'It's just magical:' This hidden gem provides some of the most dazzling stargazing opportunities on the East Coast
By Heather Schlitz , AccuWeather staff writer
August 06, 2019, 12:56:20 PM EDT
It’s nearly midnight in a dark, grassy field in the Pennsylvania countryside, but three friends are wide awake and awed by the mass of stars sprawled above them. It’s hard to see in the pitch-black darkness, but the Milky Way’s pale glow illuminates enough of their faces to see ear-to-ear grins.
“It's just magical,” Siddhardh Sharma, a software engineer from Boston, said. “I'm never going to forget this.”
Swaddled by the Susquehannock State Forest, Cherry Springs State Park sits on top of a mountain plateau in north-central Pennsylvania, a fortuitous location so secluded from cities and towns that it receives almost no skyglow. On this cloudless, still night in late July, Sharma and his friends are just a few of hundreds who made the pilgrimage to the park.
The group of recent college graduates drove more than eight hours to get to Cherry Springs, a dark-sky park known as one of the best places to stargaze on the East Coast. Peering through the eyepiece of an amateur astronomer’s high-powered telescope, Sharma saw the rings of Saturn, the shadow of Io, a moon, cast on Jupiter and wispy tendrils of cosmic dust and gas from nebulae.
He’ll spend the night flat on his back or with his eyes glued to a telescope’s eyepiece, relishing a sight that light pollution has made invisible for 99% of Americans.
Car headlights peter out as people walk down the gravel path from the parking lot to the public viewing field. Visitors who didn’t bring red flashlights trip over themselves in the dark. Groups of people shriek when a camera flashes or a flashlight without a red filter is clicked on. When it’s this dark, any bright light that isn’t red can seem blinding. Though the park doesn’t ban white lights, it encourages visitors to only use red lights to preserve their eyes’ adaption to the dark, also known as night vision.
On the massive open field encircled by trees, people lie on blankets, lawn chairs and the soft grass, staring upward and admiring the stars as they spill out through the sky, forming orderly constellations and the dusty clouds of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
A green laser beam darts through the night and disappears into a jumble of stars. The source -- a Cherry Springs guide wearing a red flashlight around his neck -- is surrounded by a throng of people as he gives a free crash course tour of the sky.
He points his laser at what looks like a small, fuzzy patch of clouds in space and clicks it off.
“Look right there,” he says. “There’s a smudge. That’s the Andromeda galaxy.”
The crowd gasps.
The Andromeda galaxy, 14.7 quintillion miles, or 2.5 million light years, away, is hardly more than a blurry smear in the sky when viewed with the naked eye.
In the overnight field across the street, where people can pay a fee to stay the night, amateur astronomers have set up telescopes taller than they are, equipped with glowing red screens, large mirrors and the ability to automatically pinpoint deep-sky objects and bring them into focus with incredible detail. In these telescopes, the Andromeda galaxy is a bluish spiral mist filling an eyepiece.
Deeper into the overnight field, the visitors get quieter and the telescopes get bigger — and more expensive. The only sounds are crickets and fragments of hushed conversation from glowing red campsites.
Rick and Marianne Markunas, a retired married couple of 40 years, hold court around their 6-foot-long, $8,500 telescope, swiveling it silently into place and tapping their iPad to find their favorite heavenly bodies, many of which are impossible to see with the naked eye.
Rick Markunas steadies the ladder as each person clambers up the metal steps to look through the eyepiece.
The pair of high school sweethearts from Clark Summit, Pennsylvania, often draw crowds in dark sky parks, offering their visitors chocolate chip cookies, bags of trail mix and glimpses through the telescope’s eyepiece.
So far tonight, the Markunas couple has spent more than an hour zigzagging across the sky, showing a gaggle of novices the International Space Station, Messier 13, a ball of blue stars that make up the globular cluster in the Hercules constellation and the faint ribbons of the Veil Nebula, Marianne Markunas’ favorite celestial object.
“Did everyone see the globular cluster?” Rick Markunas asks the group, bundled in jackets and sweaters in the chilly July night, before turning back to his iPad. “What’s next?” he wonders out loud.
Their brand of hospitality is common at Cherry Springs, and often the only thing you need to do to see the bands of Jupiter or bunched stars within globular clusters is ask.
A pair of headlights blink on from the parking lot across the road. As the lights cast shadows over the trees and the tires crunch over the gravel, Jim Davis, an avid stargazer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, blinks and holds out his hand, shielding his eyes from the light. As shooting stars flash through the sky, cars pull out of the parking lot every few minutes.
“It's ungodly how popular this place has become,” he said.
Cherry Springs began attracting stargazers in the late '90s, when astronomers studying satellite maps of the area noticed a dark blotch in northern Pennsylvania. It was named an official dark-sky park in 2008 by the International Dark-Sky Association, fueling its reputation as a haven for people from cities where artificial light obscures the majority of stars.
Park management tailor-made Cherry Springs for stargazing, converting all its white lights to red, installing downward-facing lights and brokering agreements with the surrounding communities, to limit light pollution.
Glowing red lights illuminating tents and RVs begin to flick off around 2 a.m., after the crescent moon rises. It’s almost silent except for snaps from cameras and the whirring of the telescopes pointed toward the stars.
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