CHERRY SPRINGS — From a clearing on top of a 2,300-foot mountain and with the naked eye, the wispy Milky Way seems close enough to touch.
You can't, of course, but here at Cherry Springs State Park, you can get a better view of the heavens than probably any other place on the East Coast.
As night's veil descends on a Saturday evening there, more and more stars appear, shining brighter as the sun drifts ever below the horizon.
Jupiter's moons are visible through a telescope. Despite some moisture in the air, constellations seem crisp. Satellites zip by, tracing loops in the sky.
Talk about star-struck. And not a celebrity in sight.
Pennsylvania's state park system designated Cherry Springs as a "dark sky" park, one of a small but growing number of parks around the country dedicated to preserving the night sky and offering stargazers a place to view the heavens with as little interference from man-made light pollution as possible.
At 50 miles northwest of Williamsport, the nearest city of any size, the Potter County park fits the bill. No streetlights illuminate the road. Visitors wrap flashlights in red plastic wrap to prevent blinding themselves and others. Drivers must turn off their headlights before turning into the viewing area. Most stargazers bring telescopes, and many are willing to let other visitors take a look if they don't have their own.
Chip Harrison, the park's manager, is largely behind its development as a dark sky preserve.
About nine years ago, Harrison was patrolling the park about 1 a.m. when he came across Gary Honis, who was set up with a telescope. Honis explained the park's lack of light pollution made it ideal for looking at the night sky and asked Harrison if what he was doing was OK. Harrison said it was.
"The lack of light pollution just brings in all those things that you see in the magazines," said Honis, 53, an electrical engineer from Conyngham and assistant director of the Greater Hazleton Area Astronomy Society, who was back at the park this summer night for a stargazing party.
Cherry Springs is well-known today as a haven for heaven-watchers. The stargazing party drew more than 350 registrants from as far away as New England and Illinois. Some people camped in tents or slept in cars or motorhomes. Many had special trailers to tow telescopes costing $10,000 or more.
"This place has a reputation and I hope it lives up to it tonight," said Jim Podpolucha, of Milford, Conn., as he showed off his handmade telescope.
Built of black aluminum tubing, the elegant 90-inch long telescope sat atop a 5-foot-6 oak and maple tripod. An engineer, he machined parts from brass and spent the better part of a year hand-grinding and polishing two thick pieces of glass into suitable lenses. A brass nameplate reads "The Nighthawk."
"This is every minute of free time I had, I put into this for two years," Podpolucha said proudly.
Like many others here, he has always been fascinated with stars. But he didn't get into astronomy seriously until he took an adult education course about five years ago.
Then he went whole-hog.
"Tell my wife that. She can't understand why I still want another telescope. Actually, this is a 6-inch diameter lens. I'm thinking about making an 8-inch one, probably next year," said Podpolucha, who made the 5 1/2-hour drive alone for his first visit to Cherry Springs.
He stayed up until near 2 a.m., but increasing moisture began to soften his views, he said, making stars and planets appear fuzzy.
"I never realized how crappy the weather is until I started this hobby," he said. Still, he wants to organize a trip to Cherry Springs for his astronomy club.
Inclement weather is simply an unavoidable risk for stargazers.
"I've been to the best dark sky parks where you usually have no cloud cover, and even there, you sometimes get some rain and that's the breaks," said Robert Gent, vice president of the International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Ariz., in a telephone interview.
Gent, who has been to Cherry Springs, is excited about the growing interest in protecting the night sky as a resource.
"The night sky is an important part of our heritage," he said. "We've looked up in the night sky and wondered and looked up at thousands of stars for thousands of years."
To the Dark-Sky Association, light pollution is not just a problem for astronomers. Unnecessary light wastes energy and can interfere with wildlife, and "when you're not shining a bright light in your neighbor's window, you can basically sleep better," Gent said.
The association, which was has grown from two members in 1988 to more than 11,000 members in 75 countries, provides recommendations on wise use of lights to control glare.
"What we're finding is, more and more communities are taking action with zoning standards. States are debating this," Gent said.
The National Park Service is also on board with the idea.
"Since 1916, our mission has been to preserve scenery and currently that includes the night sky scenery," said Chad Moore, program manager for the National Park Service's Night Sky Team.
While no national park is currently designated a dark sky park, certification plans through the International Dark-Sky Association are in the works, he said.
Even so, interest is growing at the national park level.
"In many national parks, nighttime programs are the most popular ranger-led programs," he said. At Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where Moore works, 27,000 people visited the park for full-moon hikes, bat walks, telescope viewing and the like over six months, he said.
Sky-watchers can and do come year-round to Cherry Springs, but the park also hosts two organized events for stargazers, one in late spring and one around Labor Day.
An average weekend might attract 100 people, which the large, flat field can easily accommodate.
If You Go…
Cherry Springs State Park: Route 44, Cherry Springs, Pa.; http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateParks/parks/cherrysprings—darkskies .aspx or 814-435-5010. Open year-round for star viewing. Visitors in the park for stargazing are asked to pay a $4 fee, or $8 if you are camping out or spending the night.
International Dark-Sky Association: http://www.darksky.org/.