In a Dark Sky park in Pennsylvania, reaching for the stars from a rooftop tent

Noble Horvath

During the pandemic, I have taken up the mantle of Goldilocks, searching for the coziest — and safest — form of outdoorsy lodging. I have bunked in a tiny house in the woods of Shenandoah and in an RV set along a gurgling creek near Charlottesville. A tent was next, […]

During the pandemic, I have taken up the mantle of Goldilocks, searching for the coziest — and safest — form of outdoorsy lodging. I have bunked in a tiny house in the woods of Shenandoah and in an RV set along a gurgling creek near Charlottesville. A tent was next, but not any old pup. This one would be much loftier.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from the Boulder-based company Roofnest, asking if I would like to try out one of its rooftop tents — car camping at its most literal. The hard-shell tent attaches to a roof rack, transforming any vehicle into a mobile campground. Unlike traditional tents, the rooftop version requires no assembly. Simply open the two latches and watch the tent rise like a souffle. Dismantling is equally straightforward: Push the top down, which deflates the tent, and secure.

Any car that can accommodate roof-rack crossbars can carry a Roofnest; founder Tim Nickles camps out on his Volkswagen Jetta. I have a similarly sized vehicle, but any extra weight would probably send the old girl into a wheezing fit. Fortunately, the company included a set of sturdy wheels. Earlier this month, two men delivered the Kia Telluride to my apartment. We stood on the street inspecting the contraption like judges at a science fair. They showed me how to unfurl the tent and set up the ladder. I asked if they had slept in it. “I’m a hotel guy,” one of the men replied. However, to prove that he was no delicate flower, he added that he was a former Marine.

Rooftop tents aren’t cheap. Soft shells run about $1,000 to $2,000, and hard shells can cost up to twice as much. My two-person Falcon, the largest of Roofnest’s three models, sells for $3,395. Campers can also rent the gear (with vehicle) through select adventure-travel outfitters. Most of the companies are out west, such as Road Trip Arizona and Overland Discovery in Denver. The rates are comparable to a night in a hotel: Overland Discovery’s Renegade Camper, which sleeps two, starts at $122. The price includes bedding (pillows, sheets, blanket), camping gear (headlamp, ice chest, camp stove, etc.) and a kitchen kit (French press, cutlery and more). By comparison, my loaner came with a built-in foam mattress and a cup holder for my Sheetz coffee.

When choosing a campground, I could book any site that accepts a tent and parked car. However, I wanted to take advantage of my high altitude. Which meant stars. Billions of them. So I headed to one of the top stargazing destinations east of the Mississippi.

In 2008, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Cherry Springs State Park a Dark Sky park. The Pennsylvania Wilds attraction earned this illustrious label for its cloistered location inside the Susquehannock State Forest, 360-degree panorama and stellar viewing conditions 60 to 85 nights a year. Because the park has no light pollution and a low dust count, visitors can spot with a naked eye such celestial wonders as asteroids, the Orion nebula, meteor showers and the Milky Way. Online, I saw photos of the aurora borealis and wondered if this was Pennsylvania folklore — a cosmic Sasquatch. I contacted the park about the best time to see them. They answered me with a straight face.

“Northern lights are tough to spot this far south,” said Tim Morey, a natural resource specialist with the Bureau of State Parks. Greg Snowman, the former environmental education specialist who now leads stargazing events on his private land, concurred. He said hundreds of people witnessed the northern lights during a star party in the early 2000s, but the phenomenon is rare in these parts. “We need a super strong solar storm to reach our latitude,” he said.

Fortunately, the forecast for constellations with a good attendance record was strong. To guarantee an inky black sky, I chose a weekend around the new moon. I made a reservation for Greg’s tour and looked for a campground. Cherry Springs has 30 rustic sites, but all were sold out. (A spokesman with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said weekend dates around the new moon book up before the season even begins.) Same story at Lyman Run State Park. I extended my search and found availability at Ole Bull State Park, 15 miles south of Cherry Springs.

The pandemic has forced the park to suspend its regular public programming, including its star parties, but telescope-toting visitors are still showing up in droves. Nearly 46,300 people visited from June through August, about 7,000 more than the same time period last year. During a new moon phase, when the big bulb is turned off, the park averages 300 to 1,000 visitors in its Night Sky Public Viewing Area and 20 to 30 serious stargazers in the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field, across the street. However, the number of astronomers in the field rose fivefold this summer.

“Who would’ve thought that this hilltop in Potter County would draw tens of thousands of people?” Greg asked. “We take it for granted, but so many people get so excited to see a star-filled sky.”

Greg has been holding his two-hour outings since July, with additional safety measures. On a Friday night, we met outside a barn on his family’s 178-acre farm. Thirty people had signed up, and we waited in our cars until he signaled for us to follow him. I chatted through the open window with a couple from Harrisburg, Pa. The wife told me she had always wanted to attend a star party here but she isn’t a camper, and there are only a few small lodges in the area. The couple could finally make the trip because of Airbnb. I told her there was another way and pointed at my roof.

After parking, we walked down a dimly lit dirt path toward a clearing in the green bean and wheat fields. I switched my flashlight to red-light mode and sat down on a wooden bench well-spaced from the other guests. The voice of Greg explained how in urban areas we rarely use our night vision, which causes us to lose our ability to distinguish fine details and color. He said it would take 15 to 20 minutes for our eyes to adjust. But even after the prescribed time, I still could not locate his mustache. Finding Vega was much easier.

“This was the greatest show going,” he said. “This is what people did thousands and thousands of years ago. The stars connect all of humanity.”

He took us on a carousel ride of the sky, using a laser beam to point out such sparklers as the zodiacal constellations, Milky Way and Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million light-years away.

“Carbon, oxygen, gold, iron — all of this comes from the stars,” he said. I inhaled deeply, breathing in the cold air spiked with star dust.

Greg ended the program with real-time images snapped by his telescope and displayed on a trio of screens. The crowd dispersed after the finale — M16, or the Eagle Nebula — but I lingered to peer at Jupiter and Saturn through the telescope. I stayed till 11 p.m., an hour past quiet time at my campground.

The Roofnest vehicle drove the same as a regular car: no extra weight, rattling or wobbling. The rig was so quiet and smooth, I often checked the sunroof window to make sure it hadn’t flown away. The tent was a different beast, however. I had not practiced opening it and was not sure how loud it — or I — would be.

Greg came to the rescue, inviting me to sleep on his property. I pulled inside a barnlike building and set up camp. I released one latch, but the other one wouldn’t budge. I pressed on the shell while Greg wrestled with the hardware. The tent popped open. I threw my sleeping bag, blanket, pillow and flashlight up, climbed in and built my nest. I zipped open the side windows for air and lay in bed, wishing upon a star that I didn’t roll off the roof.

My wish came true: I didn’t fall out like a baby bird. But I was aware of the height, especially when I had to make a late-night bathroom run. Instead of crawling out of the tent onto the ground, I had to gingerly step down the ladder. Once back inside my cocoon, I fell asleep hard, toasty under all of my layers. I woke up to find Greg and his partner, Emily, circling the car with an invitation for coffee and a driving tour.

We drove past small roadside signs announcing the “Gateway to the Stars” and parked at the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field. The area caters to serious astronomers, such as astro-photographers and visually assisted observers (folks with telescopes and astro-binoculars), who keep vampires’ hours. The lighting rules are stricter here than at Cherry Springs. For instance, white lights, including the interior lights of vehicles, are prohibited, as are campfires and cooking that causes excessive smoke or grease splats. (Dim amber or red lighting is allowed.) To protect guests’ valuable equipment, the park forbids pets and discourages field games. The gates close at dusk, and no one is permitted to enter or exit — a Hotel California for the celestial set.

During the day, the scene is much more relaxed, with campers hanging out in their tents and on lawn chairs waiting for night to fall. We walked around the grassy expanse, an obstacle course of gear bulging under covers, concrete telescope pads and pedestals with outlets. Street names carved into wooden posts stayed on theme: Orion, Cygnus, Galaxy, Star.

The regulars will not tolerate scofflaws and are quick to report them. Near the bathroom, a man marched over to a ranger to complain about a couple from the previous night. “That guy in the Maserati yelled at his girlfriend all night and kept his headlights on,” he complained. “And I don’t think he paid.” (Guests pay $15 via an honor envelope registration system and must have observation equipment.)

Another group grumbled about the time a posse of college kids appeared with beer-filled coolers. They got bounced: Pennsylvania does not allow alcohol in its state parks.

I considered sleeping in the field, but the sky was overcast. I returned to Ole Bull just in time for a talk on daddy longlegs. (Takeaway lesson: Next time I see the creepy crawler, I should scream, “Eek, an opilione!”) I milled around my campsite for about an hour but couldn’t stop wondering if the stars had carved through the clouds at Cherry Springs. I drove back and sat in a field surrounded by berms impervious to car lights. I watched the stars fade in and out of view, winking teasingly before disappearing behind the gauzy scrim.

On my way out of town the following morning, I stopped by a gas station. A man at a nearby pump asked me where I was coming from. I said Cherry Springs State Park. He said he has always wanted to visit the park to see the aurora borealis. He asked if I had seen them. I told him the northern lights are rarely seen. He then noticed my rooftop contraption. “Are you carrying a dining room table?” I told him it was a tent. He shook his head in disbelief at both of my responses.

Cherry Springs State Park

4639 Cherry Springs Rd., Coudersport, Pa.

The free park is open year-round for stargazing in its Night Sky Public Viewing Area. The Cherry Springs Rustic Campground is open April through October; its 30 sites start at $15 a night. Across the street, the Overnight Astronomy Observation Field caters to serious stargazers, who must come with observation gear and follow strict rules. Cost: $15 per night. For both areas, make sure to bring a red light or filter.

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