Everything You Need to Know about Stargazing in Big Bend National Park
Deep in the heart of Texas – or, more specifically, in its far Western stretch, close to the Mexican border – Big Bend National Park is home to some of the darkest skies in the country. Drawing together a humbling intersection of harsh desert, god-like mountains and fertile river valley all in one large, breathtaking swath of land, it’s one of only 13 parks in the world to have received a gold-tier certification from the International Dark Sky Association.
Boasting more than 1,200 different types of flora and over 450 species of birds within its perimeter, Big Bend’s bio-diverse beauty by day only heightens the majesty of the stargazing experiences found within its 800,000 acres by night. What’s more, some of the park’s most ancient rocks are said to be 500 million years old. That’s quite the perspective beneath stargazers’ feet to help them ponder the expanse of the universe overhead.
Dark Night Skies
Big Bend is one of just four places able to claim the least light-polluted skies in the contiguous U.S. That’s due in part to its relative distance from civilization. (Case in point, the closest airport in Midland, TX, is nearly 250 miles away). Its elevation doesn’t hurt, either. In a typical city or town, a few hundred stars might be visible on a particularly clear night. In Big Bend, an average night yields a view of more than 2,000.
Further, the park’s dedication to completely eliminating light pollution is truly notable. Park staff are in the process of retrofitting all of their incandescent fixtures with LED and shielded lighting in an ongoing quest to make its night skies as primeval as possible. In fact, even campfires are prohibited inside the park, further keeping its pitch blackness intact once the sun goes down.
With a nod to the historical use of heavenly bodies for scientific and spiritual purposes, the park’s literature notes, “To leave the city and the light gives park visitors and residents a glimpse into the past, where the night sky can be observed and studied, like people did for thousands of years.”
Best Bets for Stargazing
The park holds a veritable treasure trove of stargazing spots, from popular designated observation points to self-selected campsites in its vast backcountry wilderness. Here are a few to consider when planning a trip.
Hot Springs Canyon Trail – A more difficult one-mile hike in the summer than the cooler months due to its absolute lack of shade, this riverside stroll leads to the hot springs near the Rio Grande Village Campground inside the park. Luckily for those looking up, that same lack of shade by day makes for a clear view of the heavens after sunset.
Rio Grande Village Nature Trail – For visitors who prefer a sky show without exerting too much effort to find it, there is this trail beginning at the Rio Grande Village Campground with a 100-yard wheelchair-accessible path over water and up a hill to a stunning view of both the Del Carmen Mountains and the Chisos over the Rio Grande as the sun goes down, plus an equally breathtaking vista once darkness falls.
McDonald Observatory – Although it’s a two-hour drive from the park, the McDonald Observatory is a must-see for any stargazing enthusiast spending time in the Big Bend region. Established in 1933 by the University of Texas on a stretch of mountain road aptly named Dark Sky Drive in the Davis Mountains, the astronomical observatory hosts four massive research telescopes through which visitors can peek during dazzling “star parties” that welcome the curious public for a small fee each week. Hotels and campgrounds in the nearby towns of Marfa and Alpine can hold stargazers over for the night before returning to the park.
Sleeping Under the Stars
The Washington Post calls Big Bend National Park “the best place in America to fall asleep under the stars,” and for good reason. While its remote location, lack of light pollution and overall elevation all work in its favor, the absence of too many fellow visitors takes the Big Bend stargazing experience to another level when it’s coupled with an overnight stay.
For experienced campers with many successful backcountry excursions under their belts, advanced hikes in the park lend themselves beautifully to an evening spent staring up at the Milky Way. Only one in ten overnight stays in Big Bend is a backcountry stay, due in no small part to the park’s lack of dependably clean water. Those who wish to venture deep into the wild are required to pack a gallon a day. But for those who make the trip, the payoff is priceless: The strenuous 30-mile Outer Mountain Loop offers vantage points ranging from verdant forest clearings to empty desert vistas with unparalleled views of the sky.
How to Heighten the Experience
While the sheer beauty of the stars can be enough all on its own, a few tips can make the experience even more memorable. For starters, familiarizing yourself with a star chart in advance can make the night that much more fun, even if you only memorize a handful of constellations before you go. Likewise, following a few noted astronomers and physicists on social media or watching a documentary or two can heighten your appreciation for what you’re seeing. Take the time to follow Neil deGrasse Tyson or Jackie Faherty on Twitter or catch a few episodes of COSMOS—the Carl Sagan classic or the recent reboot hosted by Tyson—and allow yourself the pleasure of truly geeking out about the galaxy you’re gawking at.
When it comes to gear, a pair of binoculars and a red flashlight are really all you need. Binoculars, of course, can help you get up close and personal with the moon if it’s visible, and a flashlight with a red filter will interfere less with your eyes’ dilation if you need a little light to move about during your stargazing experience. A simple piece of red plastic secured over your flashlight with a rubber band will do the trick.
And of course, as with anything, “there’s an app for that,” including stargazing. Consider downloading Stellarium, which has a night mode to protect your eyes (and those around you) from the blue light of your cell phone, or other highly-rated favorites such as Google Star Walk. Like Shazam for stars, they help you understand what you’re seeing and, as a result, let you experience it more deeply.
Or, of course, you can simply leave the accessories behind, choose your spot, lie back and look up for a truly stellar adventure.
Originally written by RootsRated for Backwoods.
Featured image provided by Keith Yahl