If you find yourself deep in the heart of Texas (and to be honest, why wouldnt you!) then a trip out into the Davis Mountains and to the McDonald Observatory should definitely be put onto your itinerary.
Its not that easy a place to get to, but there is good reason. I was staying in Van Horn and although only 80 miles away, it took just over 2 hours to reach the Observatory, because once you get off the Freeway, its quite a convoluted country drive high up into the hills to reach, but oh so worth it!
As you drive through the Davis Mountains, the scenary is quite spectacular with wildlife such as Deer, Javalinas, Quail and even Black Bears if you are lucky to watch and avoid! Trees such as the Yucca, Oak, Walnut, Sumac and Acacia are in abundance everywhere, and makes the time fly by as its such a stunning landscape. The observatory is located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes deep in the heart of the Davis Mountains, which offers some of the darkest skies in the whole of the continental United States. Perfect for stargazing!
It looks rather strange, and out of place, the Observatory, as it consists of about 5 huge telescopes, perched atop the mountains, the only buildings around in this part of the countryside, the rest is just rolling hills. Of course it has to be this way, as any unnatural light would make it impossible for observing the stars and planets.
The main visitors centre is open daily from 10.00am until 5.30pm, except on major holidays, but if you visit on either a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday then you can also attend an evenings Star Party.
I arrived mid morning and bought a daytime pass as well as a ticket to the evenings Star Party ($15). The Daytime pass consisted of a self guided tour around various exhibits on the Solar System and about the work the McDonalds Observatory is doing. Next is the Solar Viewing Program, a completely fascinating interactive programme in one of the lecture theaters about the Sun. Clouds permitting, you get to witness live footage from the telescope which observes the sun, solar flares, sunspots and all. Even if you know nothing more that it is a bright red thing in the sky, you will find it mind-blowing. The final part of the day pass is a brilliant 90 minute tour hosted by one of the Astronomers who takes you to each of the telescopes and inside their research facilities.
With a few hours to kill before i needed to return for the star party, i headed over to Alpine for some food and a wander, returning back to the Observatory for the pre-star party, known as the Twilight Party. Starting at around 7pm in one of the lecture theatres and outside in the Amphitheater, it is a funny, interactive and easy to understand guide to the solar system and really gives you a good background for what is to come later in the evening. This lasts just over an hour, and then you just have time to grab a hot chocolate in the Star Date Cafe, wrap up warm and then head off out for the main event. The Star Party lasts for about 2 hours, taking place up on the observation deck. Stars, the milky way, planets and galaxys suddenly become visible through various telescopes with the aid of the many Astronauts on hand to point you in the right direction. Although this is technically work for the Astronomers, their love of the solar system is infectious and you know they wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Finishing around 11.30pm, its was a slow, long drive, carefully back through the dark, unlight roads down and out of the Davis Mountains. It was an unforgettable day and I will never look at the night sky in the same simplified way again.