The Top 10 Things To Do At Watoga State Park — Part 2

A log cabin build by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the early 1930s is nestled neatly again a backdrop of tall tress as spring and green begins to emerge in 2021. Cabin 34 - the "Honeymoon Cabin," is a Top 10 choice for newlyweds. 📸: John C. Dean
Cabin 34 – the “Honeymoon Cabin,” is also Top 10 choice for newlyweds. Photo by John C. Dean.

In Part One of the Top 10 Things to Do at Watoga State Park, we utilized a musical theme. This blog has a historical angle. This list is not ranked in any particular order.

Stay at a Historic Cabin or at One of Three Campgrounds — A Top 10 Must-Do

To fully enjoy what Watoga offers as the state’s largest park, plan on staying several days or a week or two at one of its 34 cabins or at one of 100 camp sites.

Experience a rustic cabin built with pine and chestnut logs in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Legacy cabins utilized native stone for foundations, chimneys, and fireplaces. All cabins have undergone extensive renovations and updates to kitchens, bathrooms and fixtures, except for Cabins 16 and 19 (Vacation cabins). Classic cabins (Cabins 3, 8-9, 14-15, 18, 28, and 33) feature various room layouts and bedroom options. If you’ve never stayed in a cabin at Watoga, this should be on your Top 10 list.

Interior of a Legacy Cabin (Cabin No. 11) highlights new furniture and interior upgrades. A fireplace takes center state as does the wood work and hewn logs from the 1930s.Photo by John Dean.
Interior of a Legacy Cabin (Cabin No. 11) retains both its historic charm almost 90 years after being built, and has upgraded amenities.
Photo by John C. Dean.

Moreover, for camping enthusiasts who prefer a more rugged experience, you can “rough” it at Laurel Run Primitive Campground. But, the Beaver Creek and Riverside campgrounds have more modern conveniences with electric hookups, laundry centers, and bathhouses.

From the Riverside Campground, you can cast a line into the Greenbrier River or hike on the 78-mile Greenbrier River Trail.

Bordering Beaver Creek Campground is Calvin Price State Forest. Enjoy a nature-filled hike in the eastern part of this 9,500-acre forest along the Allegheny Trail. Meanwhile, you may hunt with the proper license.

Joggers along road at Beaver Creek Campground.  Photo by Watoga State Park Foundation.
Joggers along road at Beaver Creek Campground. Photo by Watoga State Park Foundation.

Locations: Cabins are in strategic locations of the park. Beaver Creek Campground is just past the park’s north entrance. Riverside Campground is near the River Cabin Area, close to Seebert. The Primitive Campground is off of Kennison Run Trail.

Watoga’s Dark Skies

How dark are the skies here? Really, really dark. The pitch blackness envelopes you, making it difficult to see the person standing right beside you. Admire the Milky Way Galaxy, other constellations, Supermoons and a sky unlike any you’ve ever seen before. Scientists estimate the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

On a clear night at Watoga State Park, the 11-acre lake sits below the Milky Way Galaxy. A Top 10 Dark Sky of the Milky Way Galaxy over Watoga Lake on a clear night. Photo by Jesse Thornton©
A Top 10 Dark Sky of the Milky Way Galaxy over Watoga Lake during a clear night. Photo by Jesse Thornton©.

There are so many stars, you’ll have difficulty choosing which ones to wish upon. Catch a glimpse of one of the 13 astronomical zodiac constellations depending on the time of year. For even more amazing sights, bring your binoculars or telescope to focus on a definite Top 10 favorite. Stay tuned for potential history-making news about Watoga’s dark skies.

Just look up while you’re here.

Locations: All around you.

The Swimming Pool

After exploring the park’s many trails and scenic overlooks, you can take a break at the swimming pool, the first-ever built at a state park. It’s also the last major project completed by CCC workers in 1940. Notice the stonework as you walk up the steps to the main entrance to the pool.

Once there, relax, grab a bite to eat at the snack bar, or complete a few laps as the children enjoy the water slide. The main pool’s depth ranges from three feet to eight feet, with a separate wading area for toddlers. While the water was brisk in year’s past, it is much warmer now thanks to solar panels.

A nice summer day greets a young visitor as he slides down the slide. Youngsters always list the pool in their Top 10. Photo by Stanley Clark©.
Without doubt, youngsters list the pool in their Top 10. Photo by Stanley Clark©.

Location: Next door to Cabin No. 20, near the Activities Center.

Lightning Bugs — An Enlightening Top 10

Remember when you were younger and chased after lightning bugs as soon as darkness fell? You may still want to do so. We know your children will, especially at Watoga where different species of those mesmerizing lightning bugs thrive. We think the fascination with lightning bugs is a perennial mainstay of the Top 10 things to do at Watoga.

Recently, the Division of Natural Resources confirmed the existence of a colony of synchronous fireflies in a still-secretive location. Time will tell if Watoga will be the next Great Smoky Mountains National Park for firefly watching. However, there could be a firefly festival in the Watoga’s future. One state expert thinks that Watoga and West Virginia may become the new lightning bug capital of the U.S.

In a secluded area at Watoga, a synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) pauses before liftoff to search for a mate. Photo by Tiffany Beachy©.
A synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) pauses before liftoff to search for a mate. Photo by Tiffany Beachy©.

Likewise, we’ll be releasing more details about this Watoga wonder in June’s issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

Location: Almost everywhere in the park you can see different species of fireflies. But the location of the synchronous fireflies will not be revealed until a conservation management plan is put into place at Watoga to protect their habitat.

Have A Top 10 Get Together With Friends And Family

Watoga gets you away from it all. You can feel the stress melt away. So take a walk. Enjoy your surroundings. Listen to how quiet it is. Relax.

Since Watoga’s opening in 1937, it’s been a place to get together [link to book maybe] For decades, families have held family reunions and picnics at many different places in the park.

Presently, the remodeled Activities Center, is the new gathering place for weddings, receptions, birthday parties, meetings, and more.

The brown sided wood building at 2,100 square feet is atop a hill not far from the swimming pool. This is a photo in the early fall of 2020.
With more than 2,100 square feet available, the former Rec Hall building (now the Activity Center) hosts a variety of events. Photo by John Dean.

Locations: Pick your spot in the expanse of 10,100 acres.

Create Your Own Top 10 At Watoga

When you visit Watoga, immerse yourself in a bygone era, complete with today’s modern amenities. Create your Top 10 (or 50), make lifelong memories, and catch a lightning bug or a shooting star. Relax and sit around the campfire roasting marshmallows. Maybe later tell a captivating ghost story or two. The dazzling display of lightning bugs and star-filled skies are awaiting your arrival at Watoga.

Then when you are home, let us know what your Top 10 things to do at Watoga are.

About the Author

For his first 16 years, John C. Dean lived in the park. Even today, he’s fascinated by the hypnotic display of majestic lightning bugs. John’s inspiration to be a writer came from many nights looking upward at Watoga’s dark sky treasures. Recently, he was elected to the Watoga State Park Foundation’s Board of Directors, but will continue writing about park news and its history. You can reach John at .

Watoga Dark Sky Good for Bats

Watoga dark sky good for bats. Cindy Sandeno, District Ranger of the Marlinton/White Sulphur Springs Ranger District, visited Watoga State Park this past Saturday evening to teach an assembled group of campers, park employees and other interested parties why we need bats, and why they now need us. Sandeno discussed light pollution and how bats and humans can benefit by installing downlight fixtures.

Cindy Sandeno discusses bat house with workshop participants at Watoga State Park, a would be Dark Sky Park

Cindy, whose background includes managing regionally threatened, endangered, and sensitive species for the Forest Service spoke about the diminishing population of bats throughout the country and the profound effects that spell for the environment and agriculture.

As the National Cave and Karst Coordinator for the Forest Service, and her experience spelunking in the U.S. and Mexico, she has a deep appreciation for the plight of these fascinating creatures who silently do so much for us.

It’s a thankless job being a bat when you consider that most people still regard them as they did in the Middle Ages; as vermin of the night whose only purpose is to spread disease and worse. Many associate bats with witches and vampires, and as creepy creatures who enjoy becoming entangled in our hair – not a problem for me, of course.

In truth, bats are pollinators, they are distributors of seeds, and they are estimated to save $3.7 to $53 billion dollars per year as non-toxic pest control agents. And, if you take the time to learn about bats, you will learn that they are wonderful parents of their young and, all in all, bats are quite cute.

Watoga Dark Sky Good for Bats

Many bat species are threatened by diseases such as White Nose Syndrome that is responsible for the death of 5.7 million bats since 2006. On top of that, much of their habitat is at threat due to light pollution. Watoga State Park is a candidate Dark Sky Park and is a favorable bat habitat.

But you can help save these beneficial critters just educating yourself, friends, and family members about bats. Bat Week is designated from October 24th to the 31st every year.

I was definitely motivated by Cindy’s presentation; so much so that I decided to build a bat house.

A great way to learn more about bats is to visit the Project EduBat at

First Energy contributes to Watoga Dark Sky Project

First Energy contributes to Watoga Dark Sky Project. On July 28th, 2020 Watoga State Park Foundation received a $5000 grant from First Energy for the Dark Sky Project to cover the cost of light fixture replacements in the park.

L - R   Wayne Pollard - Foundation board member,  Jody Spencer - Watoga State Park Superintendent, John Norman - First Energy Foundation, Mary Dawson - Foundation board member, Louanne Fatora - Foundation board member.
L – R   Wayne Pollard – Foundation board member,  Jody Spencer – Watoga State Park Superintendent, John Norman – First Energy Foundation, Mary Dawson – Foundation board member, Louanne Fatora – Foundation board member.

What can you do to reduce your impact on light pollution? Install fully shielded downlight fixtures at your house. These fixtures direct light downward, rather than out to the side and up into the sky. Fixtures need to have light bulbs that are less than 3000 kelvins (color temperature) and 800 lumens (brightness). Disconnecting dusk to dawn lights will better preserve the dark sky. An alternative to dusk to dawn lights is installing motion sensor flood lights.

Watoga State Park Dark Skies

Watoga State Park, in Pocahontas County West Virginia is located in one of the darkest regions in the East, with very little light pollution. Light pollution has detrimental affects on the natural life cycles of many animal and insect species as well as human health. Since 2018, Foundation members Mary Dawson and Louanne Fatora have been working on implementing the guidelines established by the International Dark Sky Association to certify Watoga as an IDA certified park. One major portion of the certification process is to convert the existing light fixtures and bulbs in the entire park to be dark sky friendly. At this time, a great majority of the fixtures have been purchased and installed for the cabins, campgrounds, administration building, pool and activity hall.

First Energy contributes to Watoga Dark Sky Project. Board members express their gratitude to First Energy for their generous support of Watoga State Park Foundation and our Dark Sky Project.

Synchronous Fireflies, “They Lit Up the Woods Like a Christmas Tree”

Synchronous Fireflies

Photo of synchronous firefly
Synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus) Courtesy of Tiffany Beachy

This story, like most, has a backstory. What follows is how something extraordinary was recently discovered in Watoga State Park.

A little over a year ago Mack Frantz, a zoologist with West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, was informed by a retired biologist from the same agency that she had observed a rare firefly, a lightning bug if you prefer, within Watoga State Park. She even provided geographic coordinates of where her sighting took place.

A small group of people led by USDA biologist Tiffany Beachy that included Sam Parker from Droop Mountain State Park Mary Dawson of the Dark Sky Park initiative and I hiked out to the location at 10 pm on a clear evening in mid-June of this year. After 20 minutes or so, we were treated to a sight unlike anything we had ever seen.

Suddenly, countless fireflies, all flashing simultaneously, lit up the forest like a string of Christmas lights. As fast as the display of bioluminescent lights had started, they stopped, and in perfect unison.

It’s official now, Watoga State Park has a population of synchronous fireflies.

Never heard of a synchronous firefly? That’s not so unusual, neither did I until this summer. But the appeal of these insects is extraordinary, and they may mean a lot more to the park and Pocahontas County as a whole, than we may think.

Unique Fireflies

So, what are synchronous fireflies, and why are they such a big deal?

Mack Frantz describes the synchronous firefly, as, “unique among most fireflies in that males synchronize their flashing displays to rhythmically repeat ‘flash trains.’ Flash-trains are a species-specific group of flashes reported at regular intervals.”

Photo of WV DNR zoologist Mack Frantz
Mack Frantz, WV DNR zoologist, and friend, “We want to make the fireflies accessible to the public without harming them.” Courtesy of Mack Frantz

This virtuoso display of aerial light by the male is meant to attract a female mate on the ground and lasts from one to three hours each night through the relatively short mating season.

“Males do not live long, so the displays only last a few weeks. Additionally, synchronous fireflies are habitat specialists, typically requiring high elevation moist forests. That means you have to be in the right place and time to find them.” Said Mack.

Mack said that Watoga State Park is one of only two populations confirmed in West Virginia on public lands as of this summer. He added that “The WV Department of Natural Resources will be working closely with state and federal partners to determine the best way to conserve and manage this species. That would include making the park’s population publicly accessible for viewing without disturbing the species.”

Another condition that is a must for maintaining a population of synchronous fireflies is a minimal amount of artificial light; they thrive in the darkest locations.

“Synchronous fireflies are highly sensitive to light pollution such as that from flashlights or vehicle headlights. The State Parks and Wildlife Diversity unit of West Virginia DNR will coordinate best-management practices for guided walks that permit public viewing of synchronous fireflies with minimal impact. “added Mack.

Dark Sky

It is a fortunate coincidence that Watoga State Park entered upon a project to become qualified for a dark sky designation in 2019, a mere year before the synchronous fireflies were discovered in the park.

Louanne Fatora of the Watoga State Park Foundation, who, along with Mary Dawson, is spearheading this initiative, says, “The discovery of the synchronous firefly bolsters our efforts to establish Watoga State Park as a certified International Dark Sky Park.

Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest, comprise 20,000 acres of habitat that will gain protection from artificial light pollution.”

Loss of habitat for the synchronous firefly can be mitigated with this designation, a critical factor in maintaining healthy populations.

“Synchronous firefly populations have been declining, and they are the only species in America that synchronize flashing light patterns. So it is crucial that we guard their forested, dark sky habitat for future generations of visitors to Watoga State Park.” Says Louanne.

Based upon the experience of other parks in the eastern United States that have populations of synchronous fireflies, there is considerable public demand to view their flashing displays.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee is a perfect example of the popularity of these fireflies. Before park officials controlled the viewing sites, hundreds of cars were coming into the park each evening during the relatively short mating period.

As would be expected, the people were parking anywhere they could and trampling through the sensitive areas with flashlights, endangering both the females on the ground and interrupting the flash cycles of the males with their flashlights.

In 2015 park officials created a lottery system and closed the main road into the public viewing areas. During the eight nights of regulated public viewing, 800 to 1000 people are shuttled into the sites per night.

In 2019 there were 29,000 applications to see the fireflies and far fewer openings, further demonstrating the popularity of synchronous fireflies. *

The experience in the Smokies and other locations with fireflies presents a clear implication for us here in Pocahontas County – How are we going to handle the expected influx of visitors to view the synchronous fireflies?

How this considerable problem is to be managed rests entirely upon one individual, Jody Spencer, superintendent of Watoga State Park.

When I talked to Jody, he was clearly excited about the discovery of the synchronous fireflies in the park. So much so, he was not only out there watching them on numerous evenings with his family, he found another population of the fireflies in a different part of the park. **

Jody said, “We want the public to have the opportunity to see these marvelous creatures and do it in a way that will ensure the continuation of their populations at Watoga State Park.

Public access will require certain restrictions and guidelines to protect the fireflies. And, there are a number of considerations beyond that, such as concerns for the evening quietude and darkness that the guests in the cabins come here for.”

Managing a park with a variety of resources and activities is a balancing act for park superintendents. Be assured, Jody and his staff will develop a plan that works well for a public eager to see this extraordinary event of light and protect the fireflies at the same time.

The expected increase of new visitors to Pocahontas County to view the night sky and see the light-show of the synchronous fireflies has the potential to bring more folks to our area. After all, we don’t call our county Nature’s Mountain Playground for nothing.

To look at the broader picture of what these marvelous fireflies might mean to Pocahontas County, we need to get some input from the one person who knows best how to make it work as a popular attraction, not only for Watoga State Park but the county as a whole.

Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau

Having already partnered with the Watoga State Park Foundation on the Dark Sky Park initiative, Cara Rose, Executive Director of the Pocahontas County CVB was thrilled to hear about the discovery of the synchronous fireflies at Watoga.

She took the time to call me while on vacation last week and said that the two programs, dark skies, and the synchronous fireflies, dovetail with each other in ways that can significantly benefit the park and local businesses. “After all, the wonders of nature are our product here in Pocahontas County,” Cara said.

Cara offered the support of the CVB in marketing the opportunities for public viewing of the fireflies, saying, “I see it as an opportunity to make use of something extraordinary that enhances what we already have here in Pocahontas County.

I hear it from visitors and locals all of the time, “I love it here in Pocahontas County; it is a special place.” Now, we can add one more item to the list of things that make it unique – Synchronous fireflies.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,