Dark Skies in the PA Backcountry

Looking south from a campsite in the Hammersley Wild Area.

What to do while your planetarium is being renovated? It’s summertime and you want to see the gorgeous silver band of the Milky Way stretched across the sky. Where do you go? Here in the Gettysburg area the Milky Way is visible on a good, clear moonless night. But you want more than “visible”; you want a truly dark sky where the River of Heaven is the first and most memorable sight in the sky.

Modified snip from darksitefinder.com

Most people in the US live in places where the Milky Way isn’t visible at all. Here in the east, that’s even more true. Have a look at the mid-Atlantic states on this dark sky map. Over land, there are only
three dark sky areas: the Adirondacks, an area round the VA-WV border, and north-central Pennsylvania. This is the sparsely populated area sometimes called the “Pennsylvania Wilds.” It includes Cherry Springs State Park, a designated dark sky park that is managed to provide a place for astronomy. But of course much of the area around Cherry Springs is equally dark and sometimes more remote. If you want a backcountry experience in this heavily wooded region that includes dark skies, you are mostly limited by the view.

Campsite before dark.

On the afternoon of June 29, I hiked into the Hammersley Wild Area, largest roadless area in Pennsylvania. I know of a few lovely meadows in the Hammersley down near the headwaters of the Hammersely Fork, but on this evening I was headed for higher ground – a clearing that was the site of a 1964 forest fire. (It’s well-described inĀ this hike write-up.) The night sky did not disappoint! The moon phase (waning crescent) had the moon below the horizon for most of the night, and the full band of the Milky Way was strikingly bright from horizon to horizon. The Andromeda Galaxy, when it rose, was evident without the least bit of hunting.

I certainly don’t consider myself a photographer, but I could not let the trip go without documentation. These images were taken with a Nikon D5300 and a Rokinon 14mm wide angle lens on a mini-tripod. Exposures were 20-25 sec, and raw images were processed with ViewNX 2.

Looking northeast: Delphinus is over the peak of the tarp.
Looking north after darkness falls.
Hammersley Wild Area