The Perfect Guide to Stargazing in West Texas

The Perfect Guide to Stargazing in West Texas

In a world where most of us spend our time in big cities and suburbs, a sky dark enough to see the brilliant Milky Way is hard to find. Speaking from personal experience, it was only as an mature that I saw it without light pollution, and I could not believe my eyes.

It’s not always easy to find a sky dark enough for optimal stargazing, but around Big Bend and Fort Davis, dark skies abound. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and if you stand under the brilliant Milky Way, You could believe it too.

Plan Your Trip

Of course, the main thing to see the Milky Way and the stars in general is a dark sky. Just because you’re in a designated Dark Sky area doesn’t mean the sky will always be dark – you also need the moon to be out of the picture. At full moon, light pollution is equivalent to standing in the middle of a big city!

When planning my stargazing trips, I always look at the phases of the moon first. There is only about a week to a week and a half that is really ideal for stargazing. You will want to consider both the moon phase and the rising and setting of the moon when making your choice. The best possible time is during a new moon in the summer months to see this famous nucleus of the Milky Way, visible between October and March, and best visible during the summer months. But you can also see many stars, including the Milky Way, during the winter.

Although I love stargazing at any time of the year, my absolute favorite time is during the Perseids meteor shower in August. During peak night, plan to see potentially hundreds of shooting stars. It’s not every year that gives us the perfect moon phase to see the view, but if Mother Nature is in our favor, it really is the best Stargazer you can hope for! Book your campsite well in advance, because believe me, there are other star nerds like me in the know!

Finding the Milky Way

The Milky Way tends to be in a slightly different part of the sky depending on the time of year. Around the winter solstice, it will usually materialize just after sunset in the western sky during a new moon. Near the summer solstice, it will be more in the southwestern sky. It will be more difficult to catch if you plan your trip outside the week before or just after a new moon due to the rotation of the Earth, which, of course, is constantly changing.

To make it easier to locate the Galaxy, I like to use the Starwalk 2 application. It tells you exactly where the Milky Way will be and when, and is usable offline, which is essential because most dark sky reserves are in the middle of nowhere! It can also tell you which constellations you are looking at and when there are major celestial events, such as meteor showers, that you should watch out for.

All this may seem a little complicated, but just simplify it by striving for a new moon and you will be in business.

Great places to see

The area around Big Bend National Park is about to become the largest Dark sky Reserve in the world! Thanks to the cooperation of several surrounding regions, it could exceed the current 18 dark sky reserves combined, at more than 9.8 million square hectares, if the application is approved.

Plus, you’ve combined the dark skies with the drought and generally cloudless conditions, making it a reliable stargazing experience. Here are some good places to take it all:

Hotels Near Big Bend Ranch State Park

Although Big Bend National Park is the most famous name, Big Bend Ranch State Park, right next door, is also a great playground for stargazing. The International Dark-Sky Association designated Big Bend Ranch State Park a Gold-Level starry sky park in 2018.

The River Road (Highway 170) is known as one of the most picturesque roads in the United States. I recommend starting this ride in the afternoon so you can also enjoy the sunset in the park. Dom Rock is a wonderful place to admire it and would also be a great place to star-watch over the Rio Grande.

For observing and photographing the Galaxy, I personally like to have something interesting in the foreground, and Hoodoos are also suitable. For more information about Big Bend Ranch stargazing, click here.

Big Bend National Park

That said, for astrophotographers and those who want to see the Milky Way behind some of the park’s most famous features, I recommend taking a ride along Ross Maxwell scenic Drive. You will be able to see the Sotol Vista, the mule’s ears and the Santa Elena Canyon, all of which can be excellent first shots for the stars.

If you visit in December, you may be able to see the Milky Way through the windows, one of the park’s most famous features, in the western sky. Venture deeper into the Chisos Basin for more unique rock formations to photograph.

Fort Davis and McDonald Observatory

You have to go to Big Bend, so why not stop at Fort Davis? It’s a charming town halfway between Big Bend and El Paso with dark skies and a few things to see.

I loved the Fort Davis Mountains State Park. The view is awesome, especially from Skyline Drive. There is a beautiful view, as well as some old brick buildings that make an interesting foreground. You can camp in the park, and there is also hotel accommodation, both in the park and 10 minutes from the city.

Although there is no bad time to visit the Big Bend area and the day there is beautiful, there is something very special about being able to see stars in such a dark sky. If you’ve never had this experience before, bring a blanket, something to keep you warm, and prepare to be amazed.

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