Why Big Bend National Park is America’s number one spot for astronomical adventures
Big Bend National Park is a complex beast. By day it endlessly fascinates with its staggering mountains, harsh desert and luscious valleys where bears roam and eagles soar. But as the sun sets, the 800,000-acre-park is cloaked in some of the darkest skies in the US – so dark, that as well as being designated an International Dark Sky Park, it’s also received a gold-tier certification from the International Dark Sky Association. Only 13 parks in the world have this classification, making it appear firmly on the must-visit list for stargazers.
Big Bend’s remoteness and elevation are partly responsible for its spectacular star-strewn skies – this is a region far removed from civilisation and it’s not a place you arrive at just by accident (the closest airport is around 250 miles away). As is the park’s commitment to stomping out light pollution: outside lights on buildings and car parks has been almost eliminated – even campfires are forbidden within the boundaries. The result? The park is the best place to stargaze in America – on a clear night, expect to gaze at meteors, planets and more than 2,000 blinking stars.
Stand amongst other travellers at one of the park’s official observation points for some of the most informed stargazing: there’s the McDonald Observatory that’s part of the University of Texas at Austin – a serious astronomy centre that hosts a calendar of stargazing events. Book one of their star parties and you’ll be guided through constellations and views of celestial objects by a scientist. Then there’s the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail – an easy walk up a hill with moody and atmospheric views of the Delo Carmen Mountains and the Chisos, below a sky in all its primeval glory. Follow the Hot Springs Canyon Trail, meanwhile, and you’ll be rewarded with knockout night skies alight with stars as you arrive at the hot springs close to the Rio Grand Village Campground.
But for an experience that’ll blow your mind, a night spent sleeping under the stars will easily win over the hearts of budding astronomers and travellers keen to mull over the wonders of the dark skies. Some trailblazers choose to head out into the park’s backcountry for real solitude and undisturbed star-spotting, pitching their tent away from campgrounds and staring at the nightly theatrics amongst the humps of desert hills and the snaking Rio Grande. Travellers-in-the-know, however, plot a course to Basecamp Terlingua: to describe this Texan campsite as a glamping spot is to utterly undersell its appeal. The camp has a clutch of tipis and casitas, but what’s really setting the bar high are its bubbles – inflatable sphere rooms where guests can stare at the park’s astronomical spectacles from their pillows. Spend just a night here and you’ll be clearly smitten.