What’s the hottest ticket in West Texas? Book your reservation for the three-weekly Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis. Perched atop Rock Mountain and Forks Mountain 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 the stars, planets, constellations, and meteors can be seen in their full shimmering glory at night, without being obscured by artificial lights from cities and suburbs. At the party, employees point out and discuss famous stars and constellations. After the lecture, we will prepare a telescope for astronomical observation.
The observatory is home to some of the world’s largest telescopes and is a popular day trip destination. Guided tours to the research telescope are offered several times a week. Filtered telescopes at the visitor center allow day visitors to safely observe the sun during solar viewing programs. Visitors not interested in tours and talks can simply purchase general admission tickets. This ticket includes a self-guided tour to the summit of Mount Rock and Mount Forks. Your general admission ticket also gives you access to the exhibition galleries and visitor center gift shop.
The observatory is located 450 miles west of Austin and 520 miles southwest of Dallas. Closed to the public on Sundays and Mondays. Star Parties are usually held on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Start times vary according to season. Star parties must also be booked at least two weeks in advance.
History of McDonald Observatory
The McDonald Observatory conducts research for the Astronomy Program at the University of Texas at Austin. The observatory and its research were made possible by banker and lawyer William Johnson McDonald. After his death in 1926, MacDonald bequeathed much of his estate to the university for the construction of the observatory.
The Struve Telescope, opened in 1936, was the first telescope built here. It is named after the observatory’s first director, Dr. Named Otto Struve. With a 2.1-meter mirror, it was his second largest telescope in the world when it opened. The equipment has since been upgraded and is still in use today. His Harland J Smith telescope with 2.7-meter mirrors was completed in 1968 and is still in use today. The Hobby-Everly Telescope has his 11-meter mirror, making him one of the largest optical telescopes in the world. It was launched in 1997 and modernized in 2017. It studies light from stars and galaxies to help astronomers better understand their properties. It has also been used in pioneering studies of dark energy. The site also has a number of other small telescopes.
The observatory is currently working with several US universities to develop his 25-meter seven-mirror telescope in Chile. It is called the Giant Magellan Telescope and is scheduled to begin operations in 2029.
What You Need to Know About Star Parties
The party, held on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, begins with a brief staff orientation in the outdoor amphitheater. On the 30-minute constellation tour that follows, you can sit back and soak up the myth and science behind your favorite constellations as you gaze up at the star-studded sky overhead. Stunning on a clear night, the Milky Way cuts a silky path through space. The evening concludes with his 90 minutes of stargazing at the telescope located at Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. Staff and volunteers will be available to answer your questions.
A visitor does not see the stars through his one of the research telescopes, which provide scientists with data but no visual images.
What to bring?
Feel free to bring your binoculars. However, due to dark skies and the best viewing experience for all visitors, please do not bring white light flashlights. Bring a red flashlight and headlamp instead. Bright camera screens and flash photography are also not recommended. You can wear warm clothes in layers and bring a blanket. The Star Party is held outdoors at high altitude, with temperatures about 10 degrees cooler than at the foot of the mountain.
Best time to visit
When making a reservation, please be aware that the light of the full moon will make it difficult to see the stars and the Milky Way. For the best viewing conditions, attend the Star Party a few days before the crescent moon or a few days after the full moon. Autumn usually has the clearest skies, with July and August the wettest.
General admission tickets grant general access to the visitor center and its exhibits. A self-guided tour of the grounds is also included. Standing tickets are not required to be reserved. Additional fees apply for guided tours and solar viewing programs. Due to limited space, reservations are recommended for these two additional activities.
Your self-guided tour begins at Mount Rock. Here, a scenic lookout overlooks the Davis Mountains and various telescopes in the distance. The Struve Telescope and Harland J Smith Telescope and their domes are located at Mount Locke. The tour continues to the summit of Mount Forks. The large silver dome houses the Hobby-Eberly Telescope here. Its state-of-the-art instruments allow astronomers to observe hundreds of galaxies simultaneously, study galactic chemistry and search for stars. The telescope can be seen from George T. Abel’s gallery inside the dome. You have to drive to both Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes. The 90-minute guided tour includes stops at the Harlan J Smith Telescope at Mount Rock and the Hobby Eberly Telescope at Mount Forks. Your guide will explain the observatory’s history, telescope design, and current research projects. However, you don’t see the stars through a telescope. Visitors drive their vehicles to the dome.
During the 45-minute Solar Observation Program, staff discuss the history and properties of the Sun. A filtered telescope with a camera will share an image of the sun’s surface on its screen. Programs typically run at 1:00 PM on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
West Texas has some of the darkest skies in North America. In other words, the stargazing is exceptional. However, this situation is threatened as commercial development leads to increased artificial light, affecting visibility. The observatory works with Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and other regional partners to monitor light pollution. Another goal is to replace and upgrade local lighting fixtures to minimize light pollution. Partners are also working to promote sky-friendly practices in West Texas and educate the public about the importance of dark skies.
Plan your visit
The Observatory is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 AM to 5 PM. General admission tickets are $3. Tour prices are $10 for adults and $5 for children under 5. 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 Party ($20). The solar observing program costs $5.
The observatory is in the Central Time Zone (CDT). The visitor center phone number is 432-426-3640. For more information on accessibility, please visit our website.
- Address 3640 Dark Sky Dr
- Phone 432-426-3640
- Website www.mcdonaldobservatory.org
- Hours visitor center 10am-5pm
- Price day pass adult/child 6-12yr/under 6yr $3/3/free