Going the distance for dark skies.
It’s an inescapable fact that the farther you go from civilization, the better your skies will be for astronomy. In many respects, this means amateurs must occasionally “rough it” in order to experience those special moments when even the most seasoned of observers views the night sky with renewed appreciation.
Having been to West Texas several times now, I was aware that dark skies can significantly alter your viewing habits. For instance, I’ve noticed that there are new possibilities for smaller scopes under magnitude 6+ skies that would be unattainable in suburban locations. On the average, a dark site adds an additional 2-3 magnitudes to what your telescope will show. As a result, my observing time at home has decreased because so many objects look completely unremarkable through my small apochromatic refractor compared to their appearance under dark skies. To remedy this situation, I travel to remote locations as often as my schedule will allow. On the upside, I truly enjoy these periodic trips and try to do as much observing before sunrise as my heavy eyes can stand.
My first descent into dark-sky observing bliss came in May 1999 with a visit to Big Bend National Park. This trip was planned as both a hiking and astronomy excursion to take advantage of the region’s natural beauty.
When to go
*A cautionary note to people unaccustomed to Texas heat: I’d highly recommend that you avoid this region from late May to mid September as temperatures easily exceed 100°+ F. The dry desert climate can seriously dehydrate you – if you go, drink more water than you normally do. It’s a good rule of thumb to play it safe in this extreme environment, so plan to spend your first day there leisurely to acclimate yourself [no hikes, horse rides, swimming, or the like]. This will make the remainder of your trip much more pleasant.
The day long drive from Austin to Big Bend [~675 miles] was exhausting to say the least. Texas is a really big state! You should probably go with a few other people to share driving duties no matter where you live, otherwise you’ll be too tired the first night to do much observing [luckily my dad went too]. Also, breaking down out there without water and a mobile phone would not be a good idea. Be prepared! You can literally travel 60 miles in West Texas without a place to stop and call for help.
Where to stay
As you go south from Fort Stockton the landscape changes from flat desert to mountain desert, and past Alpine the landscape gets really desolate. My dad and I were a bit shocked and pleased to see just how far we were from civilization. Of course this usually means bad food and great astronomy! But not to worry, there are a few places worth staying in the area. Terlingua and Lajitas are the closest towns to the Park’s southwestern entrance and have small but basic lodging. The exception is the Lajitas Resort which is an upscale oasis in the desert. The resort has been completely renovated since my first visit in May 1999, and now hosts a fine restaurant, modern accommodations, and beautiful landscaping.
A couple of other restaurants can be found in Terlingua, but for the most part they’re nothing to write home about. In the park itself is the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which has respectable food [especially breakfast] and an outstanding view.
Things to do by day
Things to do by night
With the first night clouded out and having put in a full day’s hike the next, my dad and I decided to collectively turn-in early that 2nd evening. And so, after six hours of solid sleep, the alarm awoke us at the agreed upon observing time of 2 am. Given instructions from my dad that we would forego observing for more sleep if it were overcast, I promptly got dressed and crossed my fingers for clear skies.
Stumbling out of our cottage, I thought we were sadly out of luck again when at first glance I noticed a prominently bright cloud-like band crossing directly overhead [despite having been involved in astronomy for over 4 years, I had never seen the Milky Way under dark skies before].
Sagittarius/Scorpius Region of the Milky Way [credit: European Southern Observatory/S. Guisard]
Wow! There it was for the first time. My expectations as to how the summer galactic sky would appear were instantly eclipsed by the views that night. I’d imagined from numerous black and white photos that the Milky Way would be a discernable haze against the blackness of night; but in reality, the light of billions of suns shone much brighter than the descriptions had led me to conceive.
From horizon-to-horizon, the general outline of the galaxy was easy to make out, with dark rifts all along the plane. The Small Sagitarrius Star Cloud [M 24] and the Scutum Star Cloud stood out sharply from the surrounding field. M 7 looked like a bright cotton ball of stars to the naked eye. Deep-sky low power sweeps across the galactic bulge were beautiful, where objects like globular and open star clusters were super-imposed against the stellar background using a Takahashi FCT-76 under a magnitude 7+ Milky Way. Everything looked 3-D!