Road Trip

These are the best places to stargaze in Texas

Stargazers check out the night sky at McDonald Observatory in Texas.

Photo by Getty Images

San Antonians have long traveled to West Texas to traverse the wilds of Big Bend, embrace the low-key vibes of Terlingua, and cool off in the springs of Balmorhea. We have also understood the magic of standing under the night sky at the McDonald Observatory, crawling through the dark night to take in one of the most beautiful celestial views on earth.

Now, it appears, the rest of the world is uncovering this not-so-hidden gem. A recent research report from U.K.-based travel website Kuoni named the McDonald Observatory, part of the University of Texas at Austin, the second best place to stargaze in the U.S.

To determine the country's top 50 places to see stars, Kuoni analyzed "60 official Dark Sky areas and over 117 locations nationwide which offer the public access to high powered telescopes." The site then sifted through hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews to find the winners.

Located on Fort Davis (not David, as the original press release said — multiple times — before a correction email was sent out), about 25 miles north of tourist destinations like Marfa and Alpine, the McDonald Observatory snagged the No. 2 spot behind Oregon University Observatory in Sunriver, Oregon.

"The reviewers of Texas' McDonald observatory are blown away by the incredible amount of celestial phenomena they see at the location," Kuoni notes in its release.

Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday, visitors head to the West Texas site for both Twilight and Star parties. During the Twilight parties, attendees sit in an amphitheater and are guided through the cosmos by an observatory staffer. Star events, which take place after dark, give visitors the opportunity to use high-powered telescopes in the McDonald's Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. So why stargazing? Kuoni says it's an activity that encapsulates much of what modern travelers look for in a vacation. "With travelers having more desire than ever to learn about the natural world, and a general trend in travelers looking to try local one-of-a-kind experiences, stargazing is set to become a super popular activity," notes a release.

Joining the Oregon University Observatory and McDonald Observatory in the top five are National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico; National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Kitt Peak National Observatory Nightly Observing Program in Tuscon, Arizona. The only other Texas spot on the list was the Fort Worth Noble Planetarium at No. 26.

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This story originally appeared on AutomotiveMap's sister site, CultureMap.

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Nissan is bringing back the Heisman House commercials for the 10th season

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

Nissan's decade-long Heisman House ad campaign is back to the 2020 NCAA football season and going pro for the first time. The campaign celebrates its 10th season with a series of advertisements featuring eight trophy winners including Tim Tebow, Kyler Murray, Charles Woodson and Lamar Jackson. The ads will feature the 2021 Nissan Rogue, Sentra, Titan, and Kicks.

All the spots were filmed adhering to social distancing guidelines. Nissan has provided a fun behind-the-scenes look at the filming to show the technology and social distancing techniques used.

Heismans Find a Way | Nissan Heisman House youtu.be

"Over the past six months, Nissan has pivoted multiple times to adjust to new realities, and that agility has enabled us to come up with new and entertaining ways to reach our audiences," said Allyson Witherspoon, vice president, Marketing Communications and Media, Nissan North America. "Case in point: the 'It's a Heisman thing' campaign.

"While there's no doubt that the 2020 college football season will look different, the humor, camaraderie and excitement of the Nissan Heisman House remain relevant, perhaps even more so during this time when audiences are craving some semblance of normalcy."

Nissan will not be activating its on-site Heisman House setup for fans during the college football season this year

The first two spots, "It's Heisman Time" and "Bird-Watching", begin airing on September 12. Two days later the company will air ads during professional football broadcasts.

It's Heisman Time | Nissan Heisman House www.youtube.com

Bird Watching with Mark Ingram and Tim Tebow | Nissan Heisman House www.youtube.com

The 2021 Nissan Rogue will arrive at dealerships later this year. The Titan was significantly refreshed for the 2020 model year, and the Sentra was redesigned. The Nissan Kicks is a new-ish subcompact SUV that Nissan added to its lineup a few years ago. All 2020 models are on sale at dealerships now.

Before you go to get the chips, dip, and burgers that are on your game day shopping list, before sure to check out the best Heisman House ads that have ever aired here.

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Yosemite National Park is a vast space primed for social distancing.

Photo by Getty Images/Jordan Siemens

In the first scene of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's terrific HBO drama "The Newsroom", news anchor Will McAvoy rants during a lecture to journalism students. In the midst of a recitation of literacy rates and educational stats, he throws a question back to a student during a Q&A: "So, when you ask 'what makes us the greatest country in the world?', I don't know what the f*** you're talking about. Yosemite?"

The man makes a point. I'll leave the op-ed page to debate whether America is the greatest country in the world, but we can all agree that Yosemite is a national treasure, along with the rest of the National Parks system.

Joshua Tree National Park A stop at Joshua Tree National Park was on the interary. Photo by Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

After four months of hunkering down at home, hiding from COVID, I'd had enough. I reached out to Kia to borrow a car, called a friend in San Diego who I thought might be interested in exploring a few of our National Parks and got cracking.

Our route would take us north of San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park, home to both extensive groves of the eponymous tree as well as some terrific stargazing. Then we'd head further north to spot some gigantic trees at the Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, followed by Yosemite itself. After Yosemite, we'd head west to Monterey, and south down California 1 along Big Sur, stopping for the night at Ragged Point Inn at the south end, before dashing back to San Diego. Four nights, four parks.

If you're looking for a COVID-friendly trip, a road trip to a National Park is a solid way to go. There's plenty of space for social distancing, and they're quite cheap. Yosemite, for example, costs just $35 for a weeklong vehicle pass. Though it's worth considering the $80 Interagency Annual Pass which is good for entrance at all Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Fish and Wildlife Service sites charging entrance or day use fees. Then there are countless people who qualify for free annual passes, including all U.S. 4th graders and active military members, plus heavily discounted senior annual and lifetime passes.

We picked up the $80 Annual Pass at the scorching Joshua Tree West Entrance, stopped by the public restrooms there (which have prominent posters showing what color your urine should be to avoid dehydration in the 110-degree heat — brown is bad, by the way), and headed into the park. I don't have nearly the space to review the full park, and anyway, you should just go yourself. Cameras, too, completely fail to do it justice. The bizarre and wonderful trees, along with the spectacular desert landscape, make for a spectacular visit.

Scenic view of landscape against star field at night Joshua Tree National Park comes alive at night. Photo by Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

But at night is when Joshua Tree really comes alive. City-living — or even being near a city — really puts a damper on what you can see in the night sky, and both the Park and local communities have invested significant time and money into helping keep Joshua Tree dark. We easily spotted the Milky Way, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as Comet NEOWISE in the dark sky, along with countless other celestial objects.

After picking up a Date Shake in nearby Palm Springs, we headed north to Sequoia. This was a bit of a National Parks Express Tour, so we didn't venture into the fantastic hiking and camping options that these parks offer, but the views were spectacular even from the main roads through the parks. The massive sequoia trees simply must be seen to believe, making for a rather humbling experience when one considers how old these living things are.

Yosemite is even more awe-inspiring. The glacier-carved Yosemite Valley, flanked by Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls, is jaw-dropping. Staring up at climbers on El Capitan and knowing that someone even climbed the imposing 3,200-foot wall without rope is bewildering.

Yosemite National Park AutomotiveMap road tripped to Yosemite National Park late last year. You can see our guide to the park here.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

From the first view of Yosemite Valley from the famous Tunnel View lookout through to the drive out of the park, the landscape never disappoints. We even spotted a very healthy-looking black bear eating in a field, which is always a treat.

After the soaring peaks of the Sierra Mountains, we headed west towards the ocean and the Pacific Coast Highway along Big Sur. The twisting coastal drive along California 1, with the cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains rising out of — or plunging into, depending on your perspective — the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.

Our final stop, at the Ragged Point Inn at the south end of Big Sur — where we watched the sunset from atop the cliffs — was the capstone to an amazing road trip.

Highway 1 big sur Highway 1 near Big Sur includes the Bixby Creek Bridge, a famous landmark. Photo by Getty Images

COVID has stressed us all, with anxiety over mental and physical health taking a real and significant toll. And, luckily, the best antidote might just be to get outside. Even if you don't have the majesty of Yosemite nearby, I encourage you to just get in the car and take a drive somewhere new.

You never know — you might find what makes America the greatest country in the world.

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