Nature

Starry-Eyed at South Llano River State Park

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By Karen Blizzard

Just a couple of hours from the urban lights of San Antonio and Austin, where the Hill Country meets West Texas, a Night Sky Protector guards some of the darkest skies in Texas. This starry sentinel is South Llano River State Park, recently designated a gold-tier Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). Here, on a moonless night, the Milky Way streaks across the sky through a multidimensional palette of stars seemingly without end.

The park’s night skies rank “3” on the Bortle Scale, which measures darkness on a scale of one to nine, with one being the darkest. South Llano River, Enchanted Rock, and Copper Breaks are the only IDA-designated dark-sky state parks in Texas. One requirement for achieving this honor is to engage the local community and promote excellent stewardship of the night sky, which is something the South Llano River State Park staff takes seriously.

“We have a beautiful dark sky,” says the park’s Superintendent Scott Whitener. “As urban areas expand, dark night skies become harder to find. But we have collaborated with the local community in Junction and astronomers from around the state to maintain this very special quality that we have and share it with park visitors.”

Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

After a day of canoeing or rafting on the river and hiking in the park, many visitors set up telescopes in their camping areas to enjoy nature’s starry night show. And thanks to support from Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and the Meta Alice Keith Bratten Foundation, the park’s interpretive staff and volunteers have additional resources for use at star parties and outreach events. These include an eight-inch telescope and stand, laser pointers, and headlamps with red-light filters for viewing the night sky.

Education is key to the park’s outreach efforts. Park staff frequently team up with groups such as Hill Country Alliance and the San Antonio Astronomical Society to host star parties and community events. Park staff have presented to the K-12 public school in Junction on the significance of dark skies and have hosted groups of students at the park for stargazing activities. The park website also has a Stargazing tab with links to the park’s real-time dark sky monitor, Clear Sky Chart, and other resources.

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