Written by Danielle Taylor | Header image by Kyle Yates
As the global population grows and the landscape glows ever brighter from overabundant outdoor illumination, it gets harder and harder to see any but the brightest of stars. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region is home to some of the very darkest skies in the eastern United States, and here, the boring backdrop you’re used to seeing from an urban vantage point becomes a captivating nighttime canvas freckled with a million pinpricks of light.
The low population density and absence of large cities here along with the large tracts of undeveloped public land create a rare set of circumstances that allows people to see the heavens as nature intended. Animals find refuge in the region’s darkness as well, particularly nocturnal species whose biological rhythms depend on the daily transition of day to night as well as migratory wildlife that rely on the moon and stars to guide their passage.
The following destinations within the region feature some of the darkest skies you’ll ever see, so pack a blanket and head out for a nighttime adventure.
Just about all of Cameron County offers notoriously dark skies, and even if you stay in the slightly brighter town of Emporium, you’ll never be more than a few minutes’ drive from a world of stars. A panoramic viewpoint called Top of the World lies just off of Mason Hill Road near Driftwood, and it offers 360-degree views of southern Cameron County.
Allegheny National Forest spreads across approximately 517,000 acres of northwestern Pennsylvania, and roughly half of it lies within the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors region in Forest and Elk Counties. In the map above, it’s the large blue-green swath between Ridgway in Elk County and Tionesta in Forest County, with one bright spot marking Marienville, a popular jumping-off point for adventures within the Forest. Hike to one of the impoundments at Beaver Meadows or Little Drummer, or spread out a blanket at Twin Lakes. Alternately, go for a long night drive on the many roads crisscrossing the Forest.
In western Forest County, Tionesta Lake features six miles of water bordered by undeveloped national forest land, and its campgrounds at the eastern end of the lake feature open spaces perfect for night-sky viewing. Consider making your adventure a bit more rugged by camping at one of the primitive lakeshore sites only accessible by boat.
In the heart of Elk Country, Benezette lies underneath some of the darkest skies around, and if you’re a photographer, you might even be lucky enough to catch the silhouette of an elk in your shots. Drive up to the Winslow Hill viewing area for spectacularly dark 360-degree open skies, or try another designated elk viewing area at Dents Run.
Near Clear Creek State Park in northern Jefferson County, an open field next to Laurel Fields Road offers a clear viewing area of the sky next to a dense concentration of mountain laurels. The gate is open next to the loop road from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Come on a clear June afternoon to enjoy peak blooms followed by an endless canopy of stars.
Ambient light increases as you move southwest toward Pittsburgh, but the overlook at Brady’s Bend in southern Clarion County still offers a magnificent sky and an excellent place to watch the stars come out. This popular destination sits 2.5 miles east of East Brady on a ridge overlooking an extraordinarily scenic bend in the Allegheny River.
As you might imagine, many of the darkest places in the region lie in undeveloped areas, so some of the best places to see the stars exist along the area’s many country roads. In addition to areas far from population centers, you want to find valleys with neighboring hills that block light from any nearby towns. Try Route 36 near Coolspring in southern Jefferson County, Elk and Forest Counties’ River Road in Cook Forest State Park, Route 555 in eastern Elk County and southern Cameron County, or wherever the stars guide you.
For darkness information, check LightPollutionMap.info, and use the Terrain feature on Google Maps to check topography and accessibility. Many private lodging facilities in the region feature open fields and minimal lighting, so keep that in mind as you make your vacation plans. Wherever you go, be sure to respect private property.
By simply darkening your perspective, you can see the true glory of the universe. Come to the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors and admire the literal stars of the world’s greatest show.
This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of GO magazine, which contains feature articles, photos, travel tips, upcoming events, lodging listings, and more information on Jefferson, Elk, Clarion, Forest, and Cameron Counties in northwestern Pennsylvania. To get your FREE copy of this or any other publication by the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors Visitors Bureau, click here and enter your information or call (814) 849-5197.