Picture you and your sweetheart snuggled beneath a blanket under a dark sky filled with stars, a campfire crackling nearby. Unfortunately, most Texans—90% of us, according to the latest Census figures—live near or in an urban community with light pollution. The good news is this romantic scene can be a reality at one of a half-dozen Texas state parks with official dark skies designations, including South Llano River State Park.
Located in Junction, on the western edge of the Hill Country about 120 miles from San Antonio, South Llano River State Park is known for its miles of hiking trails, wild turkeys, and two miles of river frontage. Since it has protected dark skies, you are going to be treated to a better view of the night sky, says Katie Raney, a regional interpretive specialist at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“These parks have taken extra steps to preserve that view for visitors, things such as using dark sky fixtures so you won’t get blinded by bright light,” she says. “We’re committed to conserving dark skies at all our state parks.”
That is growing more important, as stars have become increasingly more invisible in much of the country, according to the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab. It’s believed that 80 percent of Americans have yet to see the Milky Way galaxy. This is due to decidedly unromantic light pollution, or the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light. The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale measures light pollution on a scale ranging from Class 1 (darkest skies) to Class 9 (inner-city skies). South Llano’s Bortle Scale rating is a respectable 3. (Visit this Bortle Scale Ratings page to see ratings for all state parks.)
South Llano River State Park
1927 Park Road 73
These free events (with park entrance fee) are held at the walk-in campground parking lot. Bring a red-light flashlight or cover a regular one with red cellophane. Park entrance fees are $5 per person ages 13 and up; 12 and under free.
Since you can’t see the stars through clouds, no matter how dark it is, the park has a Stargazing web page with a clear sky chart that automatically updates. The moon also affects sky darkness, and you can look up the current moon phase at the park here to help you choose your night.
“Set up a lawn chair in the parking lot for the walk-in campground off the main camping loop,” says Lorissa Di Giacomo, South Llano River State Park’s natural resource specialist. “Or hike just under a mile up the Overlook Trail where there’s a picnic table with a great view of the sky. You may have it all to yourself.” It’s dark, so take a flashlight, she adds.
Ask at headquarters about checking out a free night sky backpack, which includes a red flashlight (which provides visibility but protects your night vision), star charts, a book on night sky viewing, information on the dark sky designation, and a kid’s book on nocturnal animals. Seeing these dwellers of the night is another advantage offered by dark skies, Raney says.
A decent pair of binoculars enhances your stargazing experience. You can also join an organized star gazing event (see sidebar).
South Llano River offers campsites with electricity, walk-in tent sites with water, and primitive camp sites (reservations almost always available during the week; book up to five months in advance). It has more than 22 miles of hiking and biking trails, four bird blinds (more than 250 species recorded here), and two miles fronting the spring-fed river for fishing (no license required) and, in warmer months, swimming, floating, and paddling.
The department is also making improvements to the park, including a new headquarters building set to open later this year with a park store and a drive-through window to make it easier to get permits and pay fees.
“When you come out to the park, we ask that you turn off all unnecessary lights after 10 p.m.,” says Di Giacomo. After all, you don’t want to ruin someone else’s dark-sky romantic moment.