We have a kids friendly swimming pool and great playgrounds. Paddle boats on the lake. Amazing mountaintop overlooks. Best soft serve ice cream in the universe at Jack Horner’s Corner in Seebert. Beautiful mountain valley around nearby Hillsboro, WV.
Experience Watoga’s old growth forest!
Watoga State Park is 10,000 acres. The southwestern section of the Park is unmaintained Wilderness. Hike the Burnside Ridge Trail to access this area. Allow yourself several hours to get out and back. Further south from this area is the Spice Run Wilderness Area of the Monongahela National Forest.
Having attained international recognition, what’s on the celestial horizon for West Virginia’s newest stars on the dark sky park tourism circuit this fall? Well, this party’s just getting started!
It’s time to get ready to celebrate unlike anywhere else in the world or the universe for that matter!
Receiving national and international attention are Watoga and Droop Mountain Battlefield state parks, along with Calvin Price State Forest, which comprise the first-ever international dark sky park in the Mountain State. Not only does this park have almost 20,000 acres of land mass, but it is also home to billions of galaxies, stars, dark holes and constellations of untold and unknown acreage that it frequently displays in a breathtaking picturesque setting.
Now, this scenic tourist mecca is gearing up for its inaugural star party on September 2. When the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the leading advocate fighting light pollution in the world, announced this certification last year, it proclaimed these areas as “one of the largest and darkest sky sheds within the eastern United States.”
Since then, anticipation and interest in this star-gazing extravaganza have been building locally, regionally and nationally.
“I Can’t Even See My Hand in Front of My Face!”
Tucked away in the scenic highlands of Pocahontas County are three heavily forested areas. Here, it is so dark that sometimes you cannot see the person standing next to you. “In the dark, I can’t even see my hand in front of my face,” some visitors have commented. In fact, for years, the number one selling postcard at Watoga has been one of complete darkness.
For centuries, stargazers, professional photographers, and astronomers have been drawn to the region’s dark skies. Pocahontas County is celebrating its bicentennial this fall, and what a great way to join in the party! Of course, there are many other tourist attractions too. This birthplace of rivers touts several state parks and forests, along with the Monongahela National Forest, Snowshoe Ski Resort, the acclaimed Green Bank Observatory, and the birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck.
So, just what’s next for this international dark sky park?
In order to maintain certification, dark sky parks in the U.S. must engage in community outreach and educational programs to increase awareness about “how the excessive and wasteful use of artificial lighting is a growing, urgent and global pollutant that must and can be feasibly addressed,” said Ashley Wilson, IDA’s Director of Conservation and lead of its International Dark Sky Places Program. “After a park is certified, it continues to conserve the night sky by engaging with its neighbors, whether they are other protected areas or gateway communities, to take interest and action to help celebrate, support, and protect this natural, cultural, and precious resource.”
“We’re excited to preserve for younger generations the ability to see and enjoy the brilliant night skies,” said Louanne Fatora, vice president of the Foundation. “With today’s light pollution, it’s rare to be able to ever be able to experience this phenomenon.”
Turn Out the Lights! You’re Invited to the First-Ever West Virginia Dark Sky Star Party
When: Friday, September 2, 2022, 7:30 p.m.-11 p.m. (rain date is Saturday, September 3)
Where: The Tower at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, Hillsboro, West Virginia
Once darkness falls, in accordance with star party lighting standards, the area near the lookout tower will be illuminated. Look for glowing lights or red bulb lanterns for optimal viewing and safety reasons.
Activities/Events: A detailed program guide listing activities and events will be distributed. A summary of some of the activities include:
Telescopes operated by amateur astronomers J. Perez and Michael Rosalina will be available for viewing. They will explain the view to individuals and answer questions. You are allowed to bring your own equipment.
A “Starry Night Art for Children” program is a part of this event, which uses art as a tool to educate children about the importance of preserving the night sky for astronomy and for the protection of wildlife habitats. Moreover, after viewing the galaxies, children will be encouraged to draw or complete dot-to-dot constellations they have seen. Illustrations will be used to help children label and remember night sky “pictures”. Moreover, crayons, paper, and a glow-in-the-dark constellation lacing card will be on-hand for all children. Color pages depicting nocturnal animals, and animals who prefer darkness, will also be available.
The Mountain Trail Challenge half-marathon and 5K race returns to West Virginia’s largest state park on August 13, 2022.
Race, walk, or stroll along beautiful but challenging trails. All ages and levels of athletes are encouraged to participate in this race. Proceeds benefit the park through the Watoga State Park Foundation Inc.
Registration on race day begins on Saturday, August 13, at 6:30 a.m. near the Beaver Creek Campground. Participants are also encouraged to sign up online. Early sign-ups do receive discounts.
The cost of the 5K race registration is $35 until August 7; $40 beginning August 8. Half-Marathon: $55 until August 7; $60 beginning August 8.
The half-marathon begins at 8:30 a.m. and the 5K at 8:40 a.m. Both races will start and end at Watoga’s Beaver Creek Campground. So, it is not too early to explore lodging options here at Watoga State Park or other places to stay or dine.
Mountain Trail Challenge Course Details
Each of the courses weaves throughout the park’s various trail systems. The 13.1-mile half-marathon begins along the road and airstrip to the Allegheny Trail, which passes through the park, then continues along various single-track trails. You’ll climb and descend throughout the course, reaching an elevation of 3,200.
The 3.1 mile 5K race also starts along the grassy airstrip but then turns west into the woods and heads up a ridge through tall pines, hemlock trees, and other hardwoods. Before returning to the grassy airstrip, you’ll make your way through a lovely stretch of rhododendrons along Beaver Creek.
Volunteers will cheer you on along the trails and other unexpected places, staffing first-aid stations and providing needed hydration. An after-race cookout is planned as well.
Participants will be welcomed at the finish line with a post-race celebration that includes awards in each race for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd overall, male and female, plus 1st and 2nd in each age group, male and female.
Logistical details for Watoga State Park’s 7th Annual Mountain Trail Challenge Races were released today. The 5K and half-marathon MTC races are slated for Saturday, August 13 at Beaver Creek Campground, according to Maureen Conley, Race Chairperson.
“We’re excited to once again host his one-of-a-kind race,” said Conley. “Each race attracts running enthusiasts who enjoy the shaded canopy provided by Watoga’s wooded mountain trails. Racers often tell us that we’re a unique course and one of a kind in the U.S.”
When: Online registration check-in and race day registration begins at 7 a.m., August 13. First, the half-marathon starts promptly at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. Then, the 5k kicks off at 8:40 a.m., ending at 2 p.m. T-shirts commemorating racers’ journey are provided as well as unique prizes and trophies for top finishers.
Where: Watoga State Park, Beaver Creek Campground
What: Two mountain trail races: The 13.1 mile half-marathon includes two hills, one with 640 feet of elevation gain, the other 420 feet. The 3.1 mile 5K has about 325 feet of elevation gain. Both races start and finish at the Beaver Creek Campground.
The 7th Annual Mountain Trail Challenge Races are sponsored by the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. All race proceeds are used for projects at the park. Your donation may be tax-deductible.
The recent designation of New River Gorge as a national park brings to mind other possibly worthy parks in the Southern Appalachians.
With some 339 state parks in the states of the Blue Ridge coverage area, there are at least a few in the mountains with enough size and superlatives to attract “national” attention.
Let’s explore seven of them. Read more about the other six at https://blueridgecountry.com/
West Virginia: Watoga State Park
While sitting around the campfire with darkness filling the forests, prepare yourself for what happens next in the state’s largest park. For a hint, consider the First Nation name, Watoga, which means “starry waters.” The first surprise is celestial and occurs in “one of the largest and darkest skysheds within the eastern United States”: a universal light show. At this location you can see galaxies, planets, constellations and our own Milky Way. This vast experience recently earned Watoga and Official Dark Sky status in 2021; a designation with rigorous standards only awarded to 60 locations in the country.
“Starry” wonders also happen closer to the ground. For only a few weeks during the year, a rare sparkling light show is performed by synchronous fireflies. Their claim to fame is rhythmically blinking together in time and intensity as well as displays of “wave” lights trailing through the forest. There are only a few species, of the 2,000 on the planet, who synchronize their bioluminescence. These “habitat specialist” lightning bugs need moist forests at high elevations (and serious darkness) to perform their stunning displays. The ecosystems here are ideal; and the park has earned a special designation for this nature-based light spectacle as well.
For daylight adventures, learn about the life of a Revolutionary War hero, Anne Bailey; stand beside 300-year-old trees; run a half-marathon trial race (yes, that’s 13 miles—but what a scenic route!); and, join hundreds of Watoga State Park Foundation nature programs.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (a program in FDR’s New Deal) built roads, trails, walls and cabins. The latter, with native stone, pine and chestnut plus modern renovations are available for overnight stays along with 100 camp sites.
10,100 acres Established 1937 wvstateparks.com/park/watoga-state-park
Article used with permission of Blue Ridge Country magazine, from its May/June 2022 issue. For subscription information: blueridgecountry.com
It started as a typical summer at Watoga State Park. But it began and ended as the summer with Tog.
There were seven of us hired for the summer jobs. Several of us had been there the earlier summer or two, and we knew each other. The others were new. We were all about the same age—some were college students, and others were local—just a typical beginning to the summer.
We usually had wild animal babies to raise. Well-intentioned tourists would “rescue” a baby animal, not realizing the mother was probably just gone for a short while. Fawns were the most common as we usually ended up with at least one every summer. One summer we had Mamie, the groundhog, Phoebe, the raccoon. But that’s another story.
This particular summer we had two fox pups — Ruff and Ready. One day they disappeared along with Mr. Park, the park superintendent. When he reappeared, he was accompanied by a small black bear cub. We named him Watoga — Tog for short. Mr. Park had taken the fox pups to the game farm and exchanged them for a bear cub!
A “Park” Loves a Bear and Tog Loves a “Park” Back
Tog quickly became the darling of the park. He had a very large dog kennel cage in a shaded corner of the staff parking lot. In the daytime, we hooked his leash to the clothesline between the supply house and the administration building and he had a wheelbarrow filled with water that he could play in.
Mr. Park loved that bear. Not only would he take Tog in his truck as he made his rounds through the park but it was not unusual to see a bear sitting in the passenger seat as he drove around. The two of them usually ended up at the swimming pool where Tog would swim in the kiddie pool.
In the afternoons, Tog liked to nap in the lounge chair in Mr. Park’s office. Unsuspecting park guests would think he was a dog when they came in. Frequently, they would ask about wild animals in the park. Mr. Park would name the various animals they might see and then casually wave his hand at the chair and say “and we have a bear.” Many a park guest did a doubletake at their first meeting of Tog!
We hand-fed Tog warm milk from a 2-liter bottle. Sometimes, we would be feeding Tog from a bottle in one hand and Flag, the “rescued” fawn that summer, with a bottle in the other hand. They didn’t know they were supposed to be enemies.
Popsicles, Soda Pop, and a Water Hose
Tog developed a fondness for popsicles and soda pop — both of which were sold in the commissary. We would warn guests not to get too close to Tog with either of those items because Tog would just reach out and take them. We tried to be outside when guests were around because they didn’t believe how quickly that paw could reach out or how long the claws were.
Tog also loved to play with the hose. In the afternoons, we would play “keep away” with him. We usually ended up soaked as Tog would grab the hose and chase us with it.
At night, whenever we returned from a movie or the rec center or wherever we had been, we would try to tiptoe past Tog’s kennel without waking him. It never worked. He would wake up and cry like the baby he was. So we would have to go to the kitchen and heat a bottle for him, and then he would go back to sleep, and so could we.
The End of That Summer With Tog
But the end of the summer had come.
Flag was not a problem. The park took “rescued” fawns to their home on the other side of the mountain where they could keep them safe or at least try to keep them safe from hunters. But Tog was a different story. He had to go back to the game farm. This was in 1959 — a different time in the care of animals. Of course, it’s also a good lesson on why wild animals should be raised as wild animals, not as pets. Tog, who had been a pet with all kinds of freedom all summer long, suddenly was confined to a pen with all his freedoms gone.
Eventually, Tog became a mean and dangerous bear. Mr. Park visited whenever he could and Tog always remembered him. In spite of the rangers’ warnings that it wasn’t safe, Mr. Park would go into the cage and he and Tog would greet each other like the old friends that they were.
I visited Tog several times. It was hard to believe that that big prowling bear was the adorable little cub we had hand-fed and played with for one memorable summer — the summer with Tog.
About the Author
Susan Higginbotham worked at Watoga the summers of 1957-1960. She lived upstairs over the kitchen and office with the other girls who all worked in the restaurant and also in the commissary.
Of her experiences with Tog and Watoga, Susan says “I loved Tog. I’ve always loved animals and Tog was just special to me. I had two pictures Mr. Park sent me. They were of me with Tog. I carried them in my billfold for years. When my billfold was stolen, I was devastated over the loss of those two pictures. All these years later, I can’t remember anything else that was lost. Just those pictures.
“I lived at home and went to college. Those summers at Watoga were my growing-up time. They were a great experience. As I look back on it now, I realize that I should have been a forester or a naturalist in some way but those weren’t considered ‘women’s work’ at the time. I loved every minute of my time at Watoga. Mr. and Mrs. Park were like surrogate parents. Watoga was a great place and Tog was part of it.”
Tog died in 1979.
From time to time, Susan retells stories from those memorable summers at Watoga. After college, she became a schoolteacher and now lives about 30 minutes from Chicago.
Ah, those summertime sights, sounds, and smells entice many people to visit Watoga each year. This summer was no different.
From the children splashing about in the pool’s crystal-clear water to a family of deer meandering alongside a mountain stream, there’s always something to fill your senses in this 10,000-acre park.
Wildlife, Back to Nature, and Dark Skies
Raccoons, bats, and owls highlight the summertime night sights and sounds, but the dark skies alone are worth a visit to Watoga. Here, you can see the Milky Way along with other galaxies, planets, and constellations. You can even “wish upon a star!” And don’t forget to chase or catch a lightning bug or two during your summertime visit!
Roads less traveled, where to find them and why they’re worth it.
Reprinted with permission from Blue Ridge Country magazine’s September/October 2021 issue. For subscription and other information on the magazine, please go to blueridgecountry.com.
One of my favorite pastimes when I was at college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains was hopping in the car and just driving. Any backroad was fair game. I “discovered” small ponds with baby geese; old-timey stores with giant wheels of cheese under glass domes; service stations where they washed your windshield; unimproved mountain roads where the quietness was vast; and, roadside stands of produce where an overall-clad fella would tell me all about this year’s tomato crop and how his honeybees were doing.
In tandem with these mini-journeys it happened…I read the new book “Blue Highways: A Journey into America” by William Least Heat-Moon. The rural roads on my paper maps (picked up at the service station, unfolded once, never to return to their original shape!) were drawn in blue just like the ones used by the author of this now classic book. Somehow, I felt a kindred spirit with his goal of “just paying attention” to the world around him.
And I still wonder where that road goes…
Our featured travelers also explore their blue highways in the Blue Ridge…and that has made all the difference (Robert Frost).
Let’s meet them!
“Let nature take over all your senses,” says John Dean, a writer, journalist and editor. “Backroads trips in and around Watoga State Park are a chance to get reinvigorated and inspired by the amazing discoveries along the way. Watch for black bear or deer roaming through the forest. Fill your lungs with fresh mountain air; hear the sounds of nature at work and stand in places so silent that it can be deafening; visit a pioneer cabin; and, maybe even see a ghost,” he adds with a smile.
Generations of Dean’s family have called this region home. “My grandparents’ 211-acre farm bordered the park. They worked with the CCC to ‘build the park.’ And, my dad worked there for 43 years. One of my uncles was West Virginia’s first-ever game keeper; and another was a founding member of The Watoga State Park Foundation” (where Dean now serves as a member of the board of directors). “And I lived on site for 16-plus years,” he states.
Dean welcomes fellow travelers to experience “the peak months of autumn in nature’s paradise with hues of orange, red and yellow” at a park “so remote that GPS will not find specific directions to it! Once you visit,” he concludes, “you’ll return year after year, especially in the fall. Each autumn when I depart, those rustling leaves whisper my name to return…and I do.”
Reprinted with permission fromHighland Outdoors magazine (www.highland-outdoors.com), Fall 2021 edition, p. 9.
Stargazers, rejoice! Watoga State Park is on its way to becoming an officially recognized Dark Sky Park. Watoga has long been known as one of the darkest and most light-pollution-free areas in Central Appalachia, providing spectacular views of clear night skies.
At 10,000 acres, Watoga will be West Virginia’s first Dark Sky Park. Expected to be included in the designation are Calvin Price State Forest, which adjoins Watoga to the south, and nearby Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Together, the three areas encompass 19,869 acres.
According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a Dark Sky Park (DSP) is “a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.”
As the largest state park in West Virginia, earning the DSP designation would add yet another spectacular feather to Watoga’s cap. The application process began two years ago, culminating in a 99-page application that included detailed measurements of night sky depth by local astronomers and light pollution maps, and resulted in the replacement of 181 outdoor light fixtures and bulbs to be dark sky-compliant.
Watoga Lake, the Anne Bailey trailhead, and other areas in the park should provide scenic nocturnal viewing opportunities for astronomers, tourists, photographers, and visitors. Future plans include educational programs and star parties for dark-sky enthusiasts at Watoga, Droop Mountain, and Calvin Price.
“The [pending] designation will put Watoga on the radar of groups or individuals who seek out dark sky facilities,” said Watoga superintendent Jody Spencer. “Dark skies have always been noticeable at Watoga, where night hikes, nighttime boating, and owl walks are popular activities. I think the real benefit to park guests is the fact that light pollution on the park has been greatly diminished.”
Stay tuned to our website (highland-outdoors.com) for more information on this exciting announcement.
John Dean is a writer and editor who grew up in Watoga in the 1960s. He is an active board member for the Watoga State Park Foundation.
In many ways, the area feels like a second home to me. When I drive into the park and see those trees arch over the road, I exhale and sigh the sigh of being at home and at peace. My experience at the park is rich in years. Anything I can do to make sure that generations who come after me have that same experience, I am ready to lace up my shoes or drive my car as the case may be. I think the main reason I made the drive was and is support for the mission of the Watoga State Park Foundation, and a deep love and respect for the area.
The trip to Watoga was certainly a longish drive. When I mapped it out, it said if I took all interstates it would be about 13.5 or 14 hours with no stops, but I decided to make a longer trip of it and take all blue roads (U.S. highways and state highways).
This extended things to about 20 hours of driving time and about 980 miles each way. I made this a part of my vacation and took two days to make the drive. I am a person who has always liked to drive and take the “scenic route.”
The Challenging Part of the Mountain Trail Challenge
Usually, I always joke with people that one needs to emphasize the “Mountain Trail” and “Challenge” part of the race. It is definitely a very challenging course, and there is a deep feeling of satisfaction to completing the course no matter where you are in the pack. I firmly believe the only way you could actually train for this run is by training full-time on this course. It is always a feeling of accomplishment to complete a half marathon or long-distance run, but I think there is an even greater sense of satisfaction when the course is so challenging.
This actually is my third time doing the race. I ran in 2016, 2017, and now 2021. I should note that before I left the park, I reserved my cabin for 2022.
A funny story: I have always been a bit of a runner, so I was pretty cocky in 2016. Guess what? I got my clock cleaned by the course and was very near the back of the pack in 2016. After that, I pledged that would not happen in 2017, and in 2017 I placed 6th overall. I was a little nervous about being away for four years, but I was only a minute slower this year and placed 7th overall so I figured it wasn’t too bad for four years older.
Forty-Plus Years at Watoga
I checked with my Dad to figure out when we started coming to the park. Our first trip was in the autumn of 1980 for the school system’s fall break. My oldest brother would have been 10, my next brother would have been 8, I would have been two months shy of 4, and my youngest brother was 3 months old.
My parents enjoyed it so much they decided we start doing our one-week Spring Breaks there. Dad believes our first Spring Break was 1982, and with rare exception we went every year. I graduated from high school in 1995, and I spent nearly every spring break there.
When we first started going to the park, it was not open year-round. There were even a couple or three years when our Spring Break was technically before the park opened. In those years, the superintendent gave us special permission to rent a cabin and be in the park. We had the whole park to ourselves! And we would always rent cabin 28 in Pine Run. We are all long since grown, but my parents still go every Spring and rent cabin 28. In fact, when I checked in at the park, the person checking me in asked if I was related to that couple that comes during the Spring every year! I smiled and said, “Those are my parents.”
As I mentioned, I do try to stay connected to the area with a mail subscription to the Pocahontas Times. My parents also have a mail subscription.
Inspired to Run and More . . .
Running is an important part of my spirituality and faith life. In my work a day life, I am the pastor of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I have been serving in Leavenworth for three years as of May 1. As of June 30, I have been ordained 19 years.
Running allows me to fulfill my vocation more fully. In pastoral ministry, it is common to work 60 to 70 hours a week, odd hours, and functionally be on call 24/7. It is the running and attention to my diet that allows me the energy to live the life of a vocational pastor. Also, when a person gets in fairly good shape, you don’t have to really think about moving your arms and legs in concert to run, but the body just takes care of itself. That means in the midst of one’s run, there is time to think, pray, wonder, and ponder during the space of a training run. (Many sermons have been considered and many prayers have been lifted during my runs).
It would be fair to say that I come from a running family. In my childhood, there were times when all six of us of would run races. We tended to be an active and athletic family. Watoga is and was good for us. We would hike almost every day of our one-week stay. There were even some days that were long enough that lunches were packed for the hikes. One day of the week was always spent in Lewisburg though!
A Watoga Spring Break Like None Other
One of the things I vividly remember about our trips is that we would bring lots of books and board games for the evenings. After our week at “the cabin,” as we called it, we could come back home. We would be rested, refreshed, and closer as a family. Many of my classmates would come back to school more tired after Spring Break than when they had left. I felt like we always did things the right way.
Thousands of people visit Watoga State Park to escape urbanity. Others come to hike or run on wooded mountain trails or to experience scenic vistas along with nature’s sights and sounds. But, there’s a unique group of individuals who immerse themselves in the utter calm at Watoga. Throughout the year, they visualize, dream, and create works of art. Thus, at the 4th Annual Watoga Art in the Park this Labor Day weekend, art and nature come together. Talented artists, artisans, musicians, and photographers will take center stage.
The free event features hands-on workshops, juried fine arts and crafts, live music, and of course, food.
Artisans, Musicians, and Food Too at Watoga Art in the Park
This year’s festival spotlights six workshops. There will be Wood Turning, Clay Birdhouses, Exploring the Cosmos, Fused Glass, Pendant Making, and a Kid’s Corner with crafts and activities for children. However, children must be accompanied by an adult. Watoga State Park Naturalist Kayla Bowyer will lead discovery hikes on Saturday and Sunday.
Music by Jim Snyder begins at 11:00 a.m. Saturday. Trash Fairie, a ukulele group, performs at 2:00 p.m. Sunday’s musical entertainment also includes a performance by Uncle Gary and the Porch Pickers at 2:00 p.m.
“We are thrilled to again offer visitors and residents alike a unique event to enjoy,” said Laura Finch, president of the Board of Directors of Experience the Arts, Inc., a 501(c)(3) organization. “The focus of this year’s event is on local artists and artisans.” Last minute registrants can contact watogaartinthepark at gmail.com.
An added bonus to Watoga Art in the Park is the variety of food selections.
“We are especially excited for the food offerings this year, with a full spread of nibbles and nosh from Sally Cobb, including her world-famous chicken and sausage gumbo, shrimp etouffee over rice, along with veggie (and meat lovers) burgers and dogs,” said Finch.
Watoga annually hosts this popular and ever-expanding arts and crafts extravaganza the first weekend each September. The two-day festival is at the park’s picnic area, close to the swimming pool. Look for the Watoga Art in the Park logo on signs at Seebert Road/U.S. 219 or from the northern part of the park on Beaver Creek Road before you get to the campground.