Last Updated on 10/13/20 by Rose Palmer
“The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas”
I knew that when my 3 1/2 year old son came home from preschool singing these lyrics from the song “Deep In the Heart of Texas” that he had acclimated to our move to Houston. Six months after we moved to the Lone Star State, we took a trip into the heart of Texas and discovered the truth behind the Texas dark skies in Big Bend National Park. The Big Bend dark skies were the best place to see the milky way in the lower 48 states.
Our first excursion exploring the vastness that is Texas took us into central and then south Texas to Big Bend National Park. The first stop was at the McDonald Observatory so that we could experience one of their star parties. Almost 30 years later and that experience is still etched clearly in my memory. After an introductory talk at the visitor’s center, the guide turned off all the lights so that our eyes would get acclimated to the dark. Then we were led carefully outdoors for a guided tour of the night sky.
I will never forget taking that first step through the doors and looking up at a sky that had so many stars in it that it seemed like there was more white than black. The more I looked, the more pin pricks and wisps of white I saw. It was now clear that the night sky really wasn’t dark at all. Growing up in a city, I had never imagined that so many stars could ever be visible at night.
This first encounter with the night skies in Texas was in 1990, three years before the first area in the US was designated as a Dark Sky Park (Lake Hudson State Recreation Area in 1993). Big Bend National Park received its Dark Sky Park designation in 2012.
Today, the US has 55 designated Dark Sky Parks, many of which are also US National Parks, National Monuments or State Parks. What does it mean to be a Dark Sky Park? According to the International Dark Sky Association, “an IDA International Dark Sky Park (IDSP) is a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment. The land may be publicly owned, or privately owned provided that the landowner(s) consent to the right of permanent, ongoing public access to specific areas included in the IDA designation.” Basically, that means a location that has no artificial lighting for miles around and is very, very, very dark. The primordial kind of dark that is now hard to find in our electrified world.
Big Bend, Texas – The best place to see the milky way
Besides having Big Bend National Park as a Dark Sky Park, the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park also received a Dark Sky Park designation in 2017. The two parks combined provide almost 1800 square miles of uninterrupted and protected night time visibility with almost no light pollution. Add to that the fact that there is also not much development across the Rio Grand River in Mexico, and you have one of the best placed in the US for star gazing.
Besides being a scenically beautiful place to explore during the day, the Big Bend area is also a fantastic location to experience a completely dark sky – the kind of sky that would have been seen by the dinosaurs that once roamed across the same land millions of years ago. It’s not until you get away from the light pollution and stand in an open field in complete darkness that you can appreciate what the night sky is really supposed to look like.
On my recent trip to the Big Bend area in early September, I was fortunate to be there during a new moon, so not only was there no human light pollution but there was also no celestial light interference. I sat in the Chihuahuan Desert and had a complete 180° view of the milky way as it arched from horizon to horizon. Even on the widest setting on my camera lens, I could only capture about 1/3 of what I could see. The beauty of photographing the milky way is that the camera sensor records so much more detail than what my eyes could see. On either side of the milky way, the sky was covered in little pins of light. I was awed at the spectacle – talk about feeling insignificant and I was only seeing a small portion of the 100 billion stars in our galaxy.
The best time to see the milky way is the summer months (June to August) when it will be visible for most of the night. In the Early fall months (Sept. to Nov.), it is visible in the hours after sunset, while in the late spring months (March to May), it is visible in the hours just before sunrise. The milky way rises in the southeast, crosses the southern horizon and then sets in the southwest, so you will want a dark location that does not have any light pollution coming from the south. Also, the further south you are, the better the view will be because the core of the milky way will be visible higher in the sky (especially in the southern hemisphere).
When I visited Big Bend in early Sept. the core of the milky way was clearly visible on the southern horizon when it got completely dark at about 9:30 PM and stayed visible for the two hours that I was photographing.
For up to date information on Big Bend National Park and their dark sky programs, please visit https://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm .
For up to date information on visiting the McDonald Observatory please visit https://mcdonaldobservatory.org/ .
For information on the International Dark Sky Association please visit http://darksky.org/idsp/parks/ .
You can read more of my Big Bend stories at https://quiltripping.com/category/travel/north-america/usa/texas/.
Photographing the milky way in Big Bend National Park was my first attempt at astrophotography, and I am hooked. I have now taken milky way photos in Kenya , Morocco and Grand Teton National Park, and will continue to look for opportunities to try my hand to capture images of our night sky.
Please note that my visit to the Big Bend area was hosted by Visit Big Bend but all content is my own.
Thanks for visiting.