Located in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory is a research and education facility of the University of Texas. The observatory offers “Star Parties” to the public Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year which are bookable online for a reasonable fee. While the observatory web site states that Star Parties often fill up months in advance, the permissible group size is large and I found 100+ spots still available several days before our Friday night reservation. Our January 17 date no doubt had something to do with the lighter crowd, but we chose the time of year deliberately to avoid crowds…and the sweltering peak-season temperatures in our ultimate destination, Big Bend National Park.
We were excited at weather forecasts predicting clear skies for the night of our Star Party, but that excitement turned to concern a couple days prior when we woke to find the forecast suddenly calling for high winds up to 45 mph. Yikes! Not what we had in mind, especially on a cold mountaintop at night. I immediately called the observatory and was able to change our reservations to Saturday night. It turned out to be a good thing that I called so quickly: Despite all those vacancies showing earlier, a sign on the door as we entered the visitor center Saturday night stated that the party was now fully booked. I talked to fellow Indian Lodge guests later who had been turned away.
With the restaurant at Indian Lodge closed, we decided to eat at the StarDate Café at the Observatory. As recommended in the email confirming our booking, we arrived an hour early since we wanted to eat before the Star Party. It’s a good thing we did, too. We snagged the last table and were able to get our dinner order in just before the line grew long and wait time jumped to 30, then 40 minutes. The café stays open for the first hour of the party, so guests arriving after us could come back to the café to eat during the party, but we were happy to eat and be done with it ahead of time. I slipped into the ladies’ room while we waited to pull on a pair of silk long underwear, an extra layer I was glad to have later as temperatures plunged outside. (I’d been worried it would be overheated in the cafe, but it was actually pretty chilly inside when we arrived.) The café opens to a large terrace with views of the observatory domes and quite a few tables that would probably be great in the summer or a mild winter day, but were out of the question for dining on a January night.
Right at 7pm, observatory staff announced the beginning of the Star Party and we were instructed to go outside to an open amphitheater for an orientation lecture.
The initial lecture was brief after which we were invited to either go straight to the ten telescopes set up in the viewing park or remain for a more detailed lecture on constellations. We sat in the back to get ahead of the exiting mob and opted to go straight to the telescopes. We were glad we did. The speaker advised us that the domes which house the largest telescopes are particularly popular, so we headed to those first before more people arrived. We quickly made our way through all ten scopes, moving on if a line was long. There are telescopes of all sizes and shapes. We were there the night before a full moon, which reduced the visibility of the stars and constellations so more than one telescope was focused on the moon, the most powerful taking in just a portion of the moon and bringing its craters and peaks into sharp view. Another telescope that took in the entire moon was so bright that I had a dark after-image in one eye for at least ten minutes! Other telescopes were focused on the brightest stars since others were drowned out by the brilliant light of the moon. Still, it was cool to see things like the cloudy nebula in the sword of Orion and a pair of bi-colored twin stars. Overall star viewing was a little disappointing because of the extremely bright moon, but it was still fun and we had a full lunar eclipse to look forward to the next night in Big Bend National Park, so it was hard to complain. We were just finishing up at the last telescope when the lecture let out and a big crowd streamed into the viewing area and we realized we had had no idea what a long line was. I counted several lines that had quickly ballooned from 5 or so people to 22 or more.
The visitors center remains open during the Star Party so people can warm up, get refreshments, etc. A short film runs in a loop the entire time, there’s a gift shop, toilets and a child-friendly small museum.
Cold is a real issue at the McDonald Observatory as temperatures at the observatory elevations (6300-6800 ft) can be much colder than below and the approximately 2-hour Star Parties take place mostly outside. Wear layers, hats and gloves, and the observatory encourages viewers to bring blankets which can be left in cars and retrieved if needed. Blankets or long coats are extra nice for sitting on the cold stone benches in the amphitheater. The Star Parties take place at the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park at the observatory and do not use the research telescopes higher up the mountain. Those telescopes are available on “special viewing nights” scheduled periodically throughout the year.
Prices for Star Parties are $12/adult; $10/military, 65+, and UT staff and students ; $$8/child 6-12; and, free for children under 6. Make reservations online for Star Parties, Twilight Programs, Day passes, Solar Viewings and special events.
The StarDate Café is located on site and serves sandwiches, quesadillas, tacos, snacks and drinks. The observatory recommends Star Party guests arrive an hour early if planning to eating there since crowds can be large.