Stargazing in West Texas, Where the Stars at Night Are Indeed Big and Bright

The Milky Way glows in its full celestial glory in West Texas, home to some of the darkest skies in the world—AKA the best skies for stargazing. Thanks to a lack of light pollution, this vast swath of cattle ranches, oil fields, scrubby deserts, and remote mountains is a top destination for pondering the cosmos.

Here, local communities are making dark sky preservation a priority, particularly in the Big Bend region north of the Rio Grande. So what might you see in these pristine skies, in addition to the Milky Way? Meteor showers, moon shadows, dancing lights, and an entire sky of stars like nothing you’ve seen in the city. Although you’re looking at a drive of at least seven hours from Austin (and a more manageable three to four from El Paso), it’ll be well worth the road trip to feel closer to the shooting stars than the city lights.

Read on for five great spots to get your stargazing adventure started on the western end of the Lone Star State.

Photo by Hipcamper Photographer James Hill at Chisos Basin Campground in Big Bend National Park, Texas

1. Big Bend National Park

Who turned out the lights? This place is dark—and we mean dark! In fact, this enormous park (over 1,200 square miles) receives the least amount of light pollution of any national park in the continental U.S. It’s said that about 2,000 stars are visible here on a clear night—far more than the few hundred you typically see from a mid-sized city with well-lit skies. Certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2012, Big Bend has taken steps to reduce light pollution within its own boundaries by installing shielded, downward-facing lights.

Pre-COVID, park rangers led astronomy talks, telescope events, and full moon hikes several nights weekly. These events are returning as conditions allow, first with solar viewings to safely take a look at the sun during the day.

To stargaze at Big Bend on your own, Supervisory Park Ranger Annie Gilliland recommends settling in at the open-air Fossil Discovery Exhibit area or Sotol Vista on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Both have open horizons in all directions and sit at a higher elevation than the surrounding landscape. Bring a star chart (sold in the park bookstore) and a flashlight or red headlamp.

Gilliland notes that half the reason to visit the park is to experience it at night. “Night is when the desert really comes alive,” she says. “Temperatures are generally more comfortable, more wildlife is active, and there is a beautiful sky above us.”

The Milky Way seen atop the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas // Photo by Leonardo Corral

2. McDonald Observatory

Home to several of the most powerful telescopes on the planet, McDonald Observatory is a world-renowned astronomical research and educational center—one that’s less frequented than Brazos Bend State Park‘s George Observatory outside Houston.

From a lofty perch in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, the observatory hosts 2-hour star parties on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. At these open-air gatherings, staff members share details about planets, star clusters, and galaxies while telescopic images of these celestial objects are projected onto a large screen for up-close viewing.

To attend a star party, plan to make reservations at least six weeks in advance. If you can’t snag tickets, sign up instead for the 1-hour Evening Sky Viewing program, which includes a star talk but no telescopic images. Daytime programs are also offered, though all observatory access requires advance reservations.

Big Bend Ranch’s historic sites beneath a starry sky // Photo by Wayne Suggs

3. Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park, another International Dark Sky Association-designated site, is a prime destination for stargazers who want to be alone with nature. Bordering the Rio Grande northwest of Big Bend National Park, this remote spot doesn’t have the layout or the visitation numbers for stargazing events, so you’re on your own for the most part. But Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Barton Warnock Visitor Center is worth a stop, with helpful information on stargazing spots in the area. These include easy-to-access campgrounds, trailheads, historic sites, and roadside pull-offs—the Big Hill overlook is a highly recommended viewing area.

According to Park Ranger Amber Harrison, the Milky Way is prominent at Big Bend Ranch most nights, weather permitting. She also recommends visiting the Texas state park during a full moon, when the combination of dark skies and a bare landscape reveals the orb’s true brightness.

“When the moon is out in full, it literally casts a shadow,” she says. “It’s pretty spectacular.”

The night sky glows above Marfa’s most famous landmark. // Photo by Leonardo Corral
The sun sets on El Cosmico’s wide open land. // Photo by Hipcamp Photographer Clare Healy at the El Cosmico campground near Marfa

4. Marfa

Ranchers and artists peacefully coexist in Marfa, a cultural and culinary outpost on the western fringe of West Texas. As for the stargazing, it’s about as eclectic as the town itself. The “Marfa Lights”—mysterious dancing lights occasionally seen on the horizon southeast of town—are a sight to behold. Their origins are unknown, but sightings stretch back to the 1880s. Look for them from the Marfa Lights Viewing Area about nine miles east of town on Highway 90.

Traditional stargazing is also quite good at El Cosmico, a Hipcamp campground known for its vintage trailers, yurts, and teepees. To reduce ambient light, pathways are lined with downward-facing lights encased in cones, and exterior trailer lights glow red so they don’t interfere with your vision. Handkerchiefs emblazoned with constellations are sold at the campground gift shop, so you can find Orion before blowing your nose.

The Milky Way seen in the Davis Mountains, Texas // Photo by Adam Dutton

5. Davis Mountains State Park

The McDonald Observatory hogs the spotlight when it comes to stargazing in the Davis Mountains, as it should. However, if you can’t score a ticket to one of its star parties, don’t fret. The night sky also dazzles just 12 miles away at Davis Mountains State Park. For the best stargazing view, drive up Skyline Drive ($3 fee after 10pm, plus $6 park admission). The state park hosts the occasional night sky talk, usually in April and May, typically scheduled on nights not conflicting with star parties at the observatory. You might just get to catch some phenomenal sunsets here as well!

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Amy writes about travel, adventure, and the outdoors from her home in Lexington, Virginia, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. She has written or co-written more than 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Sierra, Southern Living, Women’s Health, the Washington Post and online at bbc.com, horizonguides.com, theknot.com, and lonelyplanet.com.

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