McDonald Observatory [credit: The University of Texas at Austin/McDonald Observatory/Tim Jones]
Taking this trip that will change the way you view the Universe.
The Davis Mountains have long held a special reputation as being one of the premiere locations in the continental United States to experience and enjoy the night sky. Every year, thousands of amateur and professional astronomers venture here to take in the natural beauty of the region and its unparalleled views of the heavens above. From winding scenic high-desert drives, to hiking in the beautifully rugged Big Bend National Park, to touring the telescope facilities and evening star parties at the McDonald Observatory – there’s so much to do.
For most people living in North America, West Texas offers some of the best light pollution-free skies available in the Northern Hemisphere. And from a vantage point of ~ 30.5° north of the equator, many of the Southern Hemisphere’s stand-out treasures can be seen well above the horizon and resolve cleanly in quality instruments.
When to go
My first trip to the region took place in March 2000 to observe the Winter Milky Way under temperate weather conditions. Daytime temperatures range in the mid 70’s-low 80’s (°F) and nights in the upper 30’s-mid 40’s (°F).
For those interested in seeing the Summer Milky Way, my own preference is to go in late May to early July, where daytime temperatures range in the mid 80’s-low 90’s (°F) and nights in the mid 50’s-upper 60’s (°F). The galactic center culminates on average near midnight this time of year and the temperature is much more pleasant at 12 am than immediately after sunset.
Where to stay
A rite of May that is the Texas Star Party draws people to the Prude Ranch the world over. Personal accommodations there tend to be rather Spartan, but the laid back atmosphere makes up for any loss of creature comforts. The ranch does have cable television in one building near the lodges and a nice dining facility [although the food was only respectable].
Texas Star Party [credit: Todd Hargis and Ron Ronhaar]
Nicer rooming can be found in Ft. Davis or at the excellent Indian Lodge [my favorite] in the Davis Mountains State Park which has an on-site restaurant – just make your reservations well in advance of going [~ 2 months].
Indian Lodge at the Davis Mountains State Park [credit: Steve Arnold]
Things to do by day
*A note regarding altitude acclamation: Because of the 5000+ ft. elevation, plan to spend your first full day in the region leisurely [don’t hike and make sure you take a nap]; if you don’t, it will catch up to you on the second day. The last thing you want to do is exhaust yourself unnecessarily.
Our planned itinerary was to spend the first day sightseeing at the McDonald Obsevatory, but a mix-up about the scheduled telescope visitation hours made us come back the next day. The observatory is best seen on the guided tour where solar observing and viewing of the larger telescope facilities takes place [the newer Hobby-Eberly Telescope is particularly interesting because of its unique design]. Public star parties are held on select nights and are a lot of fun, so make your plans accordingly.
Frank N. Bash Visitor Center [credit: The University of Texas at Austin/McDonald Observatory/Martin Harris]
Another worthwhile daytime distraction is hiking in the Davis Mountains State Park. A short hike of a few miles up to the top of Skyline Drive is somewhat tough [bring water & wear a hat!], but if you start in the morning from the Interpretive Center Trail and take your time, the 360° view from the scenic rock overlook is really wonderful [just off the trail near the top of the first hill]. It’s also possible to simply drive to the top, but it’s less fun that way.
One thing you immediately notice [besides the view] is that the southern horizon is virtually unobstructed and perfect for seeing far southern objects close to -60° in declination [Ft. Davis can also be seen and may be an impediment depending on the amount of light pollution]. Arrangements for nighttime observing can be made at the park visitor center.
Birding is another popular activity in the park, so check with the staff for scheduled walking tours.
Ft. Davis itself is an neat little town with quaint shops and friendly people, and is a good place to kill time.
If you’re really bored, you can take a 25 mile drive south on state highway 118 to Alpine, which is much larger than Ft. Davis and has all the standard small town conveniences. Marfa is also nearby, and has some interesting shops and galleries to view. The town is popular with artists and hipsters the world over, so don’t be surprised if you see someone famous.
Things to do by night
As previously mentioned, the star party at the McDonald Observatory should be on your “to do” list.
Since observing on your own or with a group is the highest priority, think about finding a place to set up your equipment as you tour the area during the day. Skyline Drive in the Davis Mountains State Park is a good choice for far-northern visitors who don’t get to see the southern skies much. For those staying at the Prude Ranch, this isn’t much of a dilemma; however, I should point out that the lighting there can be a nuisance [heresy!], as well as the dust – in fact, we opted to do our observing up the road towards the observatory and found an incredible viewing spot. If you go through all the trouble just to get out there, you might as well do it right! Whichever location you choose, make sure it gives you the best views for the observing you want to do.
I observed the Milky Way from Cassiopeia down to Vela under a 2-day old moon using my Takahashi FCT-76 [carried in a Pelican Case – model 1600] on a TeleVue Tele-Pod mount. To say I was pleased is an understatement. M 46/47 were amazing in a 17mm Nagler, where both fit in the same fov and were beautifully resolved into many dozens of stars. M 46 itself was more spherically resolved than I have ever seen at this aperture. NGC 2362 in Canis Major was ablaze with faint stars and NGC 2477 in Puppis was easy and resolved across it’s diameter. NGC 2547 near Lamda Velorum also resolved well despite being only 11° above the horizon. The region around M 93 was so dense with stars and clusters that my dad and I spent several minutes sweeping through the Milky Way using a 22mm Nagler. I would estimate that the majority of Milky Way background stars visible through the eyepiece were of 12th & 13th magnitude and fainter, arriving at this conclusion by comparing the brightness of M 93’s stars using no averted vision to the plainly seen surrounding field stars. This corresponds with what I saw last May near Big Bend under magnitude 7+ skies.
Fortunately, I was able to attend a star party at the McDonald Observatory the following night, and observed through a variety of popular telescopes which allowed me to evaluate how my own little refractor stacked up against the others. The first was an unfamiliar 8″ Mak-Gregorian f/20 design with a central obstruction ~ 30% that showed a bright but washed out Jupiter – not what I expected from a Mak. The eyepiece didn’t look cheap so it might have been the scope’s collimation. The second scope was a Questar 3.5″ on Saturn. I’ve heard great things about their performance but didn’t see it through the eyepiece [same problem?]. Next came a Celestron C5 on the Moon – not bad. The last scope I looked through was a 24″ Sky Designs Dob on M 42, the Orion Nebula. This scope showed excellent contrast and detail in the wispy outer region and small diffraction spikes on the trapezium stars – very nice.
So how did the Tak do? Contrast in the Tak appeared to beat out ALL of the other telescopes, just very closely edging out the Dob. My dad also reached the same conclusion despite not knowing anything about telescopes, saying he thought the Tak put the others to shame – now there’s an endorsement! I believe however that the Dob could easily out do the Tak in many observing situations, although I can’t help but marvel at how similar M 42 looked between them [contrast wise, not resolution wise].