When was the last time you saw the Milky Way or tried to find the Belt of Orion in the night sky? Often, a city’s light pollution robs us of this experience. It’s when we stand on Earth’s solid ground and look up into infinity, at those giant balls of hot gas so far away they appear as tiny specs against a black abyss, that we’re reminded how small our problems are. How intricate our interactions. How vast the universe. We owe ourselves and our children the opportunity—the freedom—to observe such a miracle. This act alone is worth the trip to Alpine’s dark skies.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, an estimated 80 percent of Americans have never seen the Milky Way due to cities’ abundance of artificial light at nighttime. Far West Texas residents mind their light pollution in order to preserve the rare views their sky offers. This practice has crossed over to commercial sectors as well. Places in Alpine like Sul Ross State University have incorporated downward-facing lights, and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association recently partnered with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory to develop its “Recommended Lighting Practices” for oilfield lighting.
Alpine is your gateway to several of the best places in Texas to stargaze. You’ll find some of the largest telescopes in the world at nearby McDonald Observatory, atop the Davis Mountains under extremely dark skies. Part of The University of Texas at Austin, this is one of the most renowned centers for astronomical research and education on the planet. Make plans to attend one of their famous Star Parties Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday nights (be sure to reserve your spot in advance, as these often sell out), and Daytime Tours and Solar Viewings, where you’ll observe sun spots and flares as well as tour one of those giant telescopes.
For an evening of intrigue, head west on Highway 90 to the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Center. As the sun goes down, watch the horizon. Lucky voyagers spot the colorful, sporadically-moving lights whose source has baffled scientists and travelers from across the globe since the 1800s and is still up for debate. Though seeing the lights is not a guarantee, a fabulous sunset is a given.
All this time under the larger-than-life Far West Texas sky will be good for your soul. That giant dome is like a magnet, pulling you outdoors. Plus, the high elevation creates cool summer nights (Alpine boasts average summer temps that range from lower 60s to upper 80s). So, on your list of things to do in Alpine should also be the area’s hiking trails, several of which top the state’s list. Your hike up Hancock Hill, behind Sul Ross, rewards with a view of the entire city and a seat at The Desk (it’s a thing—be sure to bring your camera and a pen to sign the notebook in the drawer).
Pack your hiking boots and a camera with a high ISO and head to nearby trails in the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, Davis Mountain State Park, or Big Bend Ranch State Park and Big Bend National Park (both certified International Dark Sky Places) for a chance to photograph the night sky or to spot shooting stars.
Another cool way to spend an evening in Alpine is at Kokernot Field, which Sports Illustrated has called the “best little ballpark in Texas,” where the Alpine Cowboys play baseball May through July. With moderate temperatures year-round, patios abound in Alpine. Sip a Cowboy Cosmopolitan on legendary Reata’s patio (which also boasts a Stylle Read mural). Enjoy slabs of perfectly-smoked brisket on Come and Take It BBQ’s back porch. Take a break from dancing at the Railroad Blues and Ole Crystal Bar outdoor areas. Have a beer outside at Harry’s Tinaja or sit down to a rack of lamb served by Century Bar & Grill in the Holland Hotel’s courtyard.
Big Bend Brewing Co.’s tap room opens up to amazing views of the Sunny Glen area mountains and canyons northwest of Alpine. Sip favorites like La Frontera IPA on the outdoor picnic tables as you watch the sun set. They’re open for tours until 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Hotel Ritchey, one of the oldest buildings in Alpine, has recently been renovated with a nod to sunset watching as well. The wraparound second floor balcony of The Ritchey Wine Saloon and Beer Garden pairs stunning views of the spectacle with a long list of libations to match.
Needless to say, these outdoor locales are often graced by a musician or two.
If it’s smoldering hot where you are and the street lamps outside your window keep waking you—or, even if that’s not the case—do yourself a favor and escape to the dark skies and cool nights of Alpine, Texas. You won’t regret it.