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Planning a Trip to Big Bend - Advice Sought

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#1 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:00 AM

I'm planning a trip to Big Bend, TX this fall with a friend.  Neither of us have ever been.  Growing up in Colorado, I'm experienced in camping, hiking, and survival, but this is a new region for me and I wanted to seek the advice of others who have gone there specifically to do astronomy.

 

Goals for the trip:

- First and foremost, to see the Milky Way.  Really that's the bucket list thing we both want to do.

- Observing.  I'll be taking my 8" newtonian and a couple pairs of binoculars.  We plan to spend the nights observing.

- Astrophotography.  I'll also be taking my widefield AP rig and hope to get some amazing data out of it.

 

Primary astro gear we're taking (to help with questions below):

- 8" f/8 Newtonian on a GEM mount.  It's not very portable.  It will have to be setup carside or very near to it.  It does not require any power, though.

- 60mm APO imaging rig powered by a deep cycle battery (probably a wheelchair battery).  This setup is fairly portable.

- A Nikon D50 and a Nikon D610 for Milky Way shots

- Some binoculars

 

Questions I have:

  1. What is the best time of fall to travel to Big Bend?  Right now we've penciled in a weekend in mid-November, but what's the weather and climate like there?  I'd like to find a time when we're averaging 70-80F during the day and 50-60F at night for comfort reasons and to not have to pack a ton of clothing for cold weather.  Is November a good time for that?  Or is October better?
  2. Are there any specific locations in the park that are astronomy-friendly?  i.e. Concrete pads with power and a restroom nearby?  Or, are there any locations where car-camping is permitted and you can setup some telescopes and there's little LP?  I want to avoid showing up blind and just trying to find a random spot to setup in.
  3. What lessons did you learn when you went?  What did you wish you brought that you didn't, or what did you bring that wasn't used?
  4. Is there cellular service inside the park?
  5. What amenities are in the park?  Restrooms, showers, food, etc.
  6. Any others thoughts or ideas are welcome.

Oh and we will be tent camping.

 

Thanks!


Edited by matt_astro_tx, 19 July 2021 - 10:00 AM.

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#2 eyeoftexas

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:09 AM

Good luck and have a nice trip.  Try to visit the McDonald Observatory while out there.  They have star parties, which are quite fun, but you need reservations.


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#3 brlasy1

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:25 AM

I'm planning a trip to Big Bend, TX this fall with a friend.  Neither of us have ever been.  Growing up in Colorado, I'm experienced in camping, hiking, and survival, but this is a new region for me and I wanted to seek the advice of others who have gone there specifically to do astronomy.

 

Goals for the trip:

- First and foremost, to see the Milky Way.  Really that's the bucket list thing we both want to do.

- Observing.  I'll be taking my 8" newtonian and a couple pairs of binoculars.  We plan to spend the nights observing.

- Astrophotography.  I'll also be taking my widefield AP rig and hope to get some amazing data out of it.

 

Primary astro gear we're taking (to help with questions below):

- 8" f/8 Newtonian on a GEM mount.  It's not very portable.  It will have to be setup carside or very near to it.  It does not require any power, though.

- 60mm APO imaging rig powered by a deep cycle battery (probably a wheelchair battery).  This setup is fairly portable.

- A Nikon D50 and a Nikon D610 for Milky Way shots

- Some binoculars

 

Questions I have:

  1. What is the best time of fall to travel to Big Bend?  Right now we've penciled in a weekend in mid-November, but what's the weather and climate like there?  I'd like to find a time when we're averaging 70-80F during the day and 50-60F at night for comfort reasons and to not have to pack a ton of clothing for cold weather.  Is November a good time for that?  Or is October better?
  2. Are there any specific locations in the park that are astronomy-friendly?  i.e. Concrete pads with power and a restroom nearby?  Or, are there any locations where car-camping is permitted and you can setup some telescopes and there's little LP?  I want to avoid showing up blind and just trying to find a random spot to setup in.
  3. What lessons did you learn when you went?  What did you wish you brought that you didn't, or what did you bring that wasn't used?
  4. Is there cellular service inside the park?
  5. What amenities are in the park?  Restrooms, showers, food, etc.
  6. Any others thoughts or ideas are welcome.

Oh and we will be tent camping.

 

Thanks!

If you do a search of CN on this, you'll find a long thread from last year that should answer most of your questions.  Search for Davis Mountains, Alpine, McDonald Observatory, etc.


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#4 Jethro7

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:26 AM

Hello Matt,

I would contact the McDonald Observatory, for best times and best dark site spots. Enjoy your trip.

 

HAPPY SKIES AND KEEP LOOKING UP Jethro


Edited by Jethro7, 19 July 2021 - 10:34 AM.

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#5 RiderRoy

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:30 AM

I haven't done any observing out there but we take motorcycle trips to Big Bend every couple years. The night skies are just amazing. We usually stay in Marathon and there are camp sites there that would be great for setting up your rigs for stargazing. If you're lucky enough to land a camping spot on Chisos Basin campground that is pretty much the holy grail of camping in Big Bend. 

 

As for the weather and temps, you could see 80's during the day and 30s at night. Or you could see 30's during the day and holy cow it's cold at night. Just watch the weather forecasts a week or so before your trip to better plan. This is Texas after all and our weather does it's own thing. grin.gif


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#6 havasman

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:41 AM

You are more brilliant than many of the people that head for Big Bend w/o planning and either come away disappointed or get in trouble. Start now with the parks' websites. There are 2 parks: Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park. You're going to want the national park. It is plenty rugged and they're both extremely dark. November should be good but check with local sources. Don't underestimate the cold at night!

 

There are many resources for information about the region including

  • Big Bend Conservation Alliance - Listen to their TREAD TALK, the best single info source I've seen  -  https://www.bigbendc...w-before-you-go
  • visitbigbend.com
  • https://www.nps.gov/...visit/index.htm
  • Texas Monthly has info about the region
  • Texas Highways and Texas Parks and Wildlife magazines do too
  • The cities of Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis and maybe Marathon/Terlingua/Study Butte/Lajitas have visitors info websites, though as you will learn from the TREAD TALK they have shifted focus from attracting visitors to informing visitors
  • http://wtxfriendsofthenightsky.org/
  • When I was down there a few months ago McDonald Observatory was CLOSED. Not closed except by appointment but CLOSED TO ALL NON-ESSENTIAL PERSONNEL. Shut. Entry barred.
  • I think the very best place for us city dwellers to stay and stargaze is at Prude Ranch, just downhill from the observatory. Check it out. Contact them.

It is dark everywhere down there except along the E-W railroad track that runs @ from Valentine to Sanderson through the area, US90 that parallels it and the few other highways. The International Dark Sky Reserve they are putting together will encompass the region and be larger than all the others in the world combined. Pulling over on a highway at night into a turnaround and looking up for a few minutes gets you darker skies than anywhere in N Texas. So anywhere you decide to go will be very fine for dark skies.


Edited by havasman, 19 July 2021 - 06:36 PM.

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#7 MisterDan

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 12:42 PM

Hi, Matt.

 

Here's a link to November "typicals" for Big Bend.  You can check actuals for 2020 and 2019, as well.

https://www.accuweat...eather/34915_pc

These typicals likely come from the Panther Junction visitor center, which is about "mid-way" between Chisos Basin and the Rio Grande itself, temperature wise (5-10 degs. warmer or cooler, respectively).

 

By Thanksgiving, overnight lows average about 40F. By the end of the month, average lows are very near freezing.  Of course, a cold or warm front can throw "typicals" out the window.

 

Panther Junction's record low for November is 14F, but that was almost certainly an extreme scenario.  Temps rarely drop below the mid-20s.  Panther Junction's record high for November is 89.

 

The only other advice I'll offer is likely stuff you already know:  please be aware of your surroundings.  Big Bend is home to plenty of cougars (~150 sightings every year) and rattlesnakes.  Watch your step and check behind you.  Here are a couple of informational links:

https://www.nps.gov/...re/mt-lions.htm

https://bri.sulross....-national-park/

 

Best wishes and luck for your November trip!

Dan


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#8 Phillip Creed

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 02:43 PM

Matt,

Two words--"Marathon Motel"

 

https://www.marathon...p?astronomy=yes

 

Clear Skies,

Phil


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#9 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 02:56 PM

Matt,

Two words--"Marathon Motel"

 

https://www.marathon...p?astronomy=yes

 

Clear Skies,

Phil

VERY interesting.  I'll check with my buddy and see if he's interested.  Not sure if he was just tagging along to get to see big bend or not, but I just called Marathon and they have a room available for the weekend we were looking at.

 

Have you stayed there before?  What was your experience?


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#10 Phillip Creed

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 03:06 PM

Big Bend is simply as good as it gets in the CONUS.  It is extremely dark and often clear.  Late fall offers better prospects than early fall, but neither September nor October is bad.  October would still give you lots of summer milky way targets for quick imaging/observation.  Here's long-term climate data for nearby Alpine, TX:

https://weatherspark...Sections-Clouds

If you're venturing into the park itself, the best places are the Sotol Vista, Persimmon Gap picnic area and the Dugout Wells picnic area.  Sotol Vista is at 29.2°N latitude and a bit over 4,000-ft elevation and the dryness of the air in fall, winter and spring puts plenty of targets you ordinarily wouldn't go for in DFW metro into play.  Visually, I found that anything transiting north of -55° declination was worthwhile for observing.  One time in February 2008 we even got to see the Eta Carinae nebula from there (-59.7° dec) and even at that low elevation, the complex was vivid and LARGE.

Clear Skies,

Phil



 



#11 Phillip Creed

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 03:20 PM

VERY interesting.  I'll check with my buddy and see if he's interested.  Not sure if he was just tagging along to get to see big bend or not, but I just called Marathon and they have a room available for the weekend we were looking at.

 

Have you stayed there before?  What was your experience?

Stayed there once in 2005.  We were behind our cabin and did an impromptu star party the last night we were there.  The motel's outdoor lighting is all subdued and properly directed, and the result is a VERY dark sky even from the premises.  And that was before the owner made renovations specifically catering to astronomers and imagers.  He himself got bit--hard--by the astronomy bug after our visit and he made it a destination spot for imagers and stargazers.  The convenience factor alone is a very compelling one.

If I was planning to image and observe from the Big Bend region, that would be the place I'd go to, without question.  If a pad's available, you don't even need to supply power (I'd bring power supplies just in case).  There's an additional element of safety from the Marathon Motel, because if you enter the park, you're basically your own search-and-rescue team.

EDIT--if you stay in Marathon but venture into the park at night like we did in 2005, be aware your return trip will be through a Border Patrol inspection station on northbound US-385 roughly 5 miles south of Marathon.  If you're feeling sleepy on the way back, don't worry.  Seeing several armed personnel around your vehicle has a funny way of waking you back up.

Clear Skies,

Phil


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#12 havasman

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 03:48 PM

VERY interesting.  I'll check with my buddy and see if he's interested.  Not sure if he was just tagging along to get to see big bend or not, but I just called Marathon and they have a room available for the weekend we were looking at.

 

Have you stayed there before?  What was your experience?

I spent a week in the apartment last Fall. Marathon's a nice small town. Folks at the Motel are great and the place is well run. Observing is compromised by bad tree lighting very near the observing pads, US90 just a couple hundred yards S of the pads and the RR track just the other side of the road. Train headlights are incredibly bright and every 45 minutes or hour the train comes through and it shines in your eyes. Highway traffic isn't as bright but is more constant. If you go, be sure and set up in the more permanent resident area of the property N of the main spread. It's the trailer park part of the property. The general store in town is great and both the Mexican food place just east of the motel and the hotel restaurant at the fancier hotel in town are tops.

 

If you're just going to image the light sources may not matter to you but if you're a visual astronomer it's a factor. I was somewhat disappointed after having very high hopes for the place. But those intervals between trains after getting your dark adaption back were great.

 

Prude Ranch is better.


Edited by havasman, 19 July 2021 - 03:53 PM.

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#13 SerpensM16

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 04:53 PM

You should be able to see Omega Centauri at that latitude pretty easily.



#14 xonefs

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Posted 19 July 2021 - 10:07 PM

Inside the park you can basically pull off to a pullout on the side of the road and set up anywhere. It's all dark, and late at night you are unlikely to encounter anyone. There are a number of spots that have more dedicated parking areas that might be better for your tastes. I was there in May and you can drive around the main paved roads in the park during mid day in some areas and not encounter another car or human for almost an hour.

 

Technically camping is not allowed outside of campgrounds in nat parks, but you are unlikely to encounter anyone at night and if you are not obvious about car camping (as in sleeping in your car) no one will care or think twice about a parked vehicle overnight. I've slept in my car in much busier national parks for like 3-4 days in a row very recently and nobody noticed or cared (Mt Rainier, Crater Lake, Joshua Tree, St Helens, and Yosemite even this summer). I would definitely not hesitate to sleep in my car in big bend and stealth camp. It's one of the more remote and desolate parks so would be very easy to get away with. 

 

If you are tent camping then you really have no choice but to get a campsite at one of the campgrounds, unless you are venturing on the dirt and 4x4 roads which I would not recommend unprepared. 

 

A number of nights in big bend I just set up my whole AP rig off a pull out from the roads. It can get a bit creepy if you are by yourself out there but it's fine. I also set up my scope right in my campsite in Chisos Basin some nights, but I found the weather is less predictable up there (more likely for clouds to form high there, but just my unscientific observation) and you need to get lucky with a campsite with good visibility and no trees. 

 

I plan to go back there in a couple weeks and will probably just do Marathon Motel this time, but going to the park and setting up there is a cool experience.


Edited by xonefs, 19 July 2021 - 10:15 PM.


#15 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 07:34 AM

Thanks for the input everyone. 

 

I talked with my friend last night and we debated whether to camp in the park or stay at the motel.  The motel claims bortle 1, and I thought big bend natl park was bortle 0, but it looks like the bortle scale doesn't go to zero.  We ultimately decided, since this is a bucket list venture, we should go all the way and stay in the park.  We both like the prospect of sleeping in a motel room better than camping, but if the skies are better in the park then we'd rather stay there unless someone can convince us otherwise.



#16 Phillip Creed

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 10:11 AM

Thanks for the input everyone. 

 

I talked with my friend last night and we debated whether to camp in the park or stay at the motel.  The motel claims bortle 1, and I thought big bend natl park was bortle 0, but it looks like the bortle scale doesn't go to zero.  We ultimately decided, since this is a bucket list venture, we should go all the way and stay in the park.  We both like the prospect of sleeping in a motel room better than camping, but if the skies are better in the park then we'd rather stay there unless someone can convince us otherwise.

Matt,

This was ultimately why we observed from the park in 2005 even though we stayed in Marathon.  Having driven 1,700 miles from NE Ohio, we figured if we were going to go that far, might as well eek out the darkest sky we could.

Clear Skies,

Phil


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#17 Phillip Creed

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 10:29 AM

Another possibility is to stay somewhere near Terlingua / Study Butte, and then drive into the park from the west.  No BP station to drive through on the trip back to your lodging.  If you're staying anywhere near the SR-170 / SR-118 junction, a 10-minute drive into the park will get you to the Maverick Junction parking lot.  Once you're in the the park, it's as dark as dark gets.

A 30 minute-drive from Study Butte gets you to the Sotol Vista, THE spot for stargazing in the park with a true southern horizon.

Clear Skies,

Phil


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#18 Heywood

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 12:21 PM

Thanks for the input everyone.

I talked with my friend last night and we debated whether to camp in the park or stay at the motel. The motel claims bortle 1, and I thought big bend natl park was bortle 0, but it looks like the bortle scale doesn't go to zero. We ultimately decided, since this is a bucket list venture, we should go all the way and stay in the park. We both like the prospect of sleeping in a motel room better than camping, but if the skies are better in the park then we'd rather stay there unless someone can convince us otherwise.

Do you realize that the park has motel rooms??? They must be reserved, though, generally. They are in the Basin area of the park.

Edited by Heywood, 20 July 2021 - 12:22 PM.


#19 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 12:22 PM

Another possibility is to stay somewhere near Terlingua / Study Butte, and then drive into the park from the west.  No BP station to drive through on the trip back to your lodging.  If you're staying anywhere near the SR-170 / SR-118 junction, a 10-minute drive into the park will get you to the Maverick Junction parking lot.  Once you're in the the park, it's as dark as dark gets.

A 30 minute-drive from Study Butte gets you to the Sotol Vista, THE spot for stargazing in the park with a true southern horizon.

Clear Skies,

Phil

Thanks Phil.  That's what I'm looking for: What are the spots within the park that are best for setting up a scope from?  Sounds like Sotol Vista takes the cake?



#20 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 12:58 PM

Do you realize that the park has motel rooms??? They must be reserved, though, generally. They are in the Basin area of the park.

Most certainly.  They're completely booked.


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#21 GalaxyPiper

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 01:09 PM

At first I was going to say, 'Set your Watch'...then I saw it read "Big Bend" not Big Ben.


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#22 Phillip Creed

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 01:20 PM

Thanks Phil.  That's what I'm looking for: What are the spots within the park that are best for setting up a scope from?  Sounds like Sotol Vista takes the cake?

Sotol Vista is the best spot by a country mile.  It's in a parking lot well off the main road, it's open and has a perfect southern horizon.  It's not too high in elevation (4,300-ft) to be bone-chilling in October, but not low enough to still be uncomfortably hot during evening setup.  At 29.2°N, it's as far south as you can get in the continental United States with a desert climate and appreciable elevation.

The Dugout Wells and Persimmon Gap picnic areas are good, too.  Both have vault toilets from what I recall, as well as pavilions.  They're also more than 1,000-ft lower than Sotol, which makes them on average about 4°F - 5°F warmer.  Persimmon Gap picnic area has the better southern horizon.

Elevation range is *considerable* in Big Bend NP, ranging from 1,850-ft at Rio Grande Village to about 7,800-ft at Emory Peak, so you have great control over your climate during your stay.  If warmth is your thing, the campgrounds along the Rio Grande river would be more to your liking.  Climate along the river largely mimics that of Phoenix or Tucson.  Conversely, the Chisos Basin, home to many campsites and the lodge, is at roughly 5,300-ft and is often a good 15°F cooler.  In fact, Chisos Basin is one of the few locations in Texas that average less than 90°F for summertime highs.

This comes with a price, though.  Sitting in a bowl also compromises the horizons to some extent at Chisos.  Emory Peak is straight to your south as seen from the basin.

Bottom line--ANY location in Big Bend is going to be dark.  It's a matter of picking your preferred nighttime climate and amenities.  But if you absolutely, positively, must have the best observing spot in the park and will accept no substitutes, the Sotol Vista is it.

 

https://www.google.c...m/data=!3m1!1e3

Clear Skies,

Phil


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#23 matt_astro_tx

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 02:12 PM

Thanks Phil!  I've scouted out the spot on street view.  Looks great.  I imagine we'll pull in there for some stealth car camping and astro for at least one evening.

 

I then looked up moon phases and milky way position at local midnight and think I've narrowed down our opportunities to November or December for ideal MW viewing.  We'll have to bring warm clothes and sleeping bags!

 

Did anyone bother you while you were there overnight?



#24 xonefs

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 03:18 PM

November/December is too late in the year for milkyway core viewing. You really only have another month or two to catch it as the peak time has passed or is about right now. It has disappeared by Nov/Dec- then you will get winter milkyway but not the bright core you are probably envisioning. 


Edited by xonefs, 20 July 2021 - 03:20 PM.


#25 MEE

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Posted 20 July 2021 - 03:35 PM

Why are so many people soooooo focused on the Milky Way core?

I’ve been a member of various astronomy discussion groups for over 25 years, and I’ve only seen this “Milky Way core” push in the last 4-5 years or so

ANY section of the MW is beautiful, especially from dark skies.

And, the OP will get an amazing view of the zodiacal light in the predawn hours


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