Lately, more and more people are turning to star gazing as a hobby and as a recreational activity. Is this a reaction to increased light pollution given off by cities that seem to become busier by the day? Or is it simply a desire to engage in a peaceful pursuit that is as awe-inspiring as it is relaxing? Whatever the reason, one would be hard pressed to find a more suitable location from which to view the cosmos than in Big Bend and the surrounding area.
The Big Bend region is tucked away in a remote section of Southwest Texas among volcanic lava flows and along the banks of the Rio Grande. Its isolation from big cities, and seemingly civilization itself, makes it the preeminent location for both amateur and professional astronomers alike. In fact, the skies above the Big Bend are the darkest anywhere on the North American continent. The lack of dirty, luminous backwash from glitzy neon signs and street lamps provides an utterly dark backdrop against which stars and planets gleam from the Milky Way and beyond. Our home galaxy truly earns its name when viewed from inside Big Bend National Park and the accompanying terrain. Indeed, the Milky Way pulses from the West Texas sky so vividly that viewers might even mistake it for an oncoming raincloud.
West Texas has long had an excellent reputation for star gazing, so much so that the Texas Star Party is celebrating its 33rd annual get together in 2011. The organizers are always careful to select an area that allows for unimpeded observation of the night sky, and 2011’s Star Party is hosted on the expansive Prude Ranch, a 3500 acre ranch that sits one mile above sea level. The little light that does come from traffic and other artificial sources is controlled on the ranch so that serious astronomers have nothing to get in the way of their gazing.
There is more to the Texas Star Party than simply tilting your head back and looking to the heavens, although there is nothing wrong with that. Organizers have created observing programs in which guests complete an observational checklist, so to speak. One or more lists of stars, constellations, and other stellar objects are available at registration. These lists guide viewers in finding specific heavenly bodies and star clusters so that they may record them with the Star Party and receive an observing pin for their efforts.
Adding to the festivities is the annual swap meet where guests can set up tables and swap just about anything from telescopes to clothes to good old-fashioned tall tales. Creative star gazers are invited to enter the Astronomy Art Competition. Drawings, paintings, mixed media, and more may be displayed so that fellow Star Party goers may enjoy the art and judge it for prizes. If you are an aspiring Ansel Adams, do not worry; photographers are not left out in the cold. Prizes are also awarded to astrophotographers who best capture the solar system and neighboring galaxies.
The Texas Star Party itself is not the only occasion at which astronomy enthusiasts may come together to share their passion. Just a quick jaunt down the road from Prude Ranch is the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Star Party Passes are available here for tours given every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Guests are able to explore the constellations, stars, moon, and galaxies through the telescopes located in the Visitors Center Public Observatory. Though refunds are not offered in the event of inclement weather, interesting indoor presentations are provided that are geared to excite and educate visitors.
Partiers who wish to kick start the night a little earlier may sign up for a twilight program. These programs are roughly an hour long and begin about 90 minutes before the Star Party. Many visitors choose to partake in both events to fully enhance the educational and entertaining experience. The McDonald Observatory advises patrons to dress warmly because several of the programs occur outdoors.
Big Bend and the accompanying West Texas environs are an astronomer’s paradise. The remote, uncluttered landscape is the ideal location from which to enjoy the wondrous mysteries of space. Wishing upon a star has never been easier than under the dark skies of Big Bend.
There are some views you just can't take in all at once. Like a dazzling sunset or breathtaking field of wildflowers—you just can't appreciate such beauty in the moment, a moment that is often over before you realize it, the forms and colors of that marvelous vista already fading in your memory. Perhaps it was with the goal of preserving such scenes that the first camera was invented, a goal that you may still share when you visit a place as beautiful as Big Bend and the surrounding area. Why not take a look through our new and improved photo galleries to see what amazing sights have been preserved by astounded visitors and appreciative locals? When you see the mountains, plains, flora, and fauna displayed in those images, you'll be glad the gallery contributors took their camera along.
Among the many activities available in Big Bend National Park that highlight the region's diversity of wildlife, birding can be enjoyable and promising. Big Bend engulfs a vast area, bounded by the the rushing Rio Grande valley to the south, containing high peaks in the Chisos Mountains, and boasting both desert and forest climates between the two. It embodies the very diversity that makes America great, providing countless opportunities to spot more than 450 birds in one area.
What are your new year's resolutions for 2012? Did you keep your resolutions for 2011? While the top resolutions each year include losing weight, learning something new, traveling, or getting out of debt, here's a new challenge you can take on this year: spot all the bird species in Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend has some of the most spectacular scenery in Texas, if not the entire US. Our big sky country rivals any other state and our night skies are as dark as anywhere for excellent star gazing. The beautiful light and great scenery make for a photographer’s paradise.
There are many things you may love to do in Big Bend National Park in the heat of summer, but running or jogging is probably not one of them. With 90+ degree temperatures, there simply is no such thing as a nice July run in West Texas. With the dry weather we've had this year, you have truly hostile workout conditions. That all changes this time of year, though, as temperatures drop and the sun gives us a break for a few months. What a great time to get out on some trails in Big Bend!