John Bortle created his now famous light pollution scale for the February 2001 edition of Sky and Telescope Magazine.
Bortle Scale Maps of No. Virginia | Virginia | Maryland | West Virginia | All
Class 1: Excellent dark-sky site – Black
The zodiacal light, gegenschein, and zodiacal band (S &T: October 2000, page 116) are all visible – the zodiacal light to a striking degree, and the zodiacal band spanning the entire sky. Even with direct vision, the galaxy M33 is an obvious naked-eye object. The Scorpius and Sagittarius region of the Milky Way casts obvious diffuse shadows on the ground. To the unaided eye the limiting magnitude is 7.6 to 8.0 (with effort); the presence of Jupiter or Venus in the sky seems to degrade dark adaptation. Airglow (a very faint, naturally occurring glow most evident within about 15 degrees of the horizon) is readily apparent. With a 32-centimeter (12½) scope, stars to magnitude 17.5 can be detected with effort, while a 50-cm (20-inch) instrument used with moderate magnification will reach 19th magnitude. If you are observing on a grass-covered field bordered by trees, your telescope, companions, and vehicle are almost totally invisible. This is an observer’s Nirvana!
Class 2: Typical truly dark site – Gray
Airglow may be weakly apparent along the horizon. M33 is rather easily seen with direct vision. The summer Milky Way is highly structured to the unaided eye, and its brightest parts look like veined marble when viewed with ordinary binoculars. The zodiacal light is still bright enough to cast weak shadows just before dawn and after dusk, and its color can be seen as distinctly yellowish when compared with the blue-white of the Milky Way. Any clouds in the sky are visible only as dark holes or voids in the starry background. You can see your telescope and surroundings only vaguely, except where they project against the sky. Many of the Messier globular clusters are distinct naked-eye objects. The limiting naked-eye magnitude is as faint as 7.1 to 7.5, while a 32-cm telescope reaches to magnitude 16 or 17.
Class 3: Rural sky – Blue
Some indication of light pollution is evident along the horizon. Clouds may appear faintly illuminated in the brightest parts of the sky near the horizon but are dark overhead. The Milky Way still appears complex, and globular clusters such as M4, M5, M15, and M22 are all distinct naked-eye objects. M33 is easy to see with averted vision. The zodiacal light is striking in spring and autumn (when it extends 60 degrees above the horizon after dusk and before dawn) and its color is at least weakly indicated. Your telescope is vaguely apparent at a distance of 20 or 30 feet. The naked-eye limiting magnitude is 6.6 to 7.0, and a 32-cm reflector will reach to 16th magnitude. Long exposure astrophotos might show some light pollution gradient, but visual observing is relatively unimpaired.