I’m standing stock-still, my head thrown back, my jaw hanging open in awe. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. They crowd the dark night sky in uncountable numbers, some big and bright, some barely visible pinpoints of light. The sight fills my heart, so much so that my eyes fill, too, spilling over with tears of gratitude. As I smile and wipe my cheeks, I consider that I feel nearly as close to our Creator here, under this star-strewn heaven, as I do worshiping on Sunday.
Cherry Springs State Park, which is tucked away in a remote stretch of Potter County, Pennsylvania, is renowned as one of the world’s best locations to stargaze. But the United States is filled with natural wonders so glorious that they are nearly guaranteed to appeal to faith-based group travelers. And like Cherry Springs, places such as Mammoth Cave National Park, Everglades National Park, Badlands National Park, and Redwoods National and State Parks are accessible to motorcoaches, so can groups can easily reach the sites that will set their spirits soaring.
Mammoth Cave National Park
If Cherry Springs is the place to keep an eye to the night sky, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is where groups go to explore the world beneath their feet. The world’s longest known cave, the appropriately named Mammoth features an astounding 412 miles of surveyed passageways, a number that increases every year with further explorations into its interior. And according to Mammoth Cave National Park management assistant Molly Schroer, “The human history of the cave is also fascinating. People have been here visiting Mammoth since Native Americans explored it thousands of years ago.”
It’s believed that Mammoth Cave started forming in ancient times as rain seeped into the ground, eroding the limestone underneath and creating the stalactites, stalagmites and other striking formations visitors see today. The park, which some 2 million people enter annually, offers a wide variety of subterranean tours for every level of fitness that focus on a wide range of topics, including the cave’s geology and its history.
But that’s not all group members can do in the park. The visitors center features exhibits that detail subjects like south-central Kentucky’s geology and the exploration of the cave. And there’s plenty to see aboveground, too.
“If somebody doesn’t want to go into the cave, we also have surface trails,” Schroer said. “We’ve got 53,000 acres of forested land with riverways, wildlife and wildflowers, so they can find something to do on the surface while the others are down in the cave. Mammoth Cave is great for groups because we have a lot of things for different interests.”
Everglades National Park
Sweeping across 1.5 million acres of south Florida, Everglades National Park is part of the largest subtropical wilderness in the nation, an incredibly diverse ecosystem that is home to both the American alligator and the American crocodile, the sweet-natured, slow-moving manatee and the critically endangered Florida panther. The ease with which visitors can spot some of these animals makes it particularly welcoming to groups, said Everglades National Park spokesperson Allyson Gantt.
“You don’t have to necessarily have binoculars to view wildlife here,” she said. “We have a lot of large wading birds, we have large reptiles, and the concession companies that operate boat and tram tours and airboat rides in the park give you easy access to see the wildlife and the vegetation up-close and personal. And they can accommodate large groups on those tours, so you get the information, and you get the experience of being out there, and maybe you get to try something a little bit different than you would elsewhere.”
The park has three entrances and four visitors centers. And there is a wide range of activities available in Everglades National Park for groups, from taking an easy stroll to surveying the scene from atop a 65-foot observation tower. Gantt recommends it all, adding that Shark Valley Tram Tours, in particular, “slows down the pace a little.”
“It’s a narrated, open-air tram that goes about 15 mph,” she said. “And the Everglades is about the details sometimes.”
Badlands National Park
The 244,000-acre swath of southwestern South Dakota was once dubbed “mako sica,” or “bad land,” by the Lakota thanks to its rugged environment, but there is much that makes Badlands National Park a good destination for groups. Containing one of the country’s largest mixed-grass prairies, the park is also home to a sweeping, otherworldly expanse of colorful sedimentary rock layers that time has eroded into dramatic buttes and spires. As beautiful as it is brutal, the landscape is accessible via the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, a 39-mile loop road running through the park that features 16 designated overlooks.
“If the group is more adventurous, you can do some pretty extreme hikes in the Badlands, or you can just do a nice, meandering walk,” said Katlyn Richter, global media and public relations director for the South Dakota Department of Tourism. “But if you’re not as physically able, you can see it from the scenic byway. Of course, wildlife viewing in the park is extraordinary. In fact, in the next few months, they are going to be opening up more land for the bison to graze, so visitors will have more opportunities to see them. There’s also bighorn sheep, antelope and the prairie dogs that everyone loves.”
Richter said she especially enjoys the Badlands in the spring, when all is green and lush, and visitors can spot baby animals at play.
“Sunrise and sunset are also great times to be in the park,” she said. “You have that beautiful glow lighting up the land in vibrant reds and deep purple.”
Redwoods National and State Parks
They are the tallest trees on the planet, reaching as high as 380 feet — and as wide as 22 feet. Some may live to be more than 2,000 years old. Majestic and mysterious, California’s coastal redwoods inspire the kind of reverence in groups that borders on the spiritual. And they are found nowhere else but the Golden State.
“There are more than 100 redwood parks along the coast, from as far south as Big Sur up to the Oregon border,” said Jessica Carter, Save the Redwoods League director of parks and public engagement. “Many have the infrastructure for larger vehicles and trails of all lengths nearby that can accommodate groups for hiking, picnicking and other activities.”
Humboldt County, which lies about 200 miles north of San Francisco, is blessed with a particularly spectacular array of the trees. Half of the globe’s remaining old-growth redwoods stand sentinel there within places like the Redwood National and State Parks system, which includes three state parks and one national park and has been named a World Heritage Site and International Biosphere Reserve. Humboldt Redwoods State Park, the state’s biggest redwood park, can be reached via the legendary Avenue of the Giants, a stunning 31-mile scenic drive lined by the stately trees.
When asked why groups should visit the redwood parks, Humboldt County Visitors Bureau executive director Julie Benbow said, “It’s like being in God’s cathedral. You cannot easily wrap your head around the enormity of them, the fact they’re living and that they lived long before us and they’re going to live long beyond us. There’s just a mystical sense of awe.”
Cherry Springs State Park
It seems impossible that in the densely populated eastern U.S., there is a spread of sky dark enough that it has become renowned as one of the best places on the planet to see celestial objects. But Cherry Springs State Park is not only surrounded by the 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest, but its mountaintop location shields it from the light generated by the small communities below and provides a rare 360-degree view of the sky. These attributes have earned Cherry Springs the designation Gold Level Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
Cherry Springs offers a variety of public events, but groups may also request a private night sky tour with park staff.
“The Milky Way is the most-requested object people want to see,” said Tim Morey, natural resource specialist with Pennsylvania State Parks. “We also look at constellations that are visible to the naked eye, and we’ll get out the telescope and look at double stars, star clusters, nebulas and galaxies. But we focus primarily on brighter planets. The summer was delightful with Jupiter and it the moons visible, as well as Saturn, and its rings.”
Groups many also want to check out Dark Sky Telescope Tours, which are available at Cherry Springs through North Star Outdoor Guides.
“What really strikes me is the amazement of all ages when they look up and see the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon,” said Morey, who has been with the park for nearly two decades. “That never gets old.”