It turns out, Austin inhabitants, that Texas is home to some of the best places to go stargazing in the continental United States!
Winter brings about long, dark night skies with plenty of opportunities to see some of the celestial wonders shimmering millions of light years away. With an average telescope or even a decent set of binoculars, you can spot things like nebulas, binary star systems, star clusters or even faraway galaxies!
And, of course, you can watch a meteor shower with nothing more than a picnic blanket and a willingness to stay up a little later than normal.
Austin is a big city with its own fair share of light pollution, but there are plenty of spots in the surrounding hill country that are perfect for catching a meteor shower. If you live anywhere near our Austin apartments, then here are just a few of the spots where you can go stargazing, plus some of the cool things to look for while you’re out!
Places to stargaze around Austin, TX
What to look for when stargazing
Meteor showers are the perfect stargazing events because they require no equipment at all to enjoy. Just head out to a super dark spot between midnight and 3 a.m. when it’s darkest and hang out on a picnic blanket or in a lounge chair to get the best view.
Here are a few major meteor showers that are visible in the northern hemisphere throughout the year:
- Quadrantids: December-January
- Lyrids: April
- Perseids: July-September
- Orionids: September-November
- Geminids: November-December
Nebulas, star clusters and galaxies
With a really good pair of binoculars or a decent telescope, you can spot some of the coolest celestial objects in the night sky!
Nebulas are giant clouds of dust and gas that are either the remnants of an exploding star or are regions where new stars are beginning to form. Either way, the densely-packed regions of space contain impressive sights if you can find them. They usually show up as smudges of white or gray set against the blackness of the background, with clusters of stars in and around them.
Star clusters are pretty self-explanatory, as they are a dense collection of stars. From our perspective, the stars may seem to be packed like sardines in their little slice of our galaxy, whereas in reality they may be hundreds of lightyears away from each other!
And finally, galaxies are some of the furthest things we can spot in our night sky, as they are all located outside of our own galaxy. Some can only be spotted with a high-end telescope, but you can see our nearest galactic neighbor — the Andromeda Galaxy — with binoculars on a clear night!
Look for these next time you’re out:
The Milky Way
A dark, clear night will reveal a distinct band of haze stretching across the sky. This is none other than the Milky Way galaxy seen from within the 100-thousand-light-year-wide disk! The haze is made up of the 400 billion stars and nebulae that share our spiral galactic home, and gazing at it can offer plenty of entertainment. Not to mention a decent sense of wonder!
Our lunar neighbor shows us the exact same side at all times, but we’ll certainly never tire of gazing at it!
The Moon is covered with craters, canyons and crevasses that make for a fascinating surface to look at. Grab some binoculars and find highly visible lunar features like the Sea of Tranquility, made from 3-billion-year-old solidified lava flows, or the super-clear Tycho Crater on the southern hemisphere.
Yup! We can see most of the planets in our solar system by just looking up at the sky, though they look more like bright stars than neighboring planets.
You can sometimes see Jupiter’s moons with a good pair of binoculars, showing up as tiny little pinpricks of light around a larger pinprick of light. With a telescope, however, you can see much more detail, like Venus showing phases like the moon, or Saturn’s rings seen encircling the gas giant.
Where to go stargazing around Austin
Distance from Austin: 1 hour, 20 minutes
This is a great all-around park to visit because you can enjoy the rivers and trails during the day, then set up shop to stargaze at night. It’s the best of both worlds!
Distance from Austin: 1 hour, 40 minutes
This is also a good option for Austinites looking for a place to stargaze relatively closer to home.
There are around 200 campsites at the park, plus 22 cabins. Attend one of the park’s Starry Night Walks for a guided celestial experience, or enjoy the quiet Texas night sky all to yourself!
Distance from Austin: 2 hours
This state park holds the acclaimed designation of an International Dark Sky Park, meaning that it’s globally recognized as a super cool place to look at shiny things in the sky. Or, you know, something like that.
Definitely head out to this special place if you’re looking for some last-minute stargazing fairly close to the city.
Distance from Austin: 3 hours
This park is well-known for its stargazing opportunities. You can attend a star party hosted by park staff, where you’ll get to use some pretty impressive telescopes and learn about various celestial objects. Or, you can camp out and enjoy the pitch-black night skies on your own! Either way, it’s a must-visit for stargazers around Austin.
Distance from Austin: 7 hours, 20 minutes
Though not nearly close to Austin (like, at all), the McDonald Observatory is specifically suited for stargazing and is run by the University of Texas at Austin. So, close enough.
One of the largest optical telescopes is found right here at McDonald — the Hobby Eberly Telescope. Its mirror measures 36 feet and is able to capture data from black holes, extrasolar planets, distant galaxies and unidentified objects beyond. This observatory hosts sky parties complete with constellation tours, a number of high-powered telescopes, learning opportunities and plenty more!
Distance from Austin: 8 hours
Okay, this is by no means “close to Austin,” but this popular national park is still worth taking a look at.
Big Bend National Park is the darkest national park in the contiguous United States. It has the least light pollution of all the national parks — which are already fairly free of light pollution as-is — making it one of the absolute darkest places you can go to see the stars!
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Pexels