A few years ago you had to make reservations to attend a star party at McDonald Observatory in West Texas near Ft. Davis. This is no longer the case. Recently McDonald observatory has built a large visitors area at the base of the mountain with several telescopes open to the public. These star parties can get quite crowded especially during spring break and after school has let out for the summer but there is always a chance to look through a fairly large telescope and see galaxies, stars, planets and even the rings of Saturn. The Frank N. Bash visitors center features a museum and displays of various astronomy equipment, explanations of some of the programs that occur at McDonald observatory and much more . Tickets for the night time star parties cost ten dollars for adults and eight dollars for children. There are daytime exhibits as well, including a solar viewing in which you can view sunspots, or signs of explosions on the sun.
Many of the telescopes, including the largest, a 22 inch model, were donated by private companies and individuals to help promote the science of astronomy. Below is a photo of “telescope park” and the 22 inch telescope and the McDonald Observatory visitor’s center.
My family and I go to one of these star parties at McDonald observatory every year and it is well worth the journey to this isolated region of the country where the skies are some of the darkest anywhere in North America. You ca also visit the main observatory, located up a winding mountain road and take either a guided or self guided tour of the main telescope. Though not the largest telescope in the United States, the dark skies of West Texas have enabled astronomers such as Carl Sagan to identify never before seen galaxies and stars. The Hobby – Eberly telescope measures 433 inches and is one of the largest in the world.
Below is a map and directions of how to get to McDonald Observatory
For those heading west on IH 10, take Hwy 17 south. at Balmorhea and drive to Fort Davis. From Ft. Davis take Hwy 118 north 16 miles to McDonald Observatory
For visitors coming from Big Bend National Park, take Hwy 118 north, continue through the town of Alpine (you may want to stop and browse the many art galleries) and continue on to Fort Davis to McDonald Observatory at Mt. Locke.
You will be amazed at the view from the 22 inch telescope at the McDonald Observatory’s visitor center. This is one of the most popular telescopes during star parties so unfortunately you won’t get a chance for a very long viewing. The observatory advises visitors to dress warmly since at the high elevation, even at the base of the mountain, it can get quite cold even in summer. When visiting the area you may want to bring your own telescope of high powered binoculars and a star guide. Because of lack of population density and very strict regulations concerning outside lights in the county, the skies here are extremely dark and on nights when there is no moon or weather disturbances you will experience the Milky Way galaxy as you have never seen it. For information call the visitors center, toll-free 877-984-7827