On this sunny afternoon, we weren’t so much noticing nature as we were getting lost in it. This largely undeveloped, sparsely populated region of Pennsylvania includes 29 state parks, eight state forests and the Allegheny National Forest. Cherry Springs itself is surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest.
Escapes: Details, Cherry Springs State Park
We were here to see stars. At night, Cherry Springs is one of the darkest spots on the East Coast. Free of the light pollution that affects so much of the Eastern Seaboard, the park is an ideal site for stargazing.
Cherry Springs is popular with hard-core amateur astronomers, but it’s also open to starry-eyed know-nothings like Rob and me, who, when we look up at night, can identify airplanes and the moon. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the park offers weekend astronomy programs for the general public. The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg and the Central Pennsylvania Observers hold annual multiday stargazing parties in June and September, respectively.
We eventually arrived at the park, but night was still several hours off. With daylight to kill, we drove on to the nearby Pennsylvania Lumber Museum.
Lumber history may seem far removed from the nature we’d come here to experience, but the industry is in part responsible for the vast forests that make this such a dark place. The museum tells the story of how Pennsylvania forests fueled the nation’s growth and how technological changes made it easier and faster to cut, process and ship wood.
Eventually, inevitably, there were no more trees to cut. And as the lumber industry declined, the state stepped in, buying up clear-cut land. State foresters helped regenerate dense stands of trees. A museum exhibit tells the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work in Pennsylvania’s forests; FDR’s Depression-era work program put more men into Pennsylvania than any other state but California. Rob and I were here to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
We met Stash Nawrocki in the Cherry Springs parking lot just as the sun was beginning to set. Stash moved to the area 15 years ago from Philadelphia, where he’d worked as an ER nurse. Today he leads private stargazing tours and volunteers as a guide for the park’s public programs.
The three of us would stargaze on an old airstrip, which the park identifies as the site for “short-term stargazing.” But first, Stash took us to the Astronomy Observation Field to see the die-hards. The field was quiet but full of tents and campers. Some people were already starting to remove the covers from wide, squat telescopes.