AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – “The stars at night are big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas!”
For over 80 years, “Deep in the Heart of Texas” has been a familiar refrain in the Lone Star State, standing as one of the most reliable ways to summon a chorus of clapping and answering shouts. However, the catchy tune also holds true; according to experts such as those with the International Dark-Sky Association and other agencies, Texas is home to some of the best places to stargaze in the world.
Here are a few of the best locations in Texas to turn your gaze skyward this summer.
The stargazing areas have also been included with their “Bortle Scale” rankings from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, a measurement used to convey the level of light pollution in a location from Class 1 (stars are the most visible) to Class 9 (stars are the least visible.)
Panhandle Plains and North Texas
Copper Breaks State Park (IDSP)
The IDA designated Copper Breaks State Park in Quanah as an “International Dark Sky Park,” a protected area open to the public that has an exceptional quality of starry nights. The park has a Class 2 Bortle Scale ranking, meaning it is just barely removed from the darkest skies that can be viewed without a telescope on planet Earth.
While those dark skies can be seen at any time for those visiting the park, its organizers have also noted that it has regular “star parties” and stargazing-focused events throughout the year.
Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway
While Caprock Canyons State Park in Quitaque isn’t designated as an IDSP, it still holds a Class 2 Bortle Scale ranking and stands as one of the most popular outdoor destinations around the High Plains and Texas Panhandle region.
Not only can visitors to the park participate in assorted history and wildlife programs, and enjoy nearly 90 miles of trails open for hiking and biking, horseback riding, and camping, but it also offers year-round beautiful sunsets and stargazing opportunities. Caprock Canyons State Park is also home to Texas State Bison Herd, the last remaining example of the Southern Plains buffalo.
Hill Country and Central Texas
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (IDSP)
Established in Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area stands as another of the IDSP-designated parks around Texas. Often known for its massive pink granite dome rising above Central Texas and other geological draws, the park also has a Class 3 Bortle Scale Ranking.
While its Class 3 ranking means that the area’s sky is considered “rural,” with some light pollution obscuring the view compared to some other areas, park officials with the TPWD have said that they have taken steps to minimize nighttime lighting in the park. Further, the park has a “dark sky monitor” to measure its relative darkness and regularly hosts its own “Rock Star Parties” for the benefit of community spectacle and education.
South Llano River State Park (IDSP)
On the southwestern edge of the Hill Country, the South Llano River State Park in Junction offers activities and habitats for regional wildlife and locals alike. Many visitors to the park enjoy swimming, floating, paddling, and fishing along the river, though they also take advantage of the area’s after-dark events and opportunities.
The South Llano River State Park also has a Class 3 Bortle Scale ranking, like its regional neighbor in Fredericksburg, and is similarly designated as an IDSP. Dark sky monitoring through the Putman Mountain Observatory has further allowed visitors to see real-time sky darkness measurements along the South Llano River and curate their best stargazing experience.
Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area
In the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area in Rocksprings, many visitors flock to see the approximately 3 million bats swirl in search of food on warm Texas nights. Although the bats rule the night in the park, the sky is also speckled with a magnificent array of stars.
Aside from a ready view of the Mexican free-tailed bats in the sinkhole itself, the park has a Class 2 Bortle Scale ranking, meaning its summer skies offer a rare view of the Milky Way as well as other astronomical objects, such as the Triangulum and Andromeda galaxies.
East Texas and Gulf Coastal Plains
Brazos Bend State Park
Only 45 miles from downtown Houston, Brazos Bend State Park in Needville stands among the most reliable areas in Texas for city-dwelling nature lovers to travel for hiking, biking, fishing, picnicking, and camping – albeit while sharing space with the local alligators.
Although Brazos Bend State Park has a Class 5 Bortle Scale ranking, considered a “suburban” sky with much of the Milky Way obscured, it is home to the George Observatory. Weather permitting, the observatory is open on Saturday nights all throughout the year and offers guides through the night sky through deck and dome telescopes as well as live camera feeds.
Mission Tejas State Park
Settled at the north end of the Davy Crockett National Forest, the Mission Tejas State Park in Grapeland is a center for Texas history in the Pineywoods. The Civilian Conservation Corps has worked to preserve remnants of Spanish efforts to settle in the area as well as a log home built in the early 1800s, alongside activities for visitors such as hiking, fishing, and camping.
Mission Tejas State Park is also noted by the TPWD to have a Class 3 Bortle Scale ranking, the highest among the parks in the Pineywoods region, meaning visitors to the area will be able to get an astronomical look back in history during their visit by looking up past the forest canopy.
Southwest Texas and Big Bend Country
Big Bend Ranch State Park (IDSP)
Nestled away with entrances in Marfa, Terlingua, and Presidio, the Big Bend Ranch State Park is just a short drive northwest of Big Bend National Park, which is also designated as an IDSP. Remote and rugged, Big Bend Ranch State Park was noted by the IDA to have once been among the 15 largest working cattle ranches in the U.S. Now, it’s one of the numerous hotspots in the Big Bend region for stargazing, camping, hiking, off-roading, and other outdoor activities.
Barton Warnock Visitor Center (IDSP)
Right between Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park, the Barton Warnock Visitor Center in Terlingua is another Class 2 Bortle Scale ranking area for the stargazing adventurers of Texas to visit.
While the park cautions that visitors may experience dangerously-high heat from April to September, even after sunset, it does offer a number of trails, a two-acre desert garden, river paddling, and an uninterrupted view of the desert skies.
Devils River State Natural Area (IDSS)
While not designated as an IDSP, the Devils River State Natural Area in Del Rio is certified as an International Dark Sky Sanctuary.
Like its siblings with the IDSS designation, the Devils River State Natural Area is in a remote location with few nearby threats to its dark sky. Considered to have a Class 2 Bortle Scale ranking, visitors can fish and paddle along the river, camp, hike, and share in one of the clearest views of the starry sky in Texas.
However, as noted by park officials, visitors wishing to access the area or the paddler camps will need to have a Devils River Access Permit.
A full list of Texas state parks and their dark sky rankings can be found here, alongside further information on observatories in Texas, the TPWD Dark Skies program, and other notable resources for stargazers in the Lone Star State.