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“A bucket list item”

McDonald Observatory
Ranked #1 of 12 things to do in Fort Davis
Certificate of Excellence
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Attraction details
Recommended length of visit: 2-3 hours
Owner description: The McDonald Observatory Visitors Center staff appreciate all of the positive reviews (and even some of the negative ones, too!) that well-meaning and well-intentioned visitors have left over the years. However, we feel that TripAdvisor does not provide anywhere close to the level of management tools needed to combat the misinformation that routinely is provided by, again, well-intentioned visitors to others visiting its pages. With no way other than the "management response" feature to cull and corral the sometimes wildly misleading information posted on these pages, we feel that using TripAdvisor for anything beyond getting the general feel of the establishment is pointless.
Useful Information: Wheelchair access, Food available for purchase, Activities for older children
Reviewed August 20, 2013

This observatory, which is part of UT Austin, offers amazing glimpses into Astronomy and is about 25 minutes outside of Fort Davis. With some of the darkest skies in the US, it is home to numerous telescopes, including one that is currently 3rd largest in the world. The smaller ones are spectacular as well.

The visitors' center offers great in depth informative tour options at very reasonable prices. NOTE: These tours are NOT oriented to small children.

Daytime tour/solar viewing combo offers live viewing from local solar telescopes as well as more in depth NASA feeds. Well worth the time.

Then we took the shuttle up to the 107" and the HEB telescopes. The 107 is a reflector and it would be a spoiler to say what all you can see, but it is woth the fee alone. The HEB is currently being fitted for a dark light experiment (very cool) and is accessible only from the viewing area, but wow.

Return for a Star Party(separate fee) and locate the constellations. Several decent sized telescopes, a few in small domes, are set up to view the latest viewable items - we had a limiting bright moon, but still saw a meteor and an iridium flare - and some wonderful other views - moon, Saturn, Galaxy clusters, Nebula - all on a very bright night - from some pretty awesome telescopes, including a 22" and 24" refractor. Wow.

There are some other programs as well.

OK, for the Aggie fans, Stanford dropped funding for the HB telescope originally founded and built by 3 US universities and 2 German. A&M picked up the slack, However, this is the only telescope outside the UT property.

Thank s2mc
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
McDonald_Obs, Manager at McDonald Observatory, responded to this reviewResponded August 22, 2013

Many thanks for the compliments and high praise!

Just to clear up a few points here ... it's the HET (Hobby•Eberly Telescope) not the "HEB". As big of fans as many of us at the Observatory may be of the grocery mega-chain, we're not quite ready to name the telescope for them just yet Also, the HET is currently the 5th largest in the world.

What we looked at the other night (with significant moonlight), in addition to Saturn, the Moon, and a planetary nebula, there were two different types of star clusters: one was a globular cluster and the other was an open or galactic star cluster. Search on either of those terms to see the differences. We would not have looked at a galaxy cluster .. such a cluster (they do exist) would be too faint for moonlit nights.

Thanks again and clear skies!

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773 - 777 of 1,027 reviews

Reviewed August 18, 2013

Learning and fun for all. The staff was very friendly and informative. The viewing lines were reasonable and kept moving.

Thank Scott E
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed August 17, 2013

This is a fabulous place. We signed up for all the tours. Highly educational, exciting, and time well spent. Do not miss the nightly "Star Party." You will never see skies, stars, planets, meteors, or satellites as you will from this mountaintop. This is a must stop.

Thank philosopher43
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
McDonald_Obs, Manager at McDonald Observatory, responded to this reviewResponded August 19, 2013

Thanks for the praise but, just to clear up a misconception, the Star Parties are NOT nightly. We offer the Star Parties every Tuesday, Friday, & Saturday evening throughout the year. The only exception to that is if Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, or New Year's Day happens to fall on one of those days. Typically, in that event, we'll offer a substitute "make up" Star Party on a different night.

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Reviewed August 15, 2013

So if you want to do a star party, which is all I can speak to, you have to book way in advance, as they book solid. SO I did this and it mentions no cancellations or refunds that they'll have engaging activities to replace seeing things in the night sky via the giant telescopes. You're gambling with the weather and of course, we lost. We went anyhow as mentioned, with our 3yo and 5yo in tow expecting to see the stars. They were really excited. Needless to say, because of clouds it was a huge flop and I would not consider an hour lecture using night sky software engaging, even for interested adults. My husband was looking at me like "really?" the whole time we sat in this crowded lecture hall listening to a college level, maybe even graduate level, lecture on stars and astronomy. Our girls were really good, but as soon as they took a break we left. Next time, we'll visit during the day. :)

Thank Katie S
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
McDonald_Obs, Manager at McDonald Observatory, responded to this reviewResponded August 17, 2013

Just to clear up a couple of points .. reservations for the Star Parties are NOT required although we do strongly encourage them. The Star Parties do not sell out but to get discounted passes and to receive group discounts, passes need to be purchased online more than twelve hours in advance. If the discounts are not important to you, you're most welcome to purchase your passes at the Information Desk at the time of the program. If you're worried about possible weather issues, don't purchase your passes until you see what the weather may be for that evening. If the weather that evening is really looking dicey, you can even purchase your passes after we've discussed at the program Introduction what we think the weather may be for the night.

Additionally (although we only recently started making these available) we do offer rain (cloud) checks on nights when we believe there's a reasonable chance that we will not be able to do any significant amount of viewing of the night sky. These are given to guests who decide, after the Introduction, that the program offerings for the evening are not a reasonable substitute for a normal program. Rain checks are only offered at the Center's discretion and only to those visitors who decide they will not be joining any of the cloudy-night program (i.e., no such thing as participating in the cloudy-night program as offered for the night and THEN deciding to get a rain check).

As to the statement that we offered a college or even graduate-level lecture .. most of the Center's staff are not professional astronomers (i.e., graduate-level educated scientists) so it would be difficult for us to offer a graduate-level lecture. The staff's background is diverse with various levels of education and previous interest and experience in astronomy. While we try not to aim too far over the heads of our visitors, we also try not to dumb things down too much either. Keep in mind that our visitors also have many different levels of knowledge and experience. Keeping everyone fully engaged 100% of the time is likely impossible. The fact that we have some folks, like you, telling us that our programs are too high-level while others tell us that they're aimed too low tells me that we're probably shooting at just about the right level for most folks.

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Reviewed August 15, 2013

The "Star Party" at the observatory is a wonderful experience. The presenter for the "tour of the night sky" portion, Frank, was engaging and relaxed. Afterwards, when we doing telescope viewing, he was approachable and ready to answer any question that came his way. I don't recommend bringing young children because this program does not start until 9:30 p.m. and ends close to midnight. For everyone else, though, it's a great experience.

1  Thank DFrazee
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
McDonald_Obs, Manager at McDonald Observatory, responded to this reviewResponded August 17, 2013

Thanks for the compliments!

Just to note .. Star Party start times vary with the seasons and with time changes from as late as 9:45p in June & July to as early as 7:00p from the beginning of Standard Time (in '13, Nov 3rd) through the end of January. Please check our web pages for more information on program start times and how to get the most out of your visit.

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