This Party’s Just Getting Started!

This party is ready to celebrate designation as West Virginia's first-ever dark sky park at a star watching party on September 2 at Droop Mountain Lookout Tower. This scene illustrates the different moon phases at a recent lunar eclipse. © Jill Mullins.
This party is ready to celebrate designation as West Virginia’s first-ever dark sky park at a star watching party on September 2 at Droop Mountain Lookout Tower. This scene illustrates the different moon phases at a recent lunar eclipse. 📸©: Jill Mullins.

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.”

The Watoga State Park Foundation, is the event’s sponsor. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, promoting recreation, conservation, ecology, history and the natural resources of the park.

The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. Is Watoga State Park worthy of national park status? 📸: Jesse Thornton.
The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. 📸©: Jesse Thornton.

“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.

7th Annual Mountain Trail Challenge Returns

The Seventh Annual Mountain Trail Challenge offers running enthusiasts a choice of two courses and two races -- a half-marathon and a 5K.
The Seventh Annual Mountain Trail Challenge offers running enthusiasts a choice of two courses and two races — a half-marathon and a 5K.

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.

For more information, please visit the race website.

If you have any questions about the Mountain Trail Challenge races, contact " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Maureen Conley, Race Chairperson.

State Parks Worthy Of National Park Status?

The recent designation of New River Gorge as a national park brings to mind other possibly worthy parks in the Southern Appalachians.

The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. Is Watoga State Park worthy of national park status? 📸:  Jesse Thornton.
The grandeur of the Milky Way as seen on a clear night at Watoga Lake. Is Watoga State Park worthy of national park status? 📸: Jesse Thornton.

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

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.

Historical Notes

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

Article used with permission of Blue Ridge Country magazine, from its May/June 2022 issue. For subscription information:



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

John Dean's backroads take him to the dark skies of Watoga State Park, West Virginia. Here, he provides Insider Tips regarding the park.Photo by Jesse Thornton.
John Dean’s backroads take him to the dark skies of Watoga State Park, West Virginia.
Photo by Jesse Thornton.


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.

The Anne Bailey Lookout Tower is in Watoga State Park. The Insider Tips are provided by John Dean. Photo by Brian Hirt.
The Anne Bailey Lookout Tower is in Watoga State Park.
Photo by Brian Hirt.

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.”

Top Fall Drive Picks:
• U.S. 219 or SR 39 to Watoga State Park
• SR 92 through the adjacent Calvin Price State Forest
More info:;

John Dean travels with Jack and Max (standing). Photo by Donna Dilley.
John Dean travels with Jack and Max (standing).
Photo by Donna Dille

Watoga State Park Prepares To Go Dark

Reprinted with permission from Highland Outdoors magazine (, 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.

Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Photo by Jill Mullins.
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park. Photo by Jill Mullins.

“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 ( 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.

Watoga Art in the Park Features Artisans, Workshops, and More!

Watoga art in the Park logo

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

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.

Mountain Trail Challenge Race Photos at Watoga State Park

Even though the weather was not perfect for the 6th Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races, runners young and old alike turned out to take on the “challenge” of the 5K Run/Walk and Half-Marathon.

Photos of Watoga State Park Mountain Trail Challenge Races
Most importantly, they’re off at Watoga’s Sixth Annual Mountain Trail Challenge Races. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Runners gather steam for Watoga's Mountain Trail Challenge.
Meanwhile, determination appears on the faces of half-marathoners at Watoga State Park. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Mountain Trail Challenge
Now, through the woods of the Mountain Trail Challenge we go. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Mountain Trail Challenge Runners go by lush ferns along the course.
Furthermore, along the trails at Watoga State Park is a plethora of flora and fauna for runners and hikers alike. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Without doubt, the moss and ferns welcomed the much-needed rain. However, we’re not so sure about the runners. Photo by Brian Hirt.

And the Mountain Trail Challenge
Continues . . .

During the races, fist-bumps are often seen between volunteers and runners. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Despite the weather, the smiles came out in full force. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Near the picnic shelter at Watoga State Park, this runner sprints toward an aid station.
Evidently, the refreshments and nutrition will be very useful in a second. Photo by Daniel Flores.
In spite of thunder, lightning, and torrential rain, this runner weathered the storm. Photo by Peggy Owens.
Certainly, there are many thumbs up to all the runners who show up year-after-year for the Mountain Trail Challenge races. Photo by Brian Hirt.
Strategically placed aid stations help runners to endure the “challenging” race. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Aha, the finish line at last! Photo by Peggy Owens.
Obviously, we took your photo. How did the one of us turn out? Photo by Peggy Owens.
Watoga State Park welcomes this young lady to the races!
No words needed. Photo by Daniel Flores.
Weather aside, warm and friendly smiles ruled the day. Photo by Daniel Flores.

Until Next Year . . .

Watoga State Park Foundation canopy.
Two Foundation board members await confirmation that all runners have safely traversed the courses. And planning is already underway for next year’s Mountain Trail Challenge races. Photo by Peggy Owens.

5K and Half Marathon Stage Almost Set to Welcome Runners to Watoga

5K and Half-Marathon signs going up at Watoga.

The stage is almost set for the Sixth Annual Watoga State Park Mountain Challenge Races. Saturday’s races will feature runners from Virginia to California and across the United States. Because of Watoga’s unique racecourses, 5K and Half Marathon enthusiasts come from across the U.S.

Race Day morning temperature will be a comfortable 63 degrees. Talk about ideal running conditions! Meteorologists currently predict afternoon temperatures of 84 degrees. There’s a 39 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in nearby Hillsboro. However, at Watoga, it should be five to 10 degrees cooler along this challenging and hilly route.

As you drive into the park, race signs, strategically placed to “get your attention,” will direct you to the Beaver Creek Campground. You also may notice deer out grazing so early in a mist-filled morning.

From 6:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., Race Day entrants can complete the registration process near the Beaver Creek Campground. Whether you’ve registered online or are waiting until that morning, don’t worry. Our volunteer teams will assist you.

All race proceeds benefit Watoga State Park. Any donations may be tax-deductible.

Because of the unavailability of Internet services, only cash or checks are accepted. Moreover, if you have never been to Watoga, please print your directions or save them to your mobile device prior to leaving. You will not have internet-based map directions for the entire trip to the park.

Along the 5K and Half Marathon Courses . . .

Along the half marathon route, runners will traverse through a 13.1-mile adventure. Elevations will range from 2,560 feet to 3,200 feet. Six aid stations staffed by volunteers providing nutrition and essential hydration to runners. The 5K will have one aid station situation mid-way in the 3.1-mile course.

Serious looks are on the faces of the half marathon runners as they are ready to take on a challenging 13.1-mile course at Watoga State Park's Half Marathon and 5k Races. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.
Half Marathon runners are ready to take on Watoga’s challenging 13.1-mile course. Photo by the Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

This year’s tread (the surface runners feel underfoot) is in the best shape ever! Importantly, continuous and necessary work during the past six years has resulted in steady improvements to prevent erosion and tread wear.

Communications teams, rescue personnel, and emergency response squads will be in various locations throughout the park.

Photographers will be documenting your journey, your smiles, and even a grimace or two as you leave sweat behind.

The half marathon starts promptly at 8:30, followed by the 5K with both slated to end at 2 p.m. A cookout and an awards ceremony will be at the Beaver Creek Campground airstrip.

Race organizers, event planners, volunteers, and park personnel will be following protocol recommended by the Centers for Disease Control as well as local and state health guidelines. You can review current guidelines issued by the CDC. Additional COVID information will be provided in the pre-race meeting.

Watoga State Park and the Foundation are looking forward to welcoming you to the Watoga Mountain Trail Races. See you Saturday!

Online Registration for 5K and Half-Marathon Races Ends Soon!

Attention All Runners: Online registration for the Mountain Trail Challenge 5K and Half-Marathon Races ends in two days! Please click here to complete your sign up before 11:59 p.m., Saturday, August 7. After August 7, you can still register in-person on Race Day, August 14. Just follow the signs to the airfield near the Beaver Creek Campground.

Are you ready to run? Online registration deadline is fast approaching. Sign up today!
Are you ready to run? The online registration deadline for the 5K and Half-Marathon races is fast approaching. Sign up today!

As the largest state park in West Virginia at 10,000-plus acres and more than 40-miles of trails, Watoga State Park is the ideal spot for a late summer half-marathon and 5K. In the half-marathon, runners will traverse through some of the most majestic surroundings in the eastern U.S. Additionally, temperatures in mid-August tend to run on the hot side. Moreover, Watoga runners will be surrounded by a canopy of trees and greens on its half-marathon and 5K courses.

5K and Half-Marathon Specifics

Half-Marathon and 5K Races: August 14, Watoga State Park, 4800 Watoga Road, Marlinton, WV 24954. Follow the signs for Beaver Creek Campground. First up is the Half- Marathon. It begins promptly at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. Furthermore, the 5K starts at 8:40 a.m., ending at 2 p.m.

View the Mountain Trail Challenge Half-Marathon course map. Here’s the route for the 5K.

Great Places to Stay and Eat!

You can explore lodging options at the park and other places to stay or dine.

Please note that for Race Day registrants, due to the unavailability of Internet services, only cash or checks can be accepted. Also, if you have never been to Watoga, please print your directions or save them to your mobile device prior to leaving home. You will not have internet-based map directions for the entire trip to the park.

See you on Race Day at Watoga, where its many wonders await you on shaded and wooded mountain trails!