If you consider yourself a Texan who knows all the greatest places in our state, and you haven’t been to McDonald Observatory yet, then you need to plan a West Texas vacation immediately. (And on the plus side, that’s pretty affordable!) This destination is a staple of most people’s agendas for West Texas.
(One of the best parts!)
McDonald Observatory is out in some of the most stunning landscape our state has to offer. Rugged, rocky mountains seem endless and with no sign of human footprint for miles, your eyes and soul are given a rest from the pandemonium of daily life.
Granted, it’s a solid 6 hours from Austin and even farther from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, but this place, as part of a whole West Texas vacation, is worth it at least once in your life.
As you wind your way up the two lane highway en route to the Observatory and approach 6,800 foot elevation where the Observatory sits, the temperatures drop.
The night sky out here is dark. D-A-R-K dark. Red light instead of white flashlights are recommended so your eyes can stay adjusted to the dark for better star viewing.
Why come? For a STAR PARTY
The #1 thing to do there is attend a Star Party. McDonald Observatory is a hub of anticipation as a huge crowd gathers every night to have astronomers lead them through a tour of the night sky. A concrete path winds up a hill to two domed rooms, where fancy telescopes and their attendants await your visit. Look through the telescopes and learn about how grand our universe is, it is really quite amazing!
Other cool events to attend:
- Twilight Program – Sign up for this before your star party (this starts at 8pm and star parties start at 9pm). Definitely worth the $5 entry fee!!
- Solar viewings at 11am and 2pm
- See the many events on their main webpage
If you get hungry…
You should try Star Date Cafe.
And There’s Shopping!
You may be in the middle of nowhere but don’t worry, you don’t have to give up shopping! McDonald Observatory’s gift shop has some unique treasures, from blown glass paperweights that contain miniature galaxies (not sure how they did that) to astronaut ice cream to games that will stir up the astronomer in you or your child.
What if it gets rained out?
Happened to me! I’ve done it both ways, and it’s just as good when it rains.
You still get to see the telescopes, but instead of heading there first, they take you into a theatre where experts lead through a computerized display of the night sky. It is like watching the football game on the jumbotron even though you’re in the stadium–we all do it, let’s be honest, and the show is just as good if not better.
With the click of a button they can overlay constellation diagrams on a night sky image, and drag the sky around with their mouse, allowing you to see so much. Then, they show you incredible Hubble telescope photos and tell you stunning facts about the immensity of the universe. By the end, you are left pondering your minute existence–a wonderful state of affairs to be in.
Do kids like it?
YES! Though the star parties are a little past their bedtime, it’s worth it for an educational experience once in a blue moon. No pun intended! This is the perfect place to spark your child’s curiosity about the world around them, and who knows what kind of interests might be inspired by looking up at the night sky through a telescope. There are plenty of exhibits to entertain them and best of all, there is a small SLIDE inside.
What to Wear
As it does get chilly, most times of year you will wish for a jacket–it is at 6,800′ above sea level, after all so think “Colorado weather.” A flashlight or headlamp is a must, and ideally you want to get one with a red light setting.
Fun fact for my female readers
It was a woman who donated the ranch where this observatory now sits! The U Up U Down ranch, and kind of a perfect name for a ranch in the mountains.
Fun fact for my Longhorn readers
Money for the Observatory was donated to the University of Texas a long time ago, when UT didn’t have much of an astronomy program to speak of, and now this is a leading hub of research and UT is a player in much more astronomy work around the world thanks to what happened here.
Oh by the way, Saw Em Off. 🙂
All in all, this place gets the Whit’s Wilderness Seal of Approval!
- A nice overview (About McDonald Observatory)
- Other Things to Do in West Texas (an ever growing list with more to come!)
- Detailed Directions – Click Here