By Bob Confer, photo by Mel Hunt
Astro-tourism has become one of the fastest-growing trends in tourism. What once was travel only enjoyed by hardcore astronomers has become mainstream in recent years as more people from all walks of life are venturing to places with dark skies (that is, away from the city lights) to see the northern lights or observe celestial bodies and meteor showers in skies nearly as pristine as those that our ancestors slept under.
It’s something that New York should capitalize on, but really isn’t. All told, the state and individual counties and chambers of commerce spend millions of dollars every year on advertising all of the natural wonders in our state (like Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, and the Thousand Islands). Very little, if anything, is spent on promoting our dark skies, despite having some very special sites in the Empire State.
In the Southern Tier, a good chunk of territory that runs along the Pennsylvania border and includes towns like Alma, Whitesville and Jasper falls under nearly dark sky jurisdiction and stargazers are greeted by nighttime skies featuring countless stars and thick imagery of the Milky Way. The skies are so dark that at a 2014 meeting of Alma residents that focused on the future of the community, a long discussion was had about opening up beds and breakfasts in that Allegany County town for the sole purpose of catering to people who would sleep during the day to be outdoors at night.
Approximately two-thirds of the Adirondack Park, a massive area, falls into that same category of night sky, too. There is a specific area within it, though, where the skies are even darker, the darkest in the entire northeast – even darker than Pennsylvania’s famed Cherry Springs State Park. About a half hour to the east of the ever-popular community of Old Forge is a dark sky area centered around Raquette Lake. There, skywatchers are treated to the heavens exactly as they were before Thomas Edison’s light bulb took hold and drowned out the stars. In that place, 10,000 stars can be seen with the naked eye.
To see exactly what I mean about dark sky ratings, refer to the dark sky/light pollution map at https://www.lightpollutionmap.info There, you can zoom in and out of the map of the United States to find the best places to see the stars.
The nearness of the Southern Tier and the Adirondacks to the population centers of the northeast is appealing to this newest demographic of outdoor adventurer….both locations are just one tank of gas away from 56 million people.
They could all use that primordial exposure to the sky above.
We all could, for light pollution has robbed too many of us of the best nighttime sights.
It’s been said that 99% of Europeans and Americans have light-obscured views of the nighttime sky. Even around my home it’s a major issue: In a 2010 column for the Greater Niagara Newspapers I lamented the loss of dark skies in the immediate area. Thanks to the city lights of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lockport and the Greater Toronto Area, Niagara’s skies are anything but dark, even in our rural communities. To put that lack of true darkness in perspective, in the central Adirondacks you can see 7 to 10 times the stars that you can see on a good night in rural Niagara County. Yes, 7 to 10 times!
Our nighttime misery, as bad as it is, is nothing compared to that of New York City, where its residents never see stars unless the electrical grid goes out as it did in August of 2013. That outage was probably a wake-up call to many metropolitan denizens. That’s because the first time that you have unfettered access to the heavens is unforgettable, you feel like a new person — spiritually and intellectually. You’ll want more of that experience, guaranteed.
It’s time that the good people at state and regional tourism offices took advantage of that desire to be mystified by the stars. We could bring thousands of tourists, and thousands of tourism dollars, to some of the Empire State’s prime locations. Just look at the well-promoted Cherry Spring State Park south of Coudersport, Pennsylvania for such a success story: In 2020, for example, that park hosted more than 46,000 visitors from June through August and on some nights there were 1,000 people in the park’s designated dark sky viewing field. Those numbers are awe-inspiring…as is what they are there to see.
Similar nighttime Meccas could be created and promoted in New York, whether in Allegany County or Hamilton County. There’s so much potential for our communities…in this case, the sky is quite literally, the limit.