Worth the Drive: McDonald Observatory

The following article is part four of a six-part series of a tour through the Big Bend Country region of west Texas. Coming up: Marfa and Marathon. Previously we visited Monahans Sandhills State Park, Balmorhea State Park and Fort Davis.

State Highway 118 in the Davis Mountains isn't only known for it's scenic views, it's also the home to the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory.  The observatory, which is part of the University of Texas at Austin, sits atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes and had its first telescope dedicated back in the 1930s.

Today, the observatory houses four major research telescopes at the site: The Hobby-Eberly Telescope, the Harlan J. Smith Telescope, the Otto Struve Telescope and a large-format imaging telescope.  The observatory makes use of the high peaks of the Davis Mountains and the incredibly dark nighttime skies of west Texas to offer a view of the heavens that is one of the best in the world.

Visitors to the center can not only tour the four major telescopes, but take part in star-watching parties with astronomers.  The program includes a video presentation where you will see some of the best astrophotography taken at the observatory, but you'll also spend time outdoors with the astronomers as they tell you about everything overhead.  A variety of telescopes are available for viewing the cosmos.  There's also a killer giftshop and a cafe available.

Being that the elevation of mounts Locke and Fowlkes is 6,300 to 6,800 feet, and that most of the star watching is done outside -- duh -- you're advised to dress warmly because it can be pretty cool in the evenings. Yes, even in the summertime. 

The only caveat when planning your trip to the observatory is that I'd recommend doing it when the moon is new or no more than a quarter lit.  On my trip, the moon was full and the light drowned out most of the other stars -- but we did see great shots of the moon through the telescope.

The observatory is about a half-hour's drive from Fort Davis and about an hour from Marfa, Alpine or Balmorhea -- so lodging on your trip shouldn't be a problem as there is plenty nearby.

Speaking of Marfa ... we'll hear all about those mysterious Marfa lights in our next installment.

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