How to See Pennsylvania's June Firefly Light Show
In June, thousands of fireflies light up the Pennsylvania night – here's how to see this enchanted spectacle.

How to See Pennsylvania's June Firefly Light Show

In June, thousands of fireflies light up the Pennsylvania night – here's how to see this enchanted spectacle.

It was late in the evening in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. A few days had passed since the summer solstice, that enchanted June evening when the fairies from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" emerge to play in driving directions the woods and trick young lovers. But I wasn't here in quest of Shakespearean sprites; I was here for the captivating Photinus carolinus, a kind of firefly that puts on a dazzling, coordinated light display every year as spring gives way to summer.

In 2016, during a vacation to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I saw for the first time this sparkling mating ritual, in which males of the species glow in tandem to attract females. In 1992, a naturalist called Lynn Frierson Faust aided scientists in locating and classifying the first synchronized fireflies in the Western Hemisphere in this area. Later that same decade, following a tip from some campers, Faust and her Firefly International Research and Education (FIRE) colleagues confirmed the presence of P. carolinus in Allegheny National Forest, citing a particularly robust population near the blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of Kellettville.

The revelation came as a surprise to Peggy and Ken Butler, whose Kellettville backyard turned out to be a hub of firefly activity. Peggy Butler told me, "We didn't aware that the lightning bugs were anything unique." However, everything shifted when the FIRE crew showed up and educated us about synchronized fireflies.

Peggy remembered that Faust had provided two possibilities. "You may walk away quietly, like Lynn suggested, or you can embrace these fireflies as something that can be beneficial to your society,"

The Butlers opted for the latter, founding a charity and, in the summer of 2013, hosted the first Pennsylvania Firefly Festival on their spacious rural property, which they eventually christened Kellettville Firefly Farm. The pair hoped that attracting tourists with the firefly would encourage environmental protection in their county, which is one of the poorest in the state.

The cautionary story that Faust told was equally important. She saw firsthand how the number of "fireflyers" to the Smokies skyrocketed, prompting the park to start holding lotteries to regulate visitor numbers. Unfortunately, the Butlers did not believe it. When I asked Peggy about it, she remarked, "Well, nobody's going to come to Forest County for this." Ken and she both agreed. Those people were completely incorrect. Last June, I drove from New York to the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 13-county area that encompasses Allegheny National Forest because of my interest in the bioluminescent beetles that live there. One of the most severely mined and logged regions in the nation is now protected as part of The Wilds. Barons of industry logged off vast swaths of land and dug down into the soil for oil and coal a century and a half ago. Today's verdant mountain slopes and untouched forests are living testaments to the power of renewal.

Just outside of Bradford, at a beautiful resort called the Lodge at Glendorn (doubles from $530), I spent the night. As a family retreat, Clayton Glenville Dorn, a petroleum engineer who loved fly-fishing, bought the 1,500-acre plot in 1927. The resort, which is now owned by Relais & Châteaux, has a main lodge and 12 individually decorated cottages. My cabin, the quirky log and plank Miller Cabin, is discreetly situated on the bank of a creek, and I fell in love with it at first sight.

In the days leading up to the firefly celebrations, I explored remote swaths of wilderness, including the Allegheny National Forest, six state parks, two National Wild and Scenic Rivers, and more than two dozen state game lands, via the back roads and byways that wound through the Wilds' westernmost reaches. One bright morning, I set out for Warren, a city that formerly thrived on the lumber industry but has since shifted its economy to oil and manufacturing. Piper VanOrd and I made plans to go canoeing on the Allegheny River. VanOrd, a U.S. Navy air traffic controller stationed in Alaska, moved back to her home state of Pennsylvania in 2006 after seeing an advertisement in the Warren Times Observer for Allegheny Outfitters, a canoe rental business.

Even while VanOrd was already thinking about making a career change when she saw the ad, it wasn't a move into real estate that ultimately convinced her to make the move. While I was removing our kayaks from the trailer, VanOrd stated, "The formation of the PA Wilds had a huge influence in our going home." We went to Buckaloons, a park along the river that was previously a Seneca Nations settlement. As we launched out into the river, the brightness of early June reflected off the waves. Far out, a green heron scanned the river for breakfast.

She went on to say that "outdoor recreation wasn't really a thing here back then," but that it was "amazing" to see that people were beginning to look at these woods and rivers with an eye toward saving and promoting them.

VanOrd, as the owner of a small company and a supporter of environmental causes, has been an ally to the Wilds' cause for the last 15 years. The process of reentering society, however, has not been without its difficulties. As we floated by Thompson's Island, one of the Allegheny's seven federally designated wilderness islands, VanOrd observed, "The worst thing about living in rural Pennsylvania is that people are absolutely frightened of change." "Getting people to accept new ideas is a complex and nuanced process. To see progress, though, is motivating. Even the smallest successes ought to be recognized and honored."