About 2 years ago, I got Michael a telescope for Christmas. Shortly after, I found out about Cherry Springs State Park and have been wanting to take him there. It is supposedly the darkest place, East of the Mississippi, for viewing stars. Unfortunately, light pollution prevents us from seeing most of the stars in the sky from our cities and towns, so if you want to see what’s really up there, you have to find a very dark location. Lucky for me, it’s only a little over an hour away from home. So, I reserved 2 nights in the campground and prayed for clear skies. I had a really hard time finding out about the logistics of this place. I like to be prepared when I am going to be away from home, but the park website just doesn’t have a lot of detailed info. I scoured the internet for info and read a lot of reviews on Trip Advisor to help me prepare. I thought I would share what I learned from our trip.
I found a cool site called Clear Dark Sky, which gave me a detailed forecast of the expected viewing conditions. We had decided that if conditions looked bleak, we would just skip the trip. Fortunately, it looked like we might have good viewing conditions. So, we packed up and headed out.
My first piece of advice is to look at a map before going and plot out a few different routes. The roads that go into the park are long and winding and your GPS will not help you. We had planned to take route 44 the entire way, only to find out that a section of it was closed for road work. We were lucky that they allowed us to pass through with an escort, but it was a dusty, bumpy 5 miles, and set us back about 1/2 hour. We plotted a different way home.
The park at Cherry Springs has 2 observation fields. One is for serious astronomers only (not sure on the criteria for that) and there is a fee to enter. You can set up a tent or camper and stay the night, but it is gated and once they shut the gate, you are in for the night. They don’t allow people to walk into the field after dark and there is no light (except for red light) allowed on the field. They have some observation domes that can be rented for the night, but again, they are for “serious” astronomers only. If you fall into this category, I probably can’t offer you much more advice for your trip.
If you have kids and just want to marvel at God’s creation (or if you have a cheap, amateur telescope like we do), keep reading. On the other side of Route 44 (just across the street) there is a public viewing area, where you can park and view the stars in the field. Bring a folding chair or a blanket, whatever makes you comfy. It will probably be chilly, so bring a sweatshirt. There is no rule against white light in this area, but I would highly recommend bringing a flashlight with a red filter or just put some red cellophane over your flashlight and secure it with a rubber band. People get cranky when you shine white light in their eyes and it really does mess with the experience. There are port-a-potties, for your convenience.
We headed into the field around 8:30 or so, to wait for the sun to go down. I really thought Evelyn was going to be bored, but Michael gave her an iPad and we used an app called Sky Watch to find where planets and constellations would appear in the sky. She was literally giddy each time a star emerged in the sky. When we arrived there were several people already set up with some pretty serious telescopes. We were very fortunate to meet a couple who had traveled from Maryland and they allowed us to look through their telescope and helped Michael to figure out how to use his. We were able to see Jupiter and 4 of its moons, Saturn, and Mars. We even got to see the International Space Station fly by. I realized later that we never actually made it into the viewing field. We ended up viewing the stars from the parking lot. Ha ha, amateurs.
By 9:30 or 10:00, Evelyn got really tired and wanted to go to bed. I put her in the back seat of the car to lay down and sat with her until she fell asleep, but she wanted me to wake her up to see the Milky Way. By the time she fell asleep and I left the car, the Milky Way was making it’s appearance. I did wake her up for a time so that she could see it, but she fell back to sleep pretty quickly. I wish that I had taken this picture but sadly, I did not. However, I wanted to find a picture that would closely represent what I saw…stars forever and a white swath across the sky. You really have to forget about your problems and realize how insignificant they are when you witness something like this.
There is also a campground that has 30 sites. They are rustic, tent only, with vault toilets and no showers, and no dish-washing station, so in my opinion, this is not a great park for long-term stays. Aside from the star-gazing, there is not much to do here. We reserved a camp site for 2 nights, but I think we could have been fine with just one night. Most of the campers around us only stayed for one night. It really seems like this park is designed for short-term stays. However, if you want to stay for a few days, I would highly recommend staking a claim on sites 1, 3, 5 or 8. They are partly shaded so that you can escape the sun during the day.
The other sites are more in a field location with a few trees that dot the landscape. I was glad for our shady spot that bordered the woods, but if you are only planning to stay one night, I think that any site would be fine. Sites were very inexpensive (under $20 per night) and we reserved online, but I think that as long as the campground is not full, you could probably get a site if you just show up. If you want to go that route, stop at the little building on the way into the campground to pay for your site. I would arrive early (3-5pm) because the sites fill up quickly. That would give you plenty of time to set up camp, have a meal over a fire and head up to the observation field as the sun is setting.
A few things to keep in mind:
- Try to go when there is a new moon. If the moon is bright in the sky, it will be hard for you to see anything else. Consult a moon calendar.
- Prepare to stay up late….at least 11:00 or so for the best viewing.
- You don’t NEED a telescope. The skies are gorgeous enough on their own.
- Keep in mind that some of the pictures you see online might not be an accurate representation of what you will actually see. Sometimes the camera can pick up colors and depth that the naked eye cannot see. Also, so much depends on the weather conditions and the time of year that you go, and how late you are willing to stay up.
After our first night, we had a full day to spend and a 4-year-old to entertain, so we drove about 8 miles to Lyman Run State Park, where there was a lake and a beach. They have a concession stand and boat rentals and they also have showers there, if you are so inclined, but we decided to rough it and go natural for the whole trip. This was also a very nice park and I think that the star gazing would probably be awesome here too, but you would have less protection from white light sources and there is no specific place set up for stargazing. If you wanted a longer, more kid-friendly trip, it might be better to stay here and then drive over to Cherry Springs to view the stars at night.
After a long day of heat and too much togetherness, we decided to take a little drive over to a country store that was only about a mile down the road. Keener’s Kountry Store offered ice cream, gas (in ancient pumps), and firewood for $6 a bundle. Next time, we will definitely stop here for wood after we arrive, instead of dragging it in our car.
I have to say that my campfire cooking skills are improving. We made foil packs and corn on the cob. The foil packs had chicken breast, potatoes, onion, and carrots. I seasoned everything with salt and pepper and a nice chunk of butter. They turned out so good!
While we had a nice time and enjoyed our stay, I think the guy in this orange tent had the right idea. Arrive late in the day, pop up a tent, and sleep with the rain fly off so you can drift off under an amazing sky.