Frequently Asked Questions
Planning your trip:
- Will the Observatory/Visitors Center be open on (holidays, special dates, etc.)?
- When is the best time to visit the Observatory?
- How do I get to McDonald Observatory?
- Are there places to eat at the Observatory?
- Are there RV hook-ups and/or camping facilities at the Observatory?
- Can I refuel my vehicle (gas/diesel/electricity) at the Observatory?
- Why do the Star Parties start so late in the Summer?
- Is the Observatory wheelchair accessible?
- What is your policy on pets at your programs?
- Can I see the Aurora Borealis from the Observatory?
About our programs:
- Can large groups join public programs?
- Are Star Parties canceled on cloudy or rainy nights?
- I don't have a telescope, can I still join a Star Party?
- Do you offer a discount for students/faculty/staff of the University of Texas?
- Will we see live views from the research telescopes?
Answers to the FAQs
Generally, no. For our Star Party program, we will assess the weather throughout the day and, to the best of our ability, make a judgement call on the likely weather that evening. If inclement weather (clouds, precipitation, wind, cold temperatures) is expected during the program, we will attempt to contact you (text message, email) no less than two hours before program start time to let you know that we may offer alternative programming in lieu of live views of astronomical objects. In this case, you will be given the chance to cancel your Star Party reservation preemptively and would receive a refund (less $3 admin fee) for your program.
All spaces at the Visitors Center are ADA accessible.
The Visitors Center is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Day, and New Years' Eve and Day.
Typically Autumn brings us our most consistently clear skies. July, August, and early September tend to be the rainy season, although generally the rain occurs in the afternoon. If you plan on attending a Star Party, consider the phase of the Moon. With the Moon at any phase between several days before First Quarter and 3 or 4 days past Full, bright moonlight limits our ability to observe faint objects but, of course, gives us great views of the Moon itself. You can see a calendar of Moon phases at StarDate Online to help you make your plans. Over the next few years, Summer/Fall will be the best time for seeing Saturn and Jupiter.
During the Summer months, it is not dark enough to start a Star Party until nearly 10:00 P.M. The Observatory is located very far west in the Central Time zone, so while we are in the same time zone as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the times of sunrise and sunset are very different. In fact, the Sun sets at the Observatory almost an hour later than it does in Houston. Daylight Saving Time makes this situation worse.
Having a telescope is not necessary ... we've got quite a few. Come on up and join us for a tour of the night sky. All you really need is a desire to learn about the night sky. Binoculars can help as well (but, once again, they aren't necessary.)
As much as most of us would love to welcome our four-legged furry friends, UT policy, in accordance with the State Attorney's General Office, does not allow pets (including emotional, comfort, etc., therapy/support animals) in Observatory buildings or in indoor/at outdoor public program venues. In accordance with federal regulations, trained service animals accompanying their handlers/owners are welcome.
There is no public food service at the Observatory. Fort Davis offers restaurants with a variety of food. There are several roadside picnic areas nearby on Hwy 118 (two towards Fort Davis, about 1/2 mile and 2 miles, and another about 1/2 mile towards Kent.) A very nice picnic area, called the Lawrence E. Wood Roadside Rest Area, is about 8 miles northwest of McDonald towards Kent along Hwy 118.
The Observatory is a University of Texas research facility and is not associated with the State/National Park systems. Overnight camping/RVing on Observatory grounds is NOT permitted. Please check the official Fort Davis website for a list of area accommodations.
Groups are more than welcome to join us for any of our programs. Making online reservations is the best way to ensure your group's participation. Please note that our most popular programs sell out quickly, so groups will want to make reservations as early as possible.
The Aurora Borealis is only rarely seen at latitudes below 35 degrees. The Observatory is at 30 degrees north, so seeing the aurorae here is quite rare, happening perhaps only once or twice every solar cycle (approx. 11 years.) Typically, solar and geomagnetic activity must be at an extreme maximum for us to see any activity at all and is difficult, at best, to predict. An excellent resource for learning more about such activity is the NASA supported site SpaceWeather.com.
The Visitors Center offers a discount to current UT students, staff, and faculty with a current valid UT ID. To receive this discount, request passes for CURRENT UT students, staff, or faculty under the "Military/Senior(65+)" category in the reservations section of your program of interest.
No. Astronomers at McDonald use scientific instrumentation for their reserach, which output large data sets (streams of numbers). While these data are beautiful to the scientists, they're pretty boring for the layman. The telescopes we use for our Star Parties are optimized for visual use (looking through), and we're confident that you will be amazed at the images they produce.
There are no fuels (gasoline/diesel) available at the Observatory. The nearest standard fueling stations are in Fort Davis, 15 miles away. There are no electric vehicle chargers at the Observatory, however there are some in the Fort Davis-Alpine-Marfa area. Consult a service such as PlugShare, and please check with the listed providers before making your trip.