When I was growing up, my bedroom ceiling was adorned with plastic glow-in-the-dark stars, comets, and galaxies. Every night I’d lie in my bed and marvel at the constellations glowing above me––some invented, others favorites from the summer night sky: Cassiopeia, the queen; the Big and Little Dippers; Draco, the dragon. I’d seal off my windows with blankets and duct tape to prevent any light from leaking in at night. The darker I could make my room, the more the stars would stand out, letting me believe I was an astronaut exploring the deepest parts of space.
Far removed from my days of wearing tugboat pajamas, I still stargaze to relive those childhood memories and to broaden my appreciation of the universe, both known and undiscovered. But the night sky is changing over time. Humans are causing the sky to get brighter by emitting an overabundance of uncontrolled artificial light, known as light pollution, into the atmosphere. The brighter the sky, the harder it is to see stars with the naked eye. This is troubling not only for humans but also for many animals who rely on the stars for navigational purposes and the dark nights to hunt for food.
To this end, groups such as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), founded in 1988, strive to preserve the night sky and to promote a greater understanding of how to protect it. Part of IDA’s mission is to recognize locations across the globe, deemed International Dark Sky Parks, where the night sky remains relatively unmarred by light pollution.
Fortunately for denizens of the Northeast, one of these Dark Sky Parks is closer than you think. Billed for having the darkest sky within a day’s drive from Boston and New York City, Cherry Springs State Park, the second location in the world to be designated an International Dark Sky Park, is a hot spot for amateur and professional astronomers alike. Located in the north-central Pennsylvania town of Coudersport, Cherry Springs hosts free nightly stargazing programs throughout the summer—an easy choice for busy families.
Although the rest of the Dark Sky Parks are more than a daytrip away, plenty of locations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England offer exceptionally dark skies for stargazing and, in the case of the following six parks, compelling educational programs suited for well-versed stargazers and budding astronomers alike. If you can, plan your visit around the new moon, when the sky is at its darkest. Be sure to familiarize yourself with each park’s regulations before you go. Bringing in bright flashlights is usually a no-no.
Now get out there—and remember to turn your lights down.
1. Cherry Springs State Park | Coudersport, Penn.
Surrounded by the 265,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest, Cherry Springs is about a 5-hour drive from Manhattan and a 7-hour drive from Boston. Staff-led night sky tours, held year-round at the park, are a great primer on stargazing for those on a tight schedule. The more involved star parties, held in late spring and early fall, offer the best time to join liked-minded enthusiasts for three days of astronomy. Keep in mind that pets are not permitted at night sky viewing programs.
2. AMC Lodges and Huts | White Mountain National Forest, N.H.
As part of a partnership with Carthage College Institute of Astronomy, AMC offers free walk-on day and evening programs through August 22 at the Highland Center at Crawford Notch, Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and new for summer 2015, in front of the Flume Gorge Visitor Center at Franconia Notch State Park. Don’t miss the Perseid meteor shower viewing party on August 12 or the total lunar eclipse viewing party on September 27 at the Highland Center. Each features an optional barbecue dinner; see website for ticket info.
3. Acadia National Park | Mount Desert Island, Maine
One of the most scenic locations along the Eastern seaboard is also one of New England’s premier stargazing spots: Acadia National Park. The Seventh Annual Acadia Night Sky Festival, September 10–14, is a bucket-list event for anyone with a passion for the night sky. Fear not if you can’t make it to the fest. Plenty of ranger-led programs continue through the summer months.
INFO: Acadia Night Sky Festival; Acadia National Park
4. Arunah Hill Natural Science Center | Cummington, Mass.
Free and open to the public, the annual Arunah Hill Days, September 4–6, is the perfect way to cap off the summer in Massachusetts’ bucolic Pioneer Valley. Amateur astronomers will be on hand to answer questions and point out stars, planets, galaxies, and other out-of-this-world bodies. Arunah Hill Natural Science Center offers guided stargazing throughout the year on moonless Saturdays for its members.
INFO: Arunah Hill Natural Science Center
5. The Dudley Observatory | Schenectady, N.Y.
Star parties, monthly stargazing events, and sky-watch lectures are just a few ways to get involved this summer at the Dudley Observatory, located half an hour northwest of Albany, N.Y. The next star party, hosted by Pokorny’s Octagon Barn in Delanson, N.Y., takes place on August 14 and features family-oriented programming. The event is free, although a $5 donation is encouraged.
INFO: Dudley Observatory
6. The Springfield Telescope Makers | Springfield, Vt.
If building your own telescope is a lifelong dream, look no further than the Stellaphane Convention, hosted by the Springfield Telescope Makers (STM). A proving ground for amateur telescope builders, the convention draws participants from across the country who battle it out to earn the title of top telescope design. A slew of related activities include the chance to view distant galaxies through STM’s impressive telescopes. STM also hosts free star parties throughout the year; see the group’s website for more info.