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Star Hill Inn - Sapello, New Mexico
Star Hill Inn Visit
My wife and I journeyed to Star Hill Inn, June 27th, thru July 1st, 2003. The Inn is located in Sapello, New Mexico.
Getting to The Star Hill Inn was fairly easy. Interstate 25 runs from Santa Fe and Albuquerque to Las Vegas, New Mexico. From there, it is a 15 minute drive, out a State Highway, to a marked dirt road, and finally to the entrance to The Star Hill Inn. The Inn sits at over 7,000 elevation in a hilly section of NE New Mexico, not far from Taos. Large mountains were visible nearby (more on that later).
The 'Inn' consists of several cabins stretched along a driveway about 1/4 mile in length. Generally you could only see 1 or 2 cabins from any location. There are about 200 acres, filled with pines, fields, hiking trails, lost of interesting birds, cactus (which was in bloom), a labyrinth, and the Meditation Garden.
Most of the accommodations are cabins large enough for 2 couples. However, some have 2 bed rooms, and some simply have a pullout couch. Our cabin had a complete kitchen, a living room with a ceiling fan, lots of reading material, including local tourism information, 1 bed room, and a full bath. Outside there was a porch with a red light, and a few chairs. There were shutters over the windows with screens and blinds. Controlling the temperature in the cabin was fairly easy. It got a little warm at times, but it was tolerable. Each cabin was a different nightly rate, ours was about $175.00.
Our hosts were Phil and Rae Ann Mahon, a very pleasant couple who live in a large house on the grounds of The Star Hill Inn. They have 'office hours' twice a day (around 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM) when they are available to speak to the guests. Other than that, I got the impression that they wished to be left alone. You could leave them a note, and they would eventually leave you an answer at your cabin. At night, Phil came out and set up the telescopes on the common observing deck, located 1/2 way down the driveway, and was available for questions. He would spend a few minutes with each person at their telescope, showing them how it worked.
The climate was generally dry and warm. During the day, the sun beats down on the area, and the temperatures ranged up to the mid 80's. In the sun, it feels warmer, but in the shade, it actually feels quite comfortable, owing to the low humidity and gentle breezes that usually blow. This does not mean that we did not have any rain! We had varying amounts of rain every day that we were there, from a few sprinkles to a furious thunderstorm, that unleashed sheets of rain, frequent lightning, and marble sized hail. At night it cooled off considerably. Warm clothing is a must. I ended up wearing long pants, 2 shirts, a jacket, a hat, and gloves by the end of the observing sessions. By sunrise, the temperature was usually in the low 50's to upper 40's.
In spite of the rain that we encountered, the weather cleared up every night that we were there. We arrived at about 7:30 PM the first night, unpacked, and went out to the deck to say hello and get ready for the night's viewing. As it got dark, I was amazed by the blackness of the skies. It was probably the best night of dark sky viewing I had ever enjoyed (up until then!). Objects that were impossible to see with the naked eye in the Hudson Valley (my home) were clearly visible, such as M13. Looking at the Milky Way with 15x 70 binoculars (which I brought myself - Phil has some binoculars as well), was like viewing a photograph! The first night, I had the use of a 12" Meade SCT with a GOTO. (Each night, guests have the use of a telescope, included in the cost of their room, with the exception of the 24" - see the web page for a list of their scopes). I spent most of the night looking at Messier Objects that are visible in the summer sky. Almost all were very impressive. Not having observed much lately, I was glad to have the use of the GOTO. Around 1:00 AM, the people using the 17.5" Dob went to bed, so I used that for a while. Its views were excellent. The Swan Nebula, M17, was especially fantastic. The detail in the gas clouds was amazing, and I saw for the first time, the gas 'trailing' the swan, ripples, if you will, in the celestial pond that the Swan swims in. I stayed up till about 3:30 AM. Only one person was still awake, a man using the 22" Starsplitter Dob for what was obviously an intense pre-planned observing program. Astronomical twilight was around 4:00 AM. The seeing was not all that great the first night, nor any night for that matter.
The other guests ranged from complete beginners to experienced amateurs. Some of the beginners seemed a little 'out of it', not quite knowing what to do. Some of the more experienced observers shared their time and expertise with them. Many people shared their scopes, in a 'star party' type of atmosphere. A few people stayed mostly to themselves, but no one was rude or completely unwilling to share their scopes, when approached in a friendly manner. Most of the guests stayed the minimum 2 nights, while we stayed 4.
The 2nd day, we woke up around 11:00 AM, went into town, shopped at Walmart for food and a few odds and ends, and had a late breakfast. There's not much to do in Las Vegas, but there is a hot springs near by and a man-made lake.
The 2nd night, I used the 24" Ritchey-Chretien Cassegrain Telescope that Phil had acquired from a professional observatory a few years ago (see web page for details). The scope sits in its own dome and has several eyepieces and filters, and can go up to 850x, which was sometimes usable, depending on the object being viewed. It also has a very respectable 6" f/10 refractor bolted on, just for kicks! The scope weighs about 5 tons, and has an NGC-Max computer controller. You pick an object, and then the computer tells you how far away you are in RA and DEC. Then you must slew the scope, using the push buttons (located next to the computer and next to the eyepiece, a nice convenience), to the desired location, at which point the readout on the computer will say '0,0'. (The scope was slightly out of alignment, but the object was usually in the low power field). You also have to slew the dome so that you can see thru the opening, again with a motorized control. Having 2 people in the dome (my wife), helped cut down on the time it took to progress from object to object. I started in the West and gradually worked my way across the sky to the East over the course of several hours. The views were astounding. We hopped from object to object, relishing the views. The sky was even better than the first night, which was utterly amazing. What luck to have such a great scope on such a great night! The rental for this scope is $100, (you can also rent a CCD camera for $50 more), and I consider it money extremely well spent. We called some of the other guests over a couple of times for M13, M31, etc. and they all were awed by the views as well. The focus on this scope was just a little bit fuzzy at high powers, either because the optics were not perfectly aligned, or perhaps due to poor seeing that night. Mars was very murky, even at 3:00 AM.
At 3:30, my wife decided she was tried and wanted to go to bed. By this time, I was completely satisfied, and so we shut down the dome. Inside the dome, it was warmer than the outside air, which was about 50 degrees. This allowed me to stay comfortable all night, unlike the previous night, where I was constantly going in the library to warm up and drink hot beverages. I stretched out on the deck, alone, and used my binoculars and my unaided eyes, drinking in the milky way until astronomical twilight started, around 4:00 AM. It had been a memorable 6 hours!
The next day we decided to go hiking up Hermit's Peak, a mountain not far away, in a National Park. It rises to just over 10,000 feet. My wife and are avid hikers in the Northeast, but the mountains are typically only 4,000 to 6,000 feet there. Phil told us that this hike would take about 3-4 hours. We set out towards the Park, and just as we got there, it started to rain, with lightning and hail. We debated going up the mountain. After a while, it cleared up, and off we went, starting out at about 7,800 feet. The hike was gradual at first and got steeper as we approached the summit. There were a lot of switch-backs, which made the going easier. Having been in the area for 3 days now, we were now used to the higher elevation. Just before the summit, the lightning reasserted itself, and we decided to turn back. As it turned out, it did not rain on the way back, but we felt 'better safe than sorry'.
The 3rd night, I used the Star Splitter 22" f/5 Dob. This is an awesome scope. While not quite as big as the 24", the faster focal ratio actually produces brighter views than the 24", but at lower powers. Sometimes, this made the 22" superior. The skies were comparable to the first night in darkness and seeing. I started out with a plan to look for planetary nebulae, but I soon realized that I should have used the 24" for this quest. The 22" is completely manual, and although I am a reasonably good star-hopper, and was armed with a copy of Star Atlas 2000.0 from the library, I realized this was not going to be a good use of my time. I quickly abandoned this plan, and shifted to taking another look at many of the objects that I had viewed on the 2 previous nights. This scope is spectacular for galaxies and nebulae. I was quite happy to share views with my fellow guests, trading peeks with them on the other scopes and allowing then to look through mine. I went to bed around 3:30, again the last to retire.
The next day we again got up very late, walked around the grounds, and explored the area. The trails are plainly marked, and can be walked in about an hour. There are some nice views from the top of the hill. Later, we drove to a winery near Taos, purchased half a case of various wines, and had them shipped back to our home. The mountains in this area are spectacular, rising to over 13,000 feet. A few still had patches of snow on them, much to our amazement. It was strange to us, being from the northeast, to be driving along thru high meadows at 9,300 feet, and to have mountains still towering above us.
The 4th night, I was slated to use the 16" Meade SCT. Knowing that I had to get up early to catch a plane, and having been so spectacularly successful so far, I decided to tell Phil not to set the scope up. I didn't think it could happen, but I was burned out on observing! I went to bed around 11:00, somewhat reluctantly, the sky having cleared again for the 4th night in a row, after an intense thunder storm a few hours before.
The Star Hill Inn has a 'library', next to the observing deck. This room is lit with red lights at night, to allow observers to stay dark adapted. There is a TV with a VCR, including an assortment of videos loosely based on an astronomical theme, a number of board games, hundreds of astronomy books, a PC with free (dial up) internet access and astronomy software, a 'pay phone' for guest's use or to summon Phil if there was a problem, photos of astronomical splendors on the walls, several copies of various star maps, a sidereal clock, snacks, and hot and cold beverages. The room is not heated in the summer, but it was much warmer than outside, allowing us to warm up and/or ingest some caffeine or sugar.
The telescopes were all reasonably collimated, and performed up to my expectations, in some cases exceeding them. The biggest problem with the equipment was the lack of nebula filters. Phil does say 'b.y.o.', but this still seems to be a requirement to me for a place like this. Most of his eyepieces were of excellent quality. There were filters available, and there were some nice touches, such as the secondary dew zapper installed on the Star Splitter. Dew was never a problem for any of the scopes.
The promised 'dessert on the deck' was never offered any of the 4 nights we were there.
Overall, I was very pleased with our stay. There are a few minor problems with The Star Hill Inn, but they pale in comparison to the views of the sky that it has to offer. I highly recommend a visit to anyone who loves observing the night sky.