night vision for about 15 minutes. Large mounds of dirt were placed at the far end of the parking lot to prevent vehicle headlights from spoiling the Star Party. Even the toilet bulbs are red.

The starry raves of Cherry Springs sometimes confuse the visiting public.

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

In the old grass track on one side of Route 44, the general public can sit back and watch the stars all night long. Free.

Across the highway is the Night Astronomy Observation Field. This area is used by more serious astronomers with telescopes, and especially astrophotographers who use combinations of cameras, computers, telescopes, and rotating tripods.

It’s serious business on this side of the road. Users pay a fee per night and have access to electricity, Wi-Fi, and haphazardly scattered concrete slabs for their expensive equipment. As night falls, an armored door closes to prevent people from driving and spoiling the exhibits. If you turn on as much as a dome light in your vehicle, prepare to be strewn with outrage.

It’s not uncommon for these high tech folks to doze off in camping chairs during the day and then take care of their gear through the night.

Take John Sojka, who works for the federal government in space intelligence and is a part-time Solar System Ambassador for NASA. For several nights, he and three friends, who call themselves the Astro Bros, took images of deep space with telescopes that use mirrors to take Hubble Space Telescope-quality images of non-visible objects. with the naked eye.

Filters prevent any light other than that of celestial objects from entering, and computer software stacks multiple-exposure images into a single, crisp photo.

Even a visit to Cherry Springs tends to make you think about its existence and its place in the universe.

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

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

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

The vastness of the space also made Caelan Chapman, 23, of Mechanicsburg, reflect.

“Whenever I look at stars here or at home, it amazes me a bit that what I am looking at has happened so far in the past that the star I am looking at may not even be there anymore. He said. . “There is an incredible sense of scale to everything. We are so small and insignificant.

For her 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 said. “We are all part of it and it is part of us.”

IF YOU ARE GOING TO

Or: Cherry Springs State Park is located at 4639 Cherry Springs Road, Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The park is always open and, with the exception of the night astronomical observation field, admission is free. For more information, dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/CherrySpringsStatePark; 814-435-1037.

Pets or drones are not allowed. You may or may not have cell service.

Accommodation: there is a 30-site primitive campground in 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 offers primitive camping. Private rooms are available in nearby lodges, motels, cabins, rental homes 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 the annual Elliot Ness Fest (July 2022).

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