Reach for the Stars: McDonald Observatory

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Carl Sagan

Yesterday I encouraged you to swim with the fish–the catfish and minnows of Balmorhea State Park. Don’t leave this area of West Texas quite yet because you are about to look up into the heavens and be amazed.

A mere 40 minutes away from Balmorhea is the McDonald Observatory. Pitch a tent or park your RV at Davis Mountain State Park or reserve a room  at their 39 room Indian Lodge.

The McDonald Observatory is not to be missed.

Celebrating its 75th Anniversary, the McDonald Observatory was started when William Johnson McDonald left the bulk of his fortune to the University of Texas  for the purpose of erecting an observatory. The problem was that the university at that time didn’t even have an astronomy department! A couple of mountains were also donated and UT decided to partner with University of Chicago which had an astronomy department but no observatory. A match made for the heavens!

Harlan J Smith 107 inch Telescope

We started our day at the McDonald Observatory with a solar viewing presentation: everything you ever wanted to know about the sun AND LIVE pictures of the sun itself. We saw solar flares happening! Really?! When are you ever going to see solar flares actually happening–well, actually happening just minutes ago?

The speaker, Rachel, was incredible: engaging, knowledgable, confident and female. That last characteristic might not be important to you but I have a daughter and there are truly not enough women who pursue the sciences. To have someone like Rachel (who is also a researcher) give the presentation was even more thrilling for me as a mom.

Best of all, Rachel was able to keep the attention of just about every age group in the room.

Now, about age groups. My almost 8 year olds and solid 9 year olds are probably the bottom end of the interest/engagement age. There is a lot to absorb at the observatory. . .I mean space is a topic that just can’t be totally embraced even by adults. I was constantly having to physically wrap my brain around the things Rachel was saying. With that said, though, during the Q/A time at the end of the presentation, the kids in the audience asked excellent questions!

After the talk we took a shuttle bus (we weren’t allowed to take the RV up) to the  Harlen J. Smith 107 inch telescope. Rachel continued her lecture about the various telescopes at the McDonald Observatory and she even let some of the children control the movement of the telescope and the rotation of the dome itself.

mcDonald Observatory


McDonald Observatory

We could have walked or driven to view the Hobby-Eberly telescope as well, but there is a limit to the amount of touring and information that children can handle. There were a lot of “childless couples” on the tour and Scott and I thought that we might like to come back when it is just the two of us and tired feet. . .potty breaks. . .”I’M HUNGRY”. . .wouldn’t also be  part of our touring experience!


That night we attended  the “Twilight Party.” The McDonald Observatory Education Coordinator, Marc Wetzel, captivated everyone’s attention as he talked about orbits and rotations and space exploration and everything else under and beyond the sun. Again, I can’t say enough good things about these presentations! Marc had the kids out of their seats demonstrating the rotation of the earth in relationship to the rotation of the moon and the rotation of the sun and a couple other planets.

The presentation ended with a Star Gazing party where staff members and amateur astronomers set up their telescopes and pointed them to various places of the sky. We saw Jupiter and three of her moons. We saw many constellations. Luke and I stayed late after the tired and crabby family members returned to the RV and had a special viewing of the moon. It was spectacular–and humbling.

The experience that will stay with me is how one astronomer told us he had built the telescope we were looking through when he was a TEENAGER! (Please, can you hold your hands over my children’s head and say whatever charm your mother said over your crib that made you so passionate and bold to go out and do something this so incredible?)

While Balmorhea may have wetted their bodies in the crystal clear spring waters. . .my hope is that this visit dipped my children’s  minds into the vault of vast possibilities and passions and the incredibleness beyond what we can see with our naked eyes.

The Gravitron
The gravitron that Will purchased at the McDonald Observatory

Please share where you’ve taken your children that seemed to inspire all ages!





I am a mother of two sets of twins and a singleton. I explore the wild world of multiples and provide resources for other parents of multiples.
  1. What a fun and educational day you all had at the McDonald Observatory! You kids look so excited and we are sure they learned a lot. Thank you for the inspiration we already found an Observatory in Los Angeles and hope to visit there soon.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I love your website and the beautiful photographs! I can’t wait to try some of the recipes–especially the tomato orzo mozzarella for Easter!

  2. I can honestly it was one of teh best family vacations we have ever had – and I can’t wait till we do it again!

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