The hottest ticket in West Texas? A reservation for one of the thrice-weekly Star Parties at McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. Located on Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the remote Davis Mountains, the Observatory and its telescopes enjoy some of the darkest skies in the continental United States. For visitors, this means that stars, planets, constellations and meteors can be observed at night in their full sparkling glory, undiminished by artificial light from cities and suburbs. During the two-hour Star Parties staff members point out and discuss prominent stars and constellations. Telescopes are available for sky viewing after the talk.
Home to several of the largest telescopes in the world, the Observatory is also a popular daytime destination. Guided tours to the research telescopes are offered several times per week. Filtered telescopes in the visitor center allow daytime visitors to view the sun safely during solar viewing programs. Visitors who are not up for a tour or talk can simply purchase a general admission ticket, which includes a self-guided tour of the summits of Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes. The general admission ticket also allows access to the visitor center exhibit gallery and gift shop.
The Observatory is 450 miles west of Austin and 520 miles southwest of Dallas. It is closed to the public on Sunday and Monday. Star Parties are typically thrown on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights. The start time varies with the season. The Star Parties also book up at least two weeks in advance.
History of McDonald Observatory
McDonald Observatory conducts research for the University of Texas at Austin Astronomy Program. The Observatory and its research were made possible by banker and lawyer William Johnson McDonald, who left much of his estate to the University for the construction of the Observatory after his death in 1926.
Dedicated in 1936, the Struve Telescope was the first telescope built here. It is named for the Observatory’s first director, Dr. Otto Struve. With a 2.1-meter mirror, it was the second largest telescope in the world at its dedication. Its instruments have since been upgraded, and it is still in use today. The Harland J Smith telescope, which has a 2.7-meter mirror, was completed in 1968 and is also still in use. The Hobby-Eberley Telescope has a 11-meter mirror, and it is one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. It was dedicated in 1997 and upgraded in 2017. It studies the light from stars and galaxies to help astronomers gain an understanding of their properties. It is also used for ground-breaking research into dark energy. There are numerous other smaller telescopes on the grounds.
The Observatory is currently collaborating with several US universities in the development of a 25-meter telescope with seven mirrors in Chile. Named the Giant Magellan Telescope, it is scheduled to be operational in 2029.
What you need to know about Star Parties
Held Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the parties begin in the outdoor amphitheater with a brief orientation chat by staff. During the 30-minute Constellation Tour that follows, you can sit back and soak up the mythology and science behind your favorite constellations – while gazing at the star-speckled sky overhead. The Milky Way is breathtaking on a clear night, cutting a silky path across the cosmos. The evening ends with 90 minutes of stargazing through telescopes set up at the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. Staff and volunteers are available for questions.
Visitors will not be viewing the stars through any of the research telescopes, which provide data to scientists but not visual images.
What to bring
Feel free to bring binoculars, but to ensure dark skies and the best viewing experience for all visitors, do not bring white-light flashlights. Bring redlight flashlights and headlamps instead. Bright camera screens and flash photography are also discouraged. Dress warmly and in layers, and it’s fine to bring a blanket too. The Star Parties are held outdoors at a high elevation, where the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler than it is at the base of the mountains.
Best time to visit
When making your reservation, remember that light from a full moon can diminish the visibility of the stars and the Milky Way. For optimal viewing conditions consider attending a Star Party before the first quarter moon or a few days past the full moon. Fall usually has the clearest skies, while July and August see the most rain.
A general admission ticket provides public access to the visitor center and its exhibits. A self-guided tour of the grounds is also included. You do not need a reservation for a general admission ticket. There is an extra fee for the guided tour and the solar viewing program. Reservations are recommended for these two add-on activities since space is limited.
The self-guided tour begins atop Mount Locke, where scenic overlooks take in the Davis Mountains and various telescopes in the distance. The Struve Telescope and the Harland J Smith Telescope and their domes are on Mount Locke. The tour continues to the summit of Mount Fowlkes. The large silver dome here holds the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. Its cutting-edge instruments allow astronomers to view hundreds of galaxies at once, to study the chemistry of galaxies and to search for stars. You can view the telescope from the George T Abell Gallery inside the dome. You must drive to both Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes.
The 90-minute guided tour stops by the Harlan J Smith Telescope on Mount Locke and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope on Mount Fowlkes. Guides discuss the history of the Observatory, the design of the telescopes and current research projects. You will not be looking at the stars though the telescopes, however. Visitors drive their cars to the domes.
During the 45-minute solar viewing program, staff discuss the history and characteristics of the sun. Filtered telescopes with cameras share images of the surface of the sun on-screen. The programs are typically held at 1pm on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
West Texas has some of the darkest skies in North America, meaning its stargazing is exceptional. This status is threatened, however, as commercial development leads to an increase in artificial light, which diminishes the view. The Observatory is working with Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park and other regional partners to monitor light pollution. Another goal is to replace and retrofit light fixtures in the region so that they minimize light pollution. The partners also promote dark-sky friendly practices across West Texas and work to educate the public about the importance of dark skies.
Plan your visit
The Observatory is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. A general admission ticket is $3. Guided tours are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 5 years. Star Party tickets are $25 for adults and $5 for children under 5. Senior and military discounts are available for guided tours ($8) and Star Parties ($20). The solar viewing program is $5.
The Observatory is in the Central Time Zone (CDT). The visitor center phone number is 432-426-3640. Check the website for details about accessibility.