Stargazing! Exploring the Heavens Above in Nature’s Mountain Playground

Mike Moore

As the temperature here in Pocahontas County begins to increase, there is also a noticeable increase in our number of visitors.  While working on this blog, as I look out my office window onto the main street of Marlinton, the swell in frequency of campers, RVs, and mountain bikers rolling through town does not escape my attention.  Most of these good folks are making their way to any one of our parks, campsites, and bike trails with plans to pitch a tent, park a camper, or hit a bike trail; undoubtedly with the goal in mind to enjoy the warm sunshine and mountain scenery we’re so well known for.  And while most of our guests are here to experience the sites, scenery, and events of Pocahontas County during the daylight hours, I have to wonder how many of them, camping out under our clear night skies, take in the awe-inspiring show going on just over head.  In other words, stargazing.  So, let’s look at stargazing in West Virginia.  Or more to the point, stargazing near me; right here in Nature’s Mountain Playground.

Let’s start with some basics.  What exactly is stargazing?  The term stargazing, meaning to gaze at or contemplate the heavens above, is pretty much self-explanatory.  Stargazing, boiled down to its simplest terms, involves getting out on a clear night, far away from artificial light sources, and enjoying the vast array of stars overhead.  How to stargaze can be as high-tech, low tech, or no tech as you wish to make it.  You may choose to do your stargazing with a telescope, or stargazing binoculars (actually, I don’t even know if they make stargazing binoculars – ordinary binoculars will do), or the naked eye.  The key is to find a good vantage point that has plenty of open sky and very little artificial light.  And believe it or not, it’s the very little artificial light part that’s the tricky bit. 

Artificial light, or rather the overabundance of it, has brought about the phrase light pollution into our modern-day vocabulary.  This term stems from the idea that with the coming of the industrial age, mankind has slowly and steadily increased the use of artificial lighting.  From street lights to spectacularly lit sporting arenas, the use of artificial light has increased to the point that many people living in urban and even suburban regions of the world very rarely see the night sky that was so easily visible 150 years ago.  But thanks to a grassroots organization known as the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) things are changing, and the night sky is once again getting the attention it deserves.  Due to the efforts of IDA, public awareness concerning light pollution has grown.  Since 1988, IDA has led the movement in light pollution awareness as well as offering a means to reduce the amount of light pollution world-wide.  Their work has influenced over 50 countries to make strides in the reduction of light pollution and make the wonder of the night sky more easily seen around the world. 

And to bring those efforts a little closer to home, our very own Watoga State Park, along with Calvin Price State Forest and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, were awarded Dark Sky Park status in October 2021.  In order to obtain this level of international recognition, Watoga State Park underwent a renovation of all artificial light sources throughout the park, reducing any extraneous light that could hinder the view of the night sky.  With that project completed, Watoga State Park, Calvin Price State Forest, and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park have become the first official International Dark Sky Place designations in the state of West Virginia.  Now, this is where the fun comes in.  Because these three favorite destinations of Pocahontas County have become dark sky parks, this opens the doors to a handful of Watoga State Park Foundation Dark Sky Education Events for 2023 that you’ll want to be sure to take note of.  So, here’s a quick rundown of those events and the opportunities you’ll have to get out and enjoy the night sky of Nature’s Mountain Playground.

June 16, 2023, 7:00 p.m. FIREFLIES presented at the covered picnic shelter of Watoga State Park

July 2, 2023, 7:00 p.m. WINGS OF WONDER presented at the Watoga Activities Center of Watoga State Park

September 22, 2023, 8:00 p.m. STAR PARTY held at the lookout tower of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park (rain date September 24)

October 21, 2023, 7:00 p.m. HOOT & HOLLER OWL PROGRAM presented at the Watoga Activities Center of Watoga State Park

State parks in West Virginia have always offered an abundance of outdoor activities.  Whether it’s hiking forest trails, fishing secluded streams, or paddling mountain lakes, thanks to our state parks, there’s always a way to get outdoors and reconnect with nature.  And now, thanks to groups like the International Dark-Sky Association and the Watoga State Park Foundation we can add one more outdoor activity to that list – stargazing.  So, whether you can attend one of the above-mentioned events or just want to strike out on your own and enjoy the night sky, join us here in Nature’s Mountain Playground and West Virginia’s first official International Dark Sky Place designations as we get out under the night sky and take in the wonder and beauty that perhaps many of us have been missing and didn’t even realize it.       

For further information on the Dark Sky Education Events for 2023 contact Watoga State Park at 304-799-4087.