By Stephen Smoot
Only two hours away from Brandywine, on the eastern edge of Pendleton County, sit the heavily populated suburban cities of Northern Virginia. Almost every night brings either a featureless dark sky or varying shades of orange tinged with black or gray as they reflect the lights from below.
The night sky over most of eastern West Virginia, however, radiates the star-studded sky in all of its glory. Bright stars and planets dot the firmament, bisected by the soft glowing band of the Milky Way Galaxy.
While most in the region may take an unobstructed view of a brilliant night sky for granted, over most of the eastern United States, such a sight has become a rare privilege. According to the International Dark Sky Association, or IDA, modern industrial civilization produces a side effect of light pollution. Light pollution can come from exterior and even interior lighting, as well as advertising, street light, illuminated outdoor sporting venues, and more.
Experts call the resulting sky with varying levels of artificial illumination “skyglow.” According to the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, four out of five people worldwide, including 99% of those living in Europe and the United States, do not have a consistently clear view of the night sky.
Astronomer David Burnham told West Virginia Explorer magazine that “if you want to know what the sky looked like in the good ol’ days, come to West Virginia where the sky can grow brilliant with stars.”
The IDA last year named Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County as its first official skygazing spot in West Virginia, but the state offers a list of great locations, including in Pendleton County. Since then, they have also named Droop Mountain Battlefield and Calvin Price State Forest as official sites.
Two years ago, the West Virginia State Department of Tourism released its top sites in the state to view clear skies. After Calhoun County Park, the state agency listed Spruce Knob as an ideal location for camping and stargazing. Near the summit, Experience Learning operates a 400-acre facility where they rent out sustainable yurts that allow campers to enjoy the night sky, even from the comfort of their bed.
Experience Learning also offers a wide range of camps, as well as educational and recreational opportunities for visitors to enjoy both the sky and the surrounding landscape.
Local skygazing aficionados do not need to drive to officially listed sites to see clear skies. The sparse population of Pendleton and surrounding counties, as well as the undeveloped lands of the area’s national forests, prevents significant amounts of light from blocking clear views.
The other benefit of West Virginia as a skygazing destination lies in the fact that, at least for now, the best views are not overrun by masses of people. Other major sky viewing areas in the state include the upper Little Kanawha River Valley and the Yew Mountains adjoining Cranberry Glades.