The Texas Star Party is held annually at Prude Ranch in the Davis Mountains during the new moon in May. The 3,500-acre ranch sits at 5,000 feet elevation and is located six miles northwest of Fort Davis, and only 12 miles (19 km) from the McDonald Observatory.
It started in 1979 as a weekend event at Davis Mountains State Park by Deborah Byrd, members of the Austin Astronomical Society and McDonald Observatory, before becoming a weeklong event at Prude Ranch in 1982.
We were invited to this event as guests of Sky-Watcher USA, and had the pleasure of using/demoing their gear on the field.
Texas Star Party Registration
Registration for the Texas Star Party opened in early January for the new moon May event. You will be asked to register everyone that plans to attend the star party with you, in addition to the following information:
- Agree to their waiver, general liability release, and COVID mitigation protocols
- Dates/nights you will stay at the star party, even if you plan on staying off-site
- Arrival date and whether that date is flexible
- RV type and dimensions, sewer and water requirements (if applicable)
- Primary, secondary, and third housing preferences (if applicable)
- Your contact information, including your address
You will be required to create an account to complete registration and pay. In total, for both of us to register for the star party (with one person registered for a door prize ticket) it was $220 USD.
You also have the option to add on other items during registration, such as group photos, t-shirts, and hats.
The astronomy field at the Texas Star Party.
Arriving at Texas Star Party
We made arrangements to meet the Sky-Watcher team at the El Paso airport, after our connecting flight from Toronto to Denver. The team rented a large SUV for all of us (6 people total) to make the 3 hour drive to Fort Davis.
We went straight to the star party site when we arrived to check in at the front gate (get our name badges/wrist bands) and make sure that the gear Sky-Watcher had shipped down was covered in enough shrink wrap to be protected from the rain. After, we headed back to our hotel in Fort Davis to check in and get settled in.
Arriving at the airport. Left to right: Jeff Simon (Sky-Watcher), Greg Bragg (Celestron), Trevor, Ashley, Jarred Donkersley (Sky-Watcher), Kevin LeGore (Sky-Watcher)
- Depending on which airport you fly into, you will have at least a 3-hour drive ahead of you. Leave plenty of time to get to your destination before dark.
- The small town of Fort Davis, located near the star party site, has a grocery store, liqueur store, restaurants, gas station, etc. Unlike some other star parties (i.e. Okie-Tex), you will be able to get to these amenities within a 10-12 drive of the star party.
Harvard Hotel in Fort Davis
Where to Stay for the Texas Star Party
There are a variety of options for staying on-site:
- Tent/Dry Camping: there are 75 dry camping sites (some with electricity) available on first come first serve basis. This includes access to showers and use of electrical hookups for telescopes and equipment. More info on tent/dry camping here.
- Trailer/RV Site: assigned in advance near the north and south observing fields. They include water and electrical hookups. Those staying at the RV sites must arrive before 6 p.m. to allow enough time to setup before dark.
- Bunkhouse: cabins accommodate 8 to 20 people with community bathrooms. You are required to bring your own bedding and pillows.
- Family Cabin: cabins accommodate 6 people max and include a bathroom and linen.
Map of Prude Ranch | Texas Star Party
They operate a random lottery system to assign attendees to one of their three housing requests (if available). Those who have selected tent/dry camping, or those staying offsite are exempt from the random housing lottery.
We stayed off-site at the Harvard Hotel, an 8-suite, rustic Texas-style hotel offering large rooms and a restaurant on-site. It was only a short 10-12 minute drive from the star party.
Our Hotel Room
There are several other lodging options in or nearby the town of Fort Davis:
- Sproul Ranch
- Fort Davis Inn & RV
- Hotel Limpia
- Mountainside Inn
FYI: If you are staying off-site, you will need to park outside the park gates and walk to your vehicle each night. This is when we noticed the size of the Prude Ranch, based on how long it took us to complete the walk each night. I would estimate a 15-minute walk from where we were on the upper field to the gates.
Meals and Food Options
All of the covered housing accommodations on the ranch include a meal plan. The full-week meal plan includes 13 meals (6 lunches and 7 dinners), starting Sunday evening through Saturday night (excluding breakfast).
There are meal plans available for those staying on-site, off-site, or those who are tent camping for an additional charge. There is also the option to sign up for individual meals (at least one day in advance) at the Ranch office.
The Red Light Snack Shack is also available for those looking for late-night light eats or beverages. Visit the Shack to find out what types of snacks are available.
If you are looking for alternative food options, you can visit Fort Davis for local restaurants or a grocery store to pick up some food/snacks. There are also additional options not far from the star party in the towns of Marfa (32 minutes) and Alpine (37 minutes).
Sky-Watcher Telescopes set up on the upper astronomy field.
Events at Texas Star Party
There are lots of events to participate in at the Texas Star Party, including:
- Swap Meet
- Vendor booths
- McDonald Observatory tours
As off-site attendees, it was more difficult to be around or involved in the other star party activities. With the changing weather forecast that wasn’t always favorable for astrophotography, we weren’t always at the ranch when these events were going on.
We did get a chance to do some sightseeing on our own visiting the McDonald Observatory, the VLBA Radio Telescope, a private observatory, and Prada Marfa.
VLBA Radio Telescope
The VLBA Radio telescope is a 10-minute drive from the star party site, located on the Sproul Ranch. This radio telescope is part of a network of 10 observing stations across the United States.
Similar to the other 10 observing stations, this radio telescope has a 25-meter radio antenna dish and a control building. It captures radio signals through each antenna which are then digitized and recorded. The data captured is used to map the universe, monitor changes on Earth, and track near-Earth asteroids.
FYI: It is a rough road, so be prepared if you plan to take the dirt road up to the telescope.
We had a chance to visit the McDonald Observatory visitors center, and both sites on Mount Locke (Harlin J. Smith telescope and Otto Stuve Telescope) and Mount Fowlkes (Hobby-Eberly Telescope).
At the visitor’s center, we got a chance to see the ‘Protecting Dark Skies’ exhibit and its amazing outreach facilities.
Light Pollution Exhibit
On Mount Locke, while doing our own self-guided tour, we saw (and asked) one of the operators if they wouldn’t mind letting us see the Harlin J. Smith telescope. He took us inside and gave us a full description of the telescope, and his work, and answered our questions.
107″ (2.7m) Harlin J. Telescope
On our way back to El Paso, we stopped at Prada Marfa which is an art installation designed to resemble a Prada store. Though the front door does not open, it does include large windows displaying actual Prada shoes and handbags from the 2005 fall/winter collection.
Rules at Texas Star Party
- Light Restrictions: only dim red light only after dark. This includes vehicle headlights/taillights/interior lights, RV trailer/camper interior lights without proper shielding etc. No laser pointers or any other form of lighting after dark.
- No Driving at Night: driving a vehicle after dark is prohibited and the front gates close at 9:00 p.m. to restrict traffic. If you plan on leaving, park outside the gates and face your headlights away from the star party.
- Electricity limited to Telescope Equipment: with the demand of electricity, only telescope drive equipment, anit-dew gear, laptop computers are to be connected to power outlets.
- No smoking: starting in 2022, a smoking ban was instituted as a health and safety concern for all attendees. There is no smoking or vaping allowed on any of the observing fields and a 50-foot perimeter around all fields and building.
- Tent camping in designated areas only: areas approved for setting up tents will be marked. Cars must be removed from the observing fields after you have loaded/unloaded your camping gear.
- No Dogs: Dogs are no longer allowed at the star party due to past issues with barking, uncleaned messes and unpredictable behavior. The exception is anyone staying in an RV may bring dog, who must stay inside their camper
- Done restrictions: to fly a drone, the owner must obtain a permit from the head of security. Drones cannot be flown at night during the lighting restrictions or within 100-foot radius around the ham shack.
Only dim red lights are permitted after dark at the Texas Star Party.
Items to Bring
Like most star parties, you will want to make sure you have all your imaging or observing gear, but you’ll also want to make sure you bring along some other helpful items:
- Anti-dew Device: our first clear night on the field was extremely dewy. You could hear the hair dryers being used on the larger Dob telescopes. If you’re imaging, be sure to bring your dew heaters just in case.
- Tarp/Waterproof Cover: it nice to cover your equipment during the day to protect it from sunlight but if you have something waterproof, even better. Because the weather was so unpredictable during our trip and changed quickly, having a tarp or weatherproof cover to throw over your set up will be really helpful to avoid constantly tearing down.
- Tie-downs: we heard about this during the Okie-Tex star party, that high winds and dust devils can lift your heavy equipment. It was the same here at Texas Star Party, and we used stakes hammered into the ground with bungie cords to tie-down gear.
- Extension Cords: Extra/long extension cords are never a bad idea. Maybe aim for at lease 25 to 30 feet in length to reach outlets.
- Chair: Clear nights can make for long nights out on the field. If you are able, be sure to bring a chair to lounge in while you’re collecting data.
Bortle 2 Skies
The skies at the Texas Star Party are dark, coming in at a Bortle 2.
To maintain the darkness of the skies in the area, the McDonald Observatory has collaborated with the surrounding communities to promote dark-sky-friendly lighting. It is also part of the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, covering 15,000 square miles, protecting the shared night sky through better outdoor lighting. It is also the largest IDA-certified reserve in the world.
The Texas Star Party continues to strongly support the protection of dark skies through funding public information, efficient lighting practices, and exterior lighting ordinances in western Texas. The star party was also part of a ‘Light Reduction Project’, where donors raised funds for the replacement of various street light fixtures in the nearby towns of Fort Davis, Valentine, Marfa and Alpine.
Better lighting practices and commitment to preserving dark skies benefits both the star party, the viability of the McDonald Observatory, and anyone who enjoys natural dark skies.
Deep-Sky Astrophotography Setup
The Sky-Watcher team provided the telescopes and mounts for us to use/demo while at the star party. As a vendor, they had gear shipped down for the event, and we made arrangements with them ahead of time regarding what gear we would using.
Trevor’s Set up
This meant that we could travel a lot lighter than we normally do while flying. We typically only bring what will fit in our carry-on luggage to avoid checked baggage with telescope gear. This means we usually bring a small, wide-field set up. For this trip, all we needed to bring was the camera, guide scope, and cords.
Trevor’s photo of the Trifid Nebula captured at the Texas Star Party.
Though Ashley shot four different targets, the Cat’s Paw was the one she really had her sights set on. She managed to get two hours of total exposure time on this target during our first clear night. She also shot M13, M101, and M83 – all new targets for her.
Take advantage of the dark skies at a star party. Select targets new targets not typically available to you, dark nebulae targets that are most difficult to shoot with light pollution, or smaller/dimmer targets.
Ashley’s Cat’s Paw Nebula
The Texas Star Party is another great event where you can meet and connect with a lot of other amateur astronomers. There were loads of people willing to share their inventions, solar telescopes, and information about their gear.
Thankfully, the weather in the area was constantly changing day-to-day so we did end up getting a few clear nights. However, I think we experienced a far less populated event due to the predicted weather.
As new attendees that were not familiar with the ranch layout, we noticed the buildings were not marked with signage. It was hard to tell where things were, especially in the dark. We attempted to find the snack shack at night but it was in a building that resembled a lot of the cabins, so we never did end up finding it.
Having signage to mark important buildings (i.e. bathrooms, snack shack, presentations building, etc.) would be beneficial for newcomers, or handing out a printed map during registration at the gate would help.