By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
RVing to the stars – Visiting an astronomical destination: McDonald Observatory
I am starting another recurring theme with this article, so buckle up, buttercup. We are about to hit the road.
All around this great country there are many wonderful destinations that include interesting astronomical-related features. Telescopes, Dark Sky sites, planetariums, museums and historical observatories are speckled all over the continental United States. Many of these are public- or university-funded and have extensive outreach programs that are guaranteed to amaze and educate. In this edition, we’ll visit Davis Mountains State Park and the McDonald Observatory in West Texas.
Located 38 miles south of I-10 on TX-118 S in West Texas, McDonald Observatory is run by the University of Texas at Austin. It is just 10 miles north from Davis Mountains State Park, that features camping of all types. Hike-in primitive sites are available for $8 a day, all the way up to full-hookup sites that include cable TV for $25 a day, and everything in between. There is also a $6-per-day per-adult entrance fee that is not included in camping fees. You have the option of buying a Texas State Park Annual Pass for $70. If you have a party of four and are staying for more than three days, it pays to buy the annual pass. A bonus to staying here is it is a great stop on the way to or from Big Bend National Park in south Texas, a popular RVing destination.
I stayed at the Davis Mountains State Park for two weeks in one of the full-hookup sites and loved every minute of it. The bathroom and shower facilities were clean and modern, there was trash pickup at the site, a steel awning and picnic table on site, and wonderful pull-offs and scenic overviews on the Skyline Drive. The park caters to birders with a bird habitat and birding blinds along many hiking trails and driving destinations.
The park’s altitude is a boon to people visiting Texas in the summer months as it stays significantly cooler than the surrounding areas. From my site I could walk out the door of my rig and see the Milky Way blazing across the sky on almost every night. I also got a chance to see Neptune the clearest I have ever viewed it while I was in the park. For an avid sky-watcher it was heaven. There are many other attractions in the area: Marfa, Alpine, Ft. Davis, McDonald Observatory, and Balmorrhea State Park swimming pool make the campground a great centralized hub from which to travel.
The observatory is an active research and public outreach facility and has many programs designed to engage and educate the public. The observatory features five large telescopes including the massive 9.2-meter Hobby-Eberly Telescope, or HET; the 107-inch (2.7m) Harlan J. Smith Telescope; the 82-inch (2.1m) Otto Struve Telescope; and two smaller research-grade instruments.
The facility hosts several outreach programs that you can attend while in the area. These include daytime tours and solar viewing, twilight programs and star parties, special viewing nights on the large instruments, and the Rebecca Gale telescope park open during star parties.
I toured the 107-inch scope and was allowed to use the hand control to move the scope and dome. Let me tell you, it is a strange and electric feeling to hold that kind of power in your hand. You push a button and a building the size of an aircraft hangar moves at your command. I also got a look at the HET, although on the day I was there no tour was available. You can still do a self-guided walk-around tour and see this massive device through some thoughtfully placed windows.
If you would like to attend a star party here you need to make reservations well in advance. Here is the warning from the website: “All programs are subject to capacity limits. Star Parties and Twilight Programs are routinely selling out days or even weeks in advance. If you want to attend, PLEASE make reservations!” They aren’t kidding. When I was there they were sold out for the next two parties. It would be best to make your reservations before you make your camping plans just to ensure you can get into the facilities and events you are interested in.
All in all, I really enjoyed my visit to this area and I will definitely return next time I am heading into Texas.
Well, that about covers it for Davis Mountains and McDonald Observatory. What do you think? Is this something you would like to see more of? Will you take a trip to West Texas? Let me know. and until next time….
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)