It can be hard to find places to stargaze around a major city like Philadelphia. But as the weather cools and the clouds clear up, scouring the night skies for meteors, planets, and constellations can be rewarding if you're patient and knowledgeable.
Readers asked us where they can go stargazing in the area through Curious Philly, our new question-and-response forum that allows you to submit questions about your community you want us to look into. Here's our guide on everything you need to know to go stargazing in Philly and the surrounding areas, including the darkest spots, the best gear to have on hand, and tips from the most experienced astronomers in the area.
Where should I go stargazing?
Light pollution in Philadelphia has made it increasingly hard to find spots to stargaze in the city, so expect to have to drive out a little bit for darker skies, where you can see the Milky Way.
"The darkest place in the area is Lake Nockamixon [in Bucks County]," Lee Zagar, the copresident of the Bucks-Montgomery Astronomical Association, said. "You have to notify the [state] park that you'll be there after dark, but that's where we like to hold our public star-watch nights."
According to Renee Stein, the executive director of the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, one of the best spots for dark skies is Wharton State Forest in New Jersey. It has campsites, so Stein recommended reserving one so you're not asked to leave the area at dusk.
"If you go toward Lancaster County, Muddy Run Park is a good option," Stein, who has been stargazing since 2001, said. "We have an observatory there because it's in a low light-polluted area."
Derrick Pitts, the chief astronomer and planetarium director for the Franklin Institute, also recommended French Creek State Park as a good spot toward the west. He also cautioned against heading to the Jersey Shore for observing night skies because of the boardwalks' bright lights, despite the commonly held belief that you'll be able to see more if you look out across the ocean.
"If you go into New Jersey and drive down [Route] 42 to Route 55, and go down Route 55 before branching off to Route 40, it gets pretty dark," Pitts said. "You can easily turn off the main road and find a little side road and do a little sky observing. The reason why I like doing this is because there are a number of Wawas along the road for a coffee and pie."
What if I can’t drive out to one of those spots? Are there any spots in the city I can still look at stars?
"It's really hard in the city to find good spots," Stein said. "But the best spots are open areas without tall buildings and trees, where you can see the horizon and the sky a bit better. Those spots are hard to come by because you have to go to parks or college campuses. The issue is that if you do and try and plan time at a park, most of our parks close at dusk."
Stein said that more often, the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society visits properties of families and friends for open spaces. The society's events are often open to the public (check its website for upcoming events). The Franklin Institute hosts monthly stargazing events on Tuesdays (you have to buy $10 tickets in advance), during which attendees can see planetarium shows and a live astronomy show, participate in hands-on activities, and look at the skies through the museum's telescope.
If I want to find my own stargazing spot, what should I look for?
Before you head out, go on your computer and look up a light-pollution map — lightpollutionmap.info uses information from various government agencies and World Atlas overlays. It will help you identify spots that are darker than others. Weather is also another factor — going out on a night with low humidity means that you'll be able to see more because there are fewer clouds.
"You also want to look for a wide horizon," Don Knabb, the observing chair for the Chester County Astronomical Society, said, referencing a view that has no obstructions. "And you probably want some privacy away from your neighbors, because people don't like telescopes in their backyard when it's not theirs."
Aside from that, Stein also suggested looking for a place with higher elevation because that contributes to a clear horizon. "You want to be able to see over the trees," she said. "Rooftops can be really good if surrounding lights are pointing downwards."
You should also pay attention to the direction with the clearest views. Pitts said that good exposure in the west and south directions are the most important because that's where you'll be able to spot the highest number of objects and constellations in the skies. (Yes, that means you'll need to have a compass on you.)
Do I need any special equipment?
Most astronomers said that you really don't need that much to get started — just a lawn chair, a pair of binoculars, a star chart (there are many online versions that you can print out), and a warm blanket. Those cool-looking $300 telescopes on Amazon? They're less necessary than you think.
"You want to look for a pair of binoculars that's 7×50," Pitts said. "Most people already have a pair lying around in their house. And while binoculars are good for looking at one object, like a planet or a star, tracking constellations is easier with just your eyes."
Stein also recommended having a red light or a piece of red cellophane on hand because white light from flashlights and phone screens messes up your night vision. Taping red cellophane over a flashlight keeps your eyes from fluctuating back and forth between day and night vision. (For that reason, she also recommended printing a star chart beforehand and staying away from phone screens.)
"In cooler months, you'll also need to bundle up in scarves, coats, and jackets," Dwight Dulsky, the copresident of the Bucks-Montgomery Astronomical Association, said. "In the summer, you don't want to forget the bug spray."
If you do want a telescope, Dulsky said that you shouldn't pay less than $300 for one of decent quality. "But if you go stargazing with an astronomy group, many longtime astronomers will bring their telescopes for you to look through," he added.
Are there any good apps that I can download before going stargazing?
Phone and iPad apps can tell you what's directly overhead using location tracking services, which makes them helpful if you're just starting out. Pocket Universe ($2.99) and Stellarium ($2.99) are reliable ones for iPhone and Android users. On Android, you can also explore SkEye and Sky Map. But if you're willing to shell out a few bucks, the astronomers I spoke with also recommended SkySafari (free to $19.99) for iOS. Most of the apps work well on an iPad.
What are some other things I should keep in mind?
One of the best ways to get started in stargazing is by attending events organized by local astronomy clubs. Astronomers are more than happy to answer any questions and make recommendations for gear. If the weather isn't cooperating, the groups usually pick one to two rain dates for events.
There are also plenty of ways for you to contribute data to research by professional astronomers while you're out there looking at the night sky. Globe at Night, in particular, is a website that tracks how bad light pollution is around the world through data submitted by citizens.
If you're interested in helping correct the problem of light pollution, consider installing motion detectors on any of your outdoor lights so they turn off when there's no one around. Putting shades that point downward on lightbulbs outside can also help.
But at the end of the night, keeping an open mind is the most important quality to a good stargazing session.
“In amateur astronomy, there’s a low threshold and a high ceiling,” Dulsky said. “There’s so much that you can learn that there’s really no opportunity to get bored.”