Stargazing in Texas: McDonald Observatory and Beyond

The Milky Way is visible in the dark Texas sky.

The Milky Way is visible in the dark Texas sky.


Story and photos by Charles Williams

Charles is a passionate travel writer and photographer who works for the Enterprise Brand Team. Email the author.

West Texas’ dry climate and sparse population create ideal conditions.

The stars really do shine brighter in Texas.

Known affectionately as the Lone Star State, the nighttime sky in West Texas multiplies that number by thousands. So much so that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department now promotes a unique form of tourism — stargazing.

In collaboration with observatories and the International Dark Sky Association, the department hopes to promote and preserve night skies by hosting star parties, self-guided constellation tours and light pollution education programs.

The McDonald Observatory, established in 1932 and located in Fort Davis, is one of the best places in Texas to view stars. Located on Mount Locke with additional facilities on Mount Fowlkes, it’s a mecca for stargazing enthusiasts, drawing about 75,000 a year. The research facility also has one of the world’s largest telescopes — the Hobby-Eberly.

To fully appreciate the enormity of the research telescopes, take a daytime tour, which allows visitors to see the big telescopes up close, including the Harlan J. Smith telescope, built in 1968 and weighing 160 tons, and Hobby-Eberly, built in 1996 and weighing 80 tons.

Stargazing in West Texas is serious business for scientists, astronomers and amateur enthusiasts. But that business is threatened.

With the recent expansion of oil and gas exploration, the dark skies northeast of the observatory have brightened. Efforts to minimize light pollution are important to scientists, and many adjacent communities now use light fixtures that point downward, ensuring darker skies.

The McDonald Observatory is working with exploration companies to demonstrate that better shielding, placement and aiming of lights on oil rigs can prevent light pollution and improve working conditions.

If you’re planning a stargazing trip to West Texas, consider staying at the historic Indian Lodge, located in Davis Mountains State Park and just a 15-minute drive from the observatory. The lodge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and resembles a pueblo village.

If you find yourself in other areas of the state, there’s still an opportunity to admire the night sky. Three parks in Texas are certified as Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Parks, considered the highest designation — Copper Breaks State Park in northern Texas, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in central Texas and Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas.

Consider the last time you looked up and saw thousands of stars and the Milky Way. Maybe it’s time for a trip deep in the heart of Texas.

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