In West Texas, it’s not hard to get beyond the reach of city lights and under some of the country’s darkest night skies. From observatories and International Dark Sky Parks to quiet roads and trails, here’s where to see nature’s premier light show.Less
Technically part of UT Austin but located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory is as world-class as its surroundings. It’s one of the country’s top institutions for astronomical research, public education and community outreach. The largest of the observatory’s many telescopes is fit for exploring distant galaxies and even dark energy. Take a guided tour by day or attend one of their evening star parties (advance reservations required).
Adjacent to Big Bend National Park, The Local Chapter has four luxury yurts atop Maverick Mountain, each with 360-degree views of the Chisos Mountain range, the Rio Grande and — come nightfall — billions of stars. Welcome to International Dark Sky Park territory. Enjoy an array of amenities, including your own telescope, and spend your days hiking, horseback riding and scouting ghost towns, but come nightfall, get yourself back under the canopy of stars for an unforgettable experience.
This adventure shines by day, but by night, it’s even brighter. Here’s what to do: From Big Bend’s Panther Junction Visitor Center, drive to the Grapevine Hills trailhead. From there, hike to Balanced Rock, where you’ll see a field of ancient volcanic boulders, with one precariously balanced standout. Stay here for nightfall to see why this park is gold-tier designated by the International Dark Sky Association, or hike back to the road and choose one of its five primitive campsites.
This state park just off of I-20 provides a 3,800-acre sandbox underneath the stars. Arrive at Monahans Sandhills State Park late in the afternoon to get some sand-sliding runs in, watch the dunes change color at sunset and find a soft spot (hint: it’s all soft) to lie back for the nightly show. If you snag one of the campsites, you’ll wake up to sand dunes that have entirely different patterns than they did the day before. From the sand to the sky, this state park is never the same twice.
Most of Big Bend Ranch State Park is rated class 1 on the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, meaning it has night-sky visibility of the most remote regions on Earth. Besides jackrabbits and bighorn sheep, the Milky Way is the most common nightly visitor. A visit to any part of the park will give you night-sky views you could only dream of, but some specific spots do stand out for their stellar views and accessibility: the River Road, the West Contrabando Trailhead, Big Hill and the Hoodoos.