This article originally appeared in the winter issue of This Local Life magazine.
There are no fire rings at the campsites at Calhoun County Park in West Virginia. Several buildings on the property, although equipped with exterior lights, remain dark every night. The visitors who come to the park wouldn’t have it any other way. They come from hundreds of miles in all directions to take advantage of the park’s very dark skies, some equipped with massive telescopes and others, like my son and me, with nothing more than our eyes. For them, and us, the darker, the better.
Located about 4 hours from the Miami Valley, Calhoun County Park is a magical place where visitors can see, un-aided, the Milky Way spread across the summer night sky, the galaxy in Orion’s belt in the winter, where the stars, planets and Moon seem close enough to touch, and where it is so peaceful and clear that a pond on the property holds a view of a thousand stars in its reflection.
With no light or noise pollution, the rolling hills and clear vistas at the park allow guests to view the night sky in its natural splendor. It appears how it did for eons, before electricity. And the only sounds are crickets and frogs. Today, in the eastern United States, it is very hard to find this kind of setting. There’s simply too much light pollution.
Areas where there is little to no light pollution, and where astronomy is promoted, are known as Dark Sky parks.
Although not yet officially a Dark Sky Park, Calhoun County Park is working on the designation. But for amateur astronomers, such as a man named Drew that my son and I met during our visit, Calhoun County is the second best place in the eastern United States to view the night sky.
“We have the Geauga Observatory Park near me,” Drew says, referring to his home in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s an official International Night Sky Park. But, to me, for how close it is, Calhoun County is one of the best places to get this kind of view, without traveling out west”
The number-one place, Drew says, and many others agree with him, is Cherry Springs State Park, located in Pennsylvania near the New York border. It is considered the darkest place in the eastern United States and is, in fact, so dark that on clear summer nights the Milky Way casts a visible shadow!
For my son and me, Calhoun County Park was not only three hours closer than Cherry Springs State Park, but also more affordable. Our campsite, without electricity, was $10. A rental hall on the property, as well as eight campsites with electricity, is available for $20 per night. Drew said he and others rent the building in the winter to stay warm while stargazing. It has modern restrooms and showers and other household amenities, but not beds. The bathrooms are available to all visitors.
Arriving with plenty of daylight, my son and I were able to take advantage of the park’s daytime features, including excellent hiking trails, exploring an historic village on the property and brushing up on the constellations before nighttime arrived.
As the sun began to set, we took a blanket from our campground and walked to a playground on the top of a freshly mowed hill. From this vantage point there were hardly any trees on the horizon, and no other people in sight. (We later learned that the three groups of campers at the park, including Drew and ourselves, was considered “a busy night.”)
Even before the sun was fully set, Jupiter popped into view, like a light had just been turned on in the sky. This was followed by Pluto and then, one after another, star after star “turned on.” At some point, they began appearing by the dozens, and then by the hundreds. Before we knew it, the entire sky was filled with stars, planets and satellites followed by (in summer) the arrival of the Milky Way.
My son and I had never seen the Milky Way in such detail, and we were both amazed at what we saw.
Down the hill from the playground is the park’s pond, which has a comfortable wooden deck that overlooks the reflecting waters. Hours can be spent looking up, and down, at this location, which my son and I did. (Article continued below pictures)...
(LEFT) - Drew from Cleveland prepares for an evening of stargazing at Calhoun County Park in West Virginia, which he says is one of the best places in the eastern United States to see the "dark skies." (ABOVE) - The primitive campground at the park and a reflecting pond that must be seen on a clear night.
In the end, we agreed that this had been a worthwhile trip and experience, including the interesting drive to get there.
For instance, on West Virginia Route 5, travelers will pass Burning Springs, a historic Civil War site and the location of the nation’s first oil and gas field, as well as the world’s oldest producing oil well. The nearby town of Burning Springs and the historic site get their names from a Confederate raid that took place there in 1863. During the raid, soldiers burned 150,000 barrels of oil and set a section of the beautiful Little Kanawha River on fire. Some people claim this was the first “real” skirmish of the Civil War.
Luckily, the damage from the burning of the river is long gone, and the beauty of the stream remains intact for drivers to see. In fact, Route 5 is designated a state scenic route in West Virginia. It follows the Little Kanawha River from its confluence at the Ohio River all the way to near Calhoun County Park.
Just north of Burning Springs is Elizabeth, West Virginia, which proudly displays signs that is the hometown of ex-POW Jessica Lynch. It’s also a great place to find hometown diners and a few good shops and grocery stores.
A trip to Calhoun County Park can also include stops at some of Ohio’s most beautiful and secluded places, including Hocking Hills State Park and Lake Hope State Park, not to mention interesting towns like Nelsonville and Athens, and Parkersburg in West Virginia.
If you’re not into camping, I suggest staying at the Comfort Suites Marietta-Parkersburg in Marietta. (They have a solid breakfast, a 24 hour pool and hot tub and are affordable). Calhoun County Park is another 63 miles from the hotel, but, not to worry. While this part of West Virginia is very secluded, it is not yet mountainous. There are some curvy roads near the park, but for the most part, the way there is a fairly easy drive.
Upon arrival to the park, guests are asked to register and pay $10 for use of the facility that evening, even if not spending the night. (Article continues below pictures)...
(TOP LEFT CLOCKWISE) - Burning Springs, West Virginia, one of numerous interesting places found on the way from the Miami Valley to Calhoun County Park. Along with an historic oil well, Burning Springs has Civil War history as well. At Calhoun County Park, an historic village can be explored while waiting to stargaze in the evening. The park also has miles of rugged hiking trails. Another place to stop just before reaching Calhoun County Park is Elizabeth, West Virginia, home of Jessica Lynch, as well as one of the last major towns before entering "the dark zone."
There are additional hotel options in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, including a Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn Express. This will also get you a little closer to Calhoun County Park, but there’s far less to see and do in Mineral Wells than in Marietta.
Other than these options, there isn’t a single hotel in a 40-mile radius of the park, and within more than several hundred miles in some directions.
Also, campers should not worry about being too far from food and supplies. The Village of Grantsville is less than five miles from the park and it contains several grocery stores... and very little light at night.
This is the beauty of this trip. It’s a chance to get very far from civilization to view the night sky at a very special place.
If you plan to go, be flexible, and watch the weather. Also, avoid times around the full moon, which will affect the view of the sky. The Calhoun County Park’s website has a special section on the best times to visit.
The Calhoun County Park is open to campers from Memorial Day through Labor Day, as well as by reservation. To reserve the rental hall or a campsite, call (304) 354-6398. They are also very responsive to e-mails through their website at Calhouncountyparkwv.com.
7 More Dark Sky Parks "Close" To Home
Lake Hudson State Park, Michigan
157 miles from Troy = 2 ½ hours
Lake Hudson is known as a Dark Sky Preserve, meaning it’s not as brilliant as a Darke Sky Park, but it’s pretty darn good for these parts. It was good enough to be designated the first official “dark sky zone” in Michigan in 1993. It can be reached using Route 66 or U.S. 127 for a scenic way, or a short 2 1/2 hour drive on Interstate 75.
Beverly Shores, Indiana
237 miles from Troy = 4 hours
Located near Indiana Dunes National Park, Beverly Shores was named an International Dark Sky Park in 2014, becoming the seventh of its kind at the time. Along with amazing astronomy, the area is filled with outdoor recreation and points of interest. This includes 16 structures that were part of the “Century of Progress” during the 1933-34 World’s Fair in nearby Chicago. A man named Robert Bartlett purchased the properties and brought them to Beverly Shores. Many of them are visible from the beach. Note: At this location, you’re only 36 miles from Chicago.
Geauga Observatory Park, Montville, Ohio
259 miles from Troy = 4 hours
This very special park, and International Dark Sky Park, is an astronomer’s dream come true, including aspiring ones! It contains nearly four miles of hiking trails. Numerous site features include a trail with interactive pods representing each trail proportionate to the sun, a trail with interactive stations representing ways to study weather, life-sized cornerstones of the Great Pyramid of Giza, earthern mounds, henge stones and, via a woodland trail, access to the Nassau Astronomical Station on the grounds. A number of lodges and camping options are available in the area.
Picket CCC Memorial State Park, Tennessee
280 miles from Troy = 4 ½ hours
Located just across the southern border of Kentucky, Picket CCC Memorial Park and nearby Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area are official International Dark Sky parks. The parks feature 32 campsites and 20 rental cabins.
Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
440 miles from Troy = 7 hours
Known as the darkest spot east of the Mississippi River and located near the border of Pennsylvania and New York.
452 miles from Troy = 6 ½ hours
If conditions are right, it is possible to see the Northern Lights at this Dark Sky Park on the shores of Lake Michigan near Mackinaw Island. However, you have to be able to travel on a moment’s notice. There is usually only a day or two’s notice before the lights occur. This park caters to those in search of seeing the Northern Lights, as well as all of the other treasures that a Dark Sky Park offers. It’s also home to Headlands Observatory. There are plenty of camping and hotel options close by.
Brockway Mountain, Michigan (pictured below, photo by Phil Stagg)
762 miles from Troy = 12 hours
If you want to try to get an even better view of the Northern Lights, this is about as far north as you can get in the United States. Located on the shores of Lake Superior, the Dark Sky Park is very secluded. However, there is lodging at the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge and Fort Wilkins State Park, which is an historic attraction itself.
Note: Visit Spaceweather.com to watch for updates on when the Northern Lights will be visible.