Davis Mountains: TX 118 & McDonald Observatory


I was driving through one of the most beautiful parts of Texas, at the most beautiful time of the day.  Unfortunately, with the sun quickly dropping out of the sky, I had to move quickly along Texas Highway 118, headed northwest out of Fort Davis.

It won’t take long after you’ve left town to spot something interesting on the horizon.  Those white dots atop the mountain in the distance are huge telescopes — part of the McDonald Observatory, a research facility for the University of Texas at Austin.

Before you reach the observatory, TX-118 climbs a hill, and you get a nice view of the road you just traveled, looking back towards Fort Davis.

The observatory has a nice visitor center, just off TX-118. I arrived to find a packed parking lot, even though its official hours of operation were already over for the day. (As of 2011, the visitor center is open from 10-5:30 daily.)  I soon figured out that people were arriving for either a Twilight Show or a Star Party, both of which happen on select nights.  You can check out the observatory’s website for details.

Since I didn’t have time to get involved with a stargazing party, I left the visitor center somewhat disappointed, figuring there wasn’t anything else to see for free.  I got back on TX-118, and just moments later, found another road, TX-78.  To my surprise, this road provided access to the top of two hills, where three of the observatory’s giant telescopes were located.  Access to the road is open to everyone, and I didn’t need to buy a ticket, or be part of a tour.

TX-78 heads up the hill, then splits.  What you’re seeing here is TX-77 Spur, which leads up to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is one of the largest optical reflecting telescopes in the world, with an aperture of 9.2 meters, or 362 inches.

For a look at what’s inside the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, check out Hetdex.org.

Head down from the Hobby-Eberly telescope and up to the top of the neighboring peak, and you’ve reached the highest road in Texas.  This is the summit of Mount Locke, elevation 6,791 feet (2,070 meters).  It’s the highest point on the Texas highway system.

It’s also a great place to find a couple more impressive telescopes.  No, not those!

Although, you might want to gaze through these coin-operated telescopes at the beautiful surrounding landscape.

The more impressive telescopes atop Mount Locke…

… are the Harlan J. Smith telescope…

… and the Otto Struve telescope.

The Struve telescope was built between 1933 and 1939.  Its mirror measures 2.1 meters (82 inches).  The Smith telescope was installed in 1968, and has a 2.7 meter (107 inch) mirror.

Of course, since I hadn’t paid for admission, I couldn’t go inside any of the facilities.  But, I was content to enjoy the view, before continuing up TX-118.

The rest of my drive towards Interstate 10 was incredibly beautiful.  The setting sun and wispy clouds made for perfect pictures.

I hurried up the road to find as many places to take pictures as I could.

Eventually, I just stopped the car at the side of the road, and shot in every direction.  Once the sun dipped below the horizon, I figured I was probably done for the day.

But after a while, I spotted this windmill, behind an open gate, off the side of the road.  As you may know, these windmills pump water into tanks for livestock, which makes it a popular gathering spot.  And where a lot of cattle gather… well, let’s just say I had to step very carefully, as I ran around in near-darkness, taking pictures.

Drivelapse Video

After leaving the windmill, it was a long drive in the dark to Interstate 10, then on to my motel in Van Horn.  I’ve cut some of the darker parts of the drive out of the Drivelapse video.  Watch it, and enjoy the beautiful scenic drive through the Davis Mountains:

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