West Virginia state parks and forests offer refuges from light pollution with Dark Skies.
This story was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
Written by Taylor Maple
Photographed by Jesse Thornton
There are plenty of magnificent sights to discover in West Virginia, and you don’t need to search far. Just look north, south, east, or west—take your pick. From the state’s iconic hills and mountains to the creeks, hollers, and waterfalls that dot them, a glance in any direction is sure to send locals and visitors alike down a unique and spectacular path. But while the geography of the land is often what catches folks’ eyes, there’s one direction you can’t forget as you gaze around in awe at the vistas around you: up.
Stargazing in West Virginia is an experience that should not be missed. The wild nature of the state offers peaceful opportunities for typical outdoor activities like camping and hiking, yes, but it also means light pollution is scarce enough that stars can greet you clearly from millions of miles away. According to the State Parks website, you can even see the Milky Way’s galactic core on a clear night.
But while stargazing can be done just about anywhere in the state if you know where to look, some places have gone above and beyond to preserve those dark conditions and ensure they are available for visitors to enjoy for generations to come.
Three state parks in West Virginia have been designated official Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association, which, according to its website, means they are certified as spots that “preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education.”
According to DarkSky, participation in these practices is important not only because the sky is an essential artifact for the public to be able to readily view, but also because light pollution can lead to far greater problems than just making stars harder to see. artificial light can also lead to medical issues in humans and animals. Light pollution is also often a symptom of wasteful money and energy practices that may contribute to climate change—the DarkSky estimates that at least 30% of all outdoor lighting is wasted, which represents the release of 21 million tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Calvin Price State Forest, Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, and Watoga State Park are the first official Dark Sky Places in the state. And they join a selective group—just over 200 parks, cities, communities, and other areas around the globe have been certified since the first designation, in 2001. Spots among their ranks include Aenos National Park in Greece, Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas, and Eifel National Park in Germany.
It’s no small feat to achieve this designation. “The application process is quite lengthy,” says Jody Spencer, superintendent at Watoga State Park. “It took us two years to just submit the final application, and frankly, that was largely because we had retired volunteers with our park foundation who were willing to really stay on the process and help see it through.” The process was started first at Watoga State Park, and Calvin Price State Forest and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park—which both sit adjacent to Watoga’s grounds—were later added to the mix to form a contiguous plot of land lying primarily in Pocahontas County that is specifically equipped to allow as little light pollution as possible. Altogether, they form one of the largest Dark Sky Places in the easternmost U.S., Spencer says.
You must check an extensive list of boxes before your park, community, or town can receive a Dark Sky designation. Certified Dark Sky Places are “required to use quality outdoor lighting, effective policies to reduce light pollution, ongoing stewardship practices, and more,” according to the DarkSky’s website. The lighting was one particularly large hurdle the parks worked hard to clear. “All of the fixtures have to be shielded, down-facing light fixtures. Your bulbs have to meet certain specifications,” Spencer says. “That was the most time-consuming part for us.”
Embracing the Darkness
Though it was a long road, the results—a huge area with naturally dark conditions that are perfect for skygazing and allow little wildlife disturbance from artificial light—is well worth it. According to Spencer, the endeavor to certify Watoga State Park and its neighbors as a Dark Sky Place initially began because the folks who work there are locals who enjoy looking out at their own night sky and seeing it as clearly as they possibly can. “Some of us who live out here appreciate how truly dark it is,” he says. “We thought, by going this route, we would make sure that at least a very large tract of land would remain this way.”
But that’s not the only benefit. “It turned out that it really helped with tourism,” he says. “It got a lot of publicity for the park in the area. It really helped open the park to a lot of guests that otherwise would probably have never even been to the state, much less our area.” He notices retirement-age visitors in particular coming out to enjoy it. “I feel like it’s the older generation who, maybe in a lot of ways, are the generation who appreciates the finer things,” he says. “And this is one of those cases.”
That’s not to say that families and younger folks don’t enjoy it when they go, too. They’ll arrive ready for a typical campsite getaway and excitedly notice the programming that’s offered, or eagerly head up to a vantage point to see a beautiful view of a meteor shower at the advice of a park ranger. “They truly benefit from it as almost a secondary thing,” Spencer says. “They didn’t necessarily come here because of that, but they’ll get a great kick and appreciation out of using the overlook during a really dark night.”
Marveling in Moonlight
Believe it or not, it’s not just people who enjoy the darker environment. “You don’t realize, particularly, the benefits to wildlife,” Spencer says. “I feel like we were also able to preserve a habitat for many, many species of animals, like our synchronous fireflies, which were also discovered here in the park around the same time. One of the reasons they’ve thrived in the park is because they prefer very dark skies.” According to the DarkSky’s website, light pollution can also be harmful to wildlife because animals and insects rely on predictable rhythms of day and night to inform their reproduction, nourishment, and sleep habits and also to assist in their protection from predators. When man-made light brightens up their habitats in naturally dark hours, those patterns can become disrupted, throwing animals and insects for a potentially deadly loop.
The benefits of a Dark Sky designation are clear, and Spencer loves to see people experiencing it firsthand. While the parks are great spots to visit year-round, Spencer recommends bundling up and going during the colder months if stargazing is your top priority. “Winter is always a good time. The skies seem clear, and the nights are longer, so you don’t necessarily have to wait until three or four o’clock in the morning to get the same perspective that you would in the summertime,” he says. But even in the summer, he sees people lugging telescopes to their campsites and believes there’s been an uptick in the number of amateur astronomers visiting the parks. “On a weekend, when you have a dark sky, you’re expecting a new moon, and you’re expecting clear skies with no clouds, we definitely see an uptick in camping.”
Spencer recommends that people pay attention to the West Virginia State Parks website for information not just about Watoga and the other DarkSky-certified parks, but for the other stargazing destinations the state has to offer as well. “A lot of the other parks, even though they don’t have the official designations, they have just as good viewing areas and dark skies as we do,” he says.
So the next time you find yourself looking up and taking in the scene at one of our parks or forests, think about why you have such a picturesque view. Think about who worked hard to make sure you could enjoy true intergalactic wonder from the comfort of a folding chair or a blanket tossed onto the grass. And think about what would be lost, both in the sky and on the ground, if that darkness went away.
To learn more about stargazing in the state and the best places to do so, visit wvstateparks.com/things-to-do/stargazing.