Stargazing Under the Starry Night Skies of Nature’s Mountain Playground
One of my fondest memories growing up was our family summer camping trips to the mountains of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. We usually arrived at our campsite by midday, the entire family pouring out of the vehicle, thankful to have those twisting mountain roads finally behind us. The next few hours in camp were a buzz of excitement and hard work. The tent was set up and filled with sleeping bags, clothing, food and whatever camping accessories we deemed vital to the trip. One of the last things to be done before nightfall was collecting firewood and getting a campfire started. Once dinner was over, the campfire became the center of activity as the inky, black night slowly enveloped us. Like most youngsters, I was fascinated with the fire. The constant dancing and swirling of the bright orange flame against the black night held my attention like few things could. Inevitably, I would pull a twig from the fire, its tip a glowing orange ember, and point it toward the night sky, quickly making figure eights and circles with the dying ember. As the night went on and the light of the fire slowly dimmed, it was then that my attention turned to the stunning light show overhead. By my reckoning (mind you, I was ten years old) there must have been more than a gazillion stars on display. It was truly breathtaking. I was convinced that the elevation of the mountains had brought me that much closer to heaven.
But as a young boy of ten, I failed to realize an indisputable truth. The stars I could see so clearly from the mountains of Pocahontas County, were overhead in my hometown as well, I just couldn’t see as many of them due to the lights of the city. This brightening of the night sky, caused by an abundance of man-made light, is called light pollution. It’s light pollution that robs us of the opportunity to behold the countless stars above. Simply put, to see more stars you need less light pollution. And if you’re looking for less light pollution and more stars, there’s no better place to check out the night sky than (you guessed it) my boyhood vacation destination, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. At over 940 square miles and with the highest average elevation of any county east of the Mississippi, Pocahontas County offers stargazers some of the best star-filled skies around. Here’s a few stargazing places to check out as well as a stargazing date to keep in mind for your next adventure among the stars in Nature’s Mountain Playground.
Seneca State Forest, Thorny Mountain Fire Tower
Standing 65 feet above the forest floor, the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower provides a 360-degree, unobstructed view of the Seneca Forest night sky. The fire tower can be rented for overnight stays from May to October with reservations typically needing to be made one year in advance. The 12-foot by 12-foot living space features a small catwalk around the outside perimeter and floor-to-ceiling windows making a star-filled view of the night sky possible from any direction. The cab of the tower has two cots provided but is big enough to sleep four. So, come with friends or family, a few sleeping bags, your stargazing binoculars and enjoy the view all night long. Seneca State Forest can be reached at (304)-799-6213 or check them out on the web at wvstateparks.com.
Watoga State Park
At over 10,000 acres, Watoga State Park is the largest state park in West Virginia. The park offers 34 cabins as well as a total of 88 campsites divided between two campgrounds, making multiple nights of stargazing possible for anyone looking to make more than a one-night visit to the park. And speaking of multiple nights, Watoga State Park also offers multiple stargazing spots to choose from. Between the T.M. Cheek Memorial Overlook, the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower and Watoga Lake, stargazers have ample opportunities and plenty of open sky to cast an eye (or a stargazing telescope) toward the heavens. Watoga has also been engaged in seeking approval from the International Dark-Sky Association to be designated as a Dark Sky Park. As a result, steps have been taken to reduce light pollution throughout the park and several Dark Sky events have been scheduled over the summer. For more information about these events contact Watoga State Park at (304)-799-4087 or check out the events calendar page at naturesmountainplayground.com.
The Highland Scenic Highway
Extending forty-three miles from Richwood to U.S. Route 219 North of Marlinton, The Highland Scenic Highway passes along the Allegheny Highlands climbing from an elevation of 2,325 feet, near Richwood, to a height of more than 4,500 feet. A paved two-lane road, the Highway is a union of State Routes 39 and 150. Route 150 is a 23-mile parkway of the Scenic Highway with four scenic overlooks, each commanding an impressive view of the surrounding mountains and deep valleys. On a clear evening, any one of these overlooks would provide a breath-taking observation point of the night sky. Stargazing with telescope or binocular from The Highland Scenic Highway overlooks would surely be an unforgettable experience. Why not add The Highland Scenic Highway to your stargazing map?
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park Lookout Tower
Located North of Lewisburg on Route 219, the lookout tower of Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park commemorates the location of one of the last battles of the Civil War to be fought in West Virginia. Access to the tower couldn’t be easier. Visitors can park at the base and, with a quick climb up an inner staircase, be looking out over a magnificent view of the Greenbrier Valley. After sundown, the tower offers a spectacular view of the stars, planets and constellations above and would definitely be one of the more unique stargazing places to visit in Nature’s Mountain Playground. A word of recommendation however, because state parks typically close around 10 p.m., it’s best to call the park office ahead of time if you plan on being in the tower after hours. Usually there is no problem, as long as visitors and park staff are on the same page. Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park will also be partnering with Watoga State Park in scheduling Dark Sky events over the summer, featuring a night hike to Briary Knob and a Star Party at the tower. Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park can be reached at (304)-653-4254 and look them up online at wvstateparks.com.
Mark Your Calendar
Well now that you have a few stargazing locations to choose from, let’s add a stargazing date to your calendar. There are a couple celestial events on the horizon for the end of May that are exclusive to the month and well worth checking out. And the good news is, both can be seen with the naked eye. The first event is a full moon on Wednesday the 26th of May. I know what you’re thinking. Don’t we have a full moon every 29.5 days? Can’t I just catch the next one if I miss the one on the 26th of May? Well, what makes this full moon so noteworthy is it’s a supermoon. A supermoon only happens when the full moon takes place while the moon is in it’s closest orbit to Earth, making the moon appear larger and brighter in the night sky. There will only be four supermoons in 2021 and the one on the 26th of May will be the closet to Earth of the four. Like I said, noteworthy.
If the whole supermoon thing is not enough to entice you to look toward the heavens, how does a total lunar eclipse sound? A total lunar eclipse takes place when the Sun, Earth and Moon align with the Earth positioned between the Sun and the Moon creating the eclipse. Now as it happens to be, the night of May 26, when the supermoon takes place, the Moon will also be cast in the shadow of the Earth. In other words, a total lunar eclipse coinciding with a supermoon. This celestial show is almost too much to ask for in one night! A quick internet search will provide you with an array of other interesting stargazing dates, but the 26th of May will be a tough night to beat.
If you’re a stargazer yourself or perhaps the parent or grandparent of a youngster that you think might enjoy a little time behind a telescope, can you picture a better place to be on a starry night than Pocahontas County, West Virginia? Or what better way to fuel your stargazing interest than to attend one of the many Dark Sky events planned at Watoga State Park and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park? Can you imagine sitting atop a 65-foot tower convinced, if you could just reach out a little further, you could touch that supermoon? It’s no wonder the world still sings of West Virginia as being “almost heaven”. Because here, in Nature’s Mountain Playground, the stars are still shining bright.