About an hour south of Houston, far enough away to evade the light pollution from Downtown, stands one of the largest and most powerful telescopes in the nation open to the public.
The 36-inch Gueymard Research Telescope is the centerpiece for the George Observatory, a facility owned and operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the middle of Brazos Bend State Park.
Brazos Bend was named one of the Top Ten State Parks in America by National Geographic Traveler Magazine, and the park boasts about 35 miles of multi-use trails through various ecosystems, from swamps to lakes to prairies to hardwood forest. Last month, rangers and patrons celebrated the park's 25th anniversary.
The park offers a wide variety of activities for kids and adults. It's one of the best places near Houston to see wildlife in its native habitat. Fishing, trail hiking and especially birding are popular activities. In 2002 the park was overrun by amateur ornithologists hoping to get a glimpse of the rare masked duck to add to their life lists.
What's amazing about the park is just how far into nature you can get while still being so close to the city. Kids will love the self-guided Scavenger Hunt and even the park's Alligator Etiquette rules are morbidly entertaining: "Pets must be on a leash at all times. The leash must be no longer than six feet. Never allow your pet to drink from or enter the lakes."
It's a truly magical experience to arrive at the park around sunset and walk the 1/3-mile trail from the parking lot for the observatory to the telescopes themselves. Dusk is feeding time, and it's not unusual to see rabbits, raccoons, bird and even gators. The sounds of birds and swamp frogs can be deafening, and the stars seem impossibly bright through the canopy of trees.
The observatory sits on a small hill in the park and is open to the public only on Saturdays, from 3 to 10 p.m. In addition to the huge Gueymard telescope, the observatory includes two smaller scopes, and each of the three are usually trained on a prominent planet or star cluster in that's evening's sky.
But the best part of Saturdays at the George are the dozen or so telescope enthusiasts who bring out and set up their own huge (but still portable) rigs around the pavilion, all of whom are eager to share their love of the night sky with you. While lines for the three big scopes can sometimes be long (especially during unusual astral events like eclipses), it's a lot of fun to flit from one small telescope to another. Often the owners are willing to retrain their telescopes towards anything you want to see, presuming it's above the horizon (The Horsehead Nebula! The rings on Jupiter!).
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In between viewings, keep an eye out for the wildlife. The Observatory's gift shop sells snacks and goodies, and the local raccoons have grown savvy to the fact that humans are sometimes wasteful, and that we also can't resist a cute masked face (see above re: the masked duck). The coons will dig through the trash at the facility for food, and approach anyone willing to hand them a Cheeto.
Brazos Bend is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends. Park admission is $5 per person per day, kids under 13 are free. Admission to the observatory is free, but tickets to the three large telescopes are $5 per person. HMNS members get a ten percent discount. Tickets for the scopes go on sale at 5 p.m. on a first-come basis.
Texas Traveler recommends heading to the park on Saturday afternoon to explore the trails a bit and enjoy the sunset before going over to the observatory to look at the stars. The park's volunteers offer a variety of programs, from guided hikes to meet-the-animal events on both Saturdays and Sundays. Pack a picnic dinner, because the only commerce in the vicinity are small roadside stores offering little in the way of groceries.