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McDonald Observatory 4 – Davis Mountains State Park

Updated: Mar 25, 2022

2021.06.12 - In the heart of West Texas, nestled in the Eastern foothills of the Davis Mountain Range, lies one of Texas' hidden gems. Undulating fields of golden grass and a sprinkling of small trees shape the landscape, with intermittent explosions of color from the areas many flowering flora, and brightly colored fauna. At night, the towering walls of Keesey Canyon frame a seemingly endless field of stars punctuated by the unmistakeable glow of the Milky Way. The park is a truly unique oasis in an otherwise oppressive environment, and it is home to some of the best desert and dark sky views in the state. It may seem small at first, but once you get out and explore, the experience is always well worth the drive.

The Milky Way Galaxy over Fort Davis State Park
The park's accommodations are concentrated in the valley of Keesey Canyon on the left with TX-118 running up to the Observatory barely visible in this image to the far right

After scoping out the range Northwest of the McDonald Observatory, I returned to Davis Mountains State Park to make sure I properly checked into my campsite, and to verify what options I had for astrophotography. I knew that Davis Mountain State Park had several mountain hikes that would give me a good view of the area, but I was wary of hauling all the heavy astrophotography gear up those narrow dirt trails, especially at night.

While talking to the Rangers at the entrance, they reminded me that the Skyline Drive had multiple scenic views that might interest me, including some areas which I had yet to fully explore. I thanked them for their help, and headed up the tight switchbacks in the Subaru until I reached the cramped summit of a nameless ridge. The small roundabout had a few parking spaces, some radio equipment, and a small rocky path that lead out along the rounded ridge. Based on the park's Trail Map, a combination of the Skyline Drive Trail and the Old CCC Trail can be used to create a roughly 4.2 mile loop up the mountain if you are looking for a great hike with endless views. On this day however, I was on the Skyline Drive for the sole purpose of finding a shooting location for the night.

Click on the thumbnail or use the arrow on the sides to scroll through the images

Long, blue shadows of the clouds above crept slowly across the wide desert basin, and effortlessly up the steep slopes of the surrounding mountain range. From my vantage point atop the ridge, I essentially had a 365 degree view of the Davis Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert stretching out to the horizon. To the South, the steeply tapered prominence of Mitre Peak was an unmistakable landmark that I had noticed the night prior from the summit of Mount Locke, and drove past that morning on the way to Alpine. To the West, was the towering Blue Mountain extending up to 7,286 ft above the white adobe walls of Indian Lodge in the valley.

To the Northwest, I could easily the see the unmistakable silhouettes of the three main telescopes of the McDonald Observatory, standing like sentries atop the distant, hazy horizon. As I stood quietly along the rocky, windswept ridge, shifting columns of light slipped through the dense clouds and illuminated small sections of the dappled mountain range.

TX-118 winding its way to the Northwest towards the McDonald Observatory on the Horizon to the right
Use the arrow on the right of the image to see a closer view of the Observatory

Golden rays of sunlight rained down on the desert landscape as the sun dipped ever lower in the afternoon sky. While I appreciated the protection from the sun that the clouds provided, and the cooler winds blowing across the ridge, I couldn’t help but worry that these billowing clouds might obscure the sky and make the summit treacherous with a night of heavy storms. This was my second and last night in West Texas, so all I could do was hope that the clouds would dissipate with the cool night air as they had the night before.

Small rock cairns (stacked rocks) aid wayfinding along the rocky Skyline Drive Trail

Further down the ridge, the Skyline Drive passes multiple overlooks constructed out of rough hewn stone. These structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) during the New Deal as a way for America to escape the daunting ramifications of the Great Depression. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the stone-walled Overlook Shelter located at the far end of the Skyline Drive has many similar features to those designed by the National Park Service's Architect Herbert Maier. In 1924 he designed a similar building for Yosemite National Park in California, so it is thought that the shelter at Davis Mountains State Park is likely an early prototype that influenced his work in other parks. One of the key similarities is the broad, open window facing South that wonderfully frames the Chihuahuan Desert.

Texas in my rear view mirror (for all you Mac Davis fans out there)

As the hot sun began to dip behind layers of undulating storm clouds, I decided that it would be safer to stay near my campsite in case the storms shifted to the South. As long as the weather was calm, I intended to spend the night on the Skyline Drive instead of trying to drive half an hour back up to the area North of the Observatory that I had scouted earlier in the day, but was now being hit by thunderstorms. On the way up the Skyline Drive, I had noticed a sign mentioning something about permits, so I headed back down into the canyon to find a Ranger who could advise me on the rules of the park before they left for the day.

Sure enough, at the Interpretive Center just to the right of the entry to Skyline Drive, I found two very helpful Rangers who directed me to Indian Lodge on the other side of the park where I could purchase an overnight permit at the gift shop. Fortunately, the lodge had later hours than the other park facilities, but I still needed to hurry to make sure I could get a permit before sunset. I was greeted at the gift shop by a cheerful host who was happy to help me, and in no time I had my permit for the meager sum of $3. The host and I had a nice conversation about recommended photo opportunities before I headed back up to the top of the mountain ridge to spend the next few hours waiting for the sun to set. I drove from one end of the Skyline Drive to the other, hiking for a while and investigating the locations that I hoped to photograph later that night. I even tried to nap on a shaded concrete table for a while, but everything solid was still radiating the heat of the day, and the bugs were intent on keeping me awake, so I gave up on any hope for sleep.

As the light of the sun began to fade, I drove back up to the highest peak to observe the sunset. However, the clouds along the Western horizon were so thick that the light merely faded in the haze of a growing thunderstorm. I had intended to set up my camera for a time lapse of the storm, but as I headed out to the edge of the ridge, the local police arrived to check for permits. Most people were ushered off the summit, but fortunately I already had my permit so I was allowed to stay. The officer noticed my Coast Guard license plate cover, and mentioned that he had also served with the Coast Guard before working for the National Parks Service, so we stood and talked for a while about our experiences as Federal LEOs. Unfortunately, by the time I made it out to the rocky ridge, the moon had begun to set behind a fading lightning storm, and the lightning strikes were few and far between.

I returned to my Subaru, popped the rear hatch, and began the detailed process of setting up the SkyGuider Pro star tracker in the parking lot. This time I set up the more complicated counter-balanced deep sky rig, which meant that I also needed to get software up and running on my small Surface Pro to get the tracker polar aligned with Polaris, and the autoguider functioning properly to modify the turning pace of the tracker in real time (potentially to greatly increasing accuracy of rotation, and increase exposure time).

As the night settled in, I was nervous that the clouds still lingering above the ridge might block the view of the sky for the entire night. Even Polaris was lost in the haze for a time which made it impossible to align the star tracker. However, around midnight, the first hints of the Milky Way began to rise over the golden haze surrounding the summit, and there was a glimmer of hope for one last night of dark sky astrophotography in West Texas.

© 2017-2022 Shaun C Tarpley Photography

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