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Family Motor Coaching magazine back issues | 2009

Brazos Bend and the George Observatory

At a state park in southeast Texas, you can encounter earth's wildlife as well as heaven's wonders.

By Tony Wiese, F178480
January 2009

For many RVers wintering in Texas, or any traveler or nature admirer for that matter, one of the finest gems they will find in the state is Brazos Bend State Park. What makes Brazos Bend even more rare is that besides being a great wildlife preserve, it's also one of only a handful of state parks in the United States that has a research-quality astronomical observatory that's open to the general public.

The wildlife

Brazos Bend is a wildlife preserve encompassing almost 5,000 acres of lowland floodplain adjacent to the Brazos River. It is located 40 miles from the Texas Gulf Coast and not far from Houston. Because of its variety of terrain, the park features plant and animal life typically not found all in the same location. Previously, Brazos Bend has been rated as one of the Top 10 state parks in the United States.

With its southern Texas location, lowlands terrain, and abundant fresh water, Brazos Bend features world-renowned birding, with more than 270 species identified. Of the birds, 88 species have been documented as nesting in the park. People come from all over the world just to observe.

The park also has a three-story observation tower, constructed at the intersection of two of the many nature trails, for park guests to use as a bird blind. Plus, spectacular sunsets can be seen from the tower, since it faces westward, toward 40-Acre Lake.

Dragonflies, butterflies, alligators, bobcats, and whitetail deer are also abundant residents of the park. To be candid, the animal life in the park is incredible. You're almost assured of seeing alligators, but be certain not to feed or annoy them.

Because of the alligators' presence, the only water activity allowed in the park is fishing. Ample opportunities exist for that, as you can choose from among six lakes, a creek, or the adjacent Brazos River. Elm Lake, Hale Lake, and 40-Acre Lake each have fishing piers.

Trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding wind throughout the park and around the lakes. If you like your bike, you'll really want to bring it, for there are 21 miles of bike trails.

Brazos Bend opened in 1984 and was designed to accommodate wildlife habitat as well as visitors. Given the park's large size, even on peak holidays when the camping areas are overflowing, the park never seems crowded. A significant effort was made to have much of the park and its trails wheelchair-accessible.

Because of its warm Texas location, Brazos Bend boasts a large variety of plant and flower species. So, in the park you have many hardwoods, including moss-draped oaks. Along the riverbanks you have sycamore and cottonwood trees. The park also encompasses large areas of marsh and tall grass coastal prairie. In addition, during heavy rains, portions of the park become freshwater marshes. All in all, Brazos Bend affords an incredible opportunity to view nature here on earth.

The George ObservatoryGeorge Observatory at Brazos Bend in southeast Texas

Visitors also can view nature up in the sky at Brazos Bend. The George Observatory there was opened by the Houston Museum of Natural Science in 1989. It truly sets this park apart from others.

The George Observatory has three telescope domes, an information center, a lecture hall, and the Challenger Learning Center. Of the three telescope domes, the largest, at 37 feet in diameter, is in the center and called the Research Dome. The telescope in the Research Dome is a huge 36-inch-diameter reflector (mirror) telescope — one of the largest available to the public in the United States. And attached to it (piggyback) is an 11-inch-diameter refractor telescope. Refractor telescopes use aligned lenses.

Then there are the smaller East Dome and West Dome telescopes. The East Dome has an 18-inch reflector telescope; the West Dome has a 14-inch reflector telescope and a solar scope. If you visit during the daylight hours, be sure to inquire about whether the solar scope is hooked up to its video monitor so you can view possible sunspots.

The observatory is operated by a small staff and volunteers specifically to give the general public access to viewing the skies on a weekly basis. The hours are 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. each Saturday. The majority of the volunteers are from the Fort Bend Astronomy Club, of which my wife, Barb, and I are members.

Each Saturday $3 tickets to view the skies that night at the Research Dome are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis starting at 5:00 p.m. (Unlimited viewing in the East Dome and West Dome is an additional $2 per person.) Time slots for viewing the skies with the big telescope are every 15 minutes starting at dusk and running until 10:00 p.m. Paid viewing includes a 30- to 40-minute lecture; the talks run every hour prior to viewing time. During Daylight Savings Time (DST), time slots run to 11:00 p.m., but since the park gates are always locked at 10:00 p.m., only those who are staying in the campground are allowed to sign up for the last hour. During standard time, the cutoff time slot is 9:00 p.m. to allow “day” visitors plenty of time after their session to leave the park. The Research Dome area is wheelchair-accessible, but the other two domes are not.

People always ask when the best time is to view objects through the telescopes. The simple answer is anytime you can, and as often as you can. Those of us who like to observe the moon find that the best time is when it's between the quarter and half phases, because the termination line between light and dark really provides great definition of the craters.

If you have your own telescope, you can bring it to the observatory and set it up on the large concrete deck area that surrounds the three domes. Typically, on Saturday evenings, various astronomy club members (there are six astronomy clubs in southeast Texas) set up their own scopes on the deck, or configure one of the observatory's deck scopes for guests. Another great spot to set up your own scope is in the parking lot near the park's Nature Center.

Anytime you are camping in the park — day or night — it is not only a pretty walk up to the observatory, but you also may be lucky enough to find one of the local astronomy club members using one of the domes. And if they are not in the middle of something, it is pretty common for them to take a moment to give a brief tour.

So, pack your hat, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, binoculars (large-diameter binoculars for stargazing, if you like), camera, bicycle, good walking shoes, and fishing pole. Because next time you're anywhere near southeastern Texas, you will want to see all the nature at Brazos Bend.

About the author: In addition to being a member of the Fort Bend Astronomy Club, recently Tony Wiese has been working to become certified as a Research Dome telescope operator. He is also a former member of FMCA's Governmental and Legislative Affairs Committee.

Further info

Brazos Bend State Park
21901 FM 762
Needville, TX 77461
(979) 553-5101
Brazos Bend State Park and the George Observatory are located 45 miles southwest of downtown Houston. The park has a $5 daily entrance fee; admission is free for children 12 and under.
Programs at the observatory are not included with the admission fee.

Info via the Web

www.brazosbend.org: This Web site was developed by the Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer Organization. On the right side of the home page is a section called “Nature Programs and Hikes” that provides a list of upcoming events for park guests to attend. Unless noted, these are all free and begin at the Nature Center/Interpretive Center.

www.tpwd.state.tx.us: This is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site. Click on State Parks and Destinations to specify Brazos Bend. Among the info on this site are downloadable PDF documents that list various bird species and times of the year they typically are observed in the park.

www.hmns.org/see_do/George_observatory.asp: George Observatory info is available here, through the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Observatory information also is found at the park Web sites.

Camping at the park

Brazos Bend's campground has 140 sites; 77 of them are large paved sites with water and 30-amp electrical hookups. A dump station is on site. For reservations and more information, visit the Reserve America Web site at www.reserveamerica.com or call the Texas Parks and Wildlife Central Reservation Center at (512) 389-8900 between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Since this park is near Houston, weekends and holidays are usually booked well in advance. If you plan for Sunday through Thursday nights, you will find it easier to get a site.

Many more campgrounds, ranging from simple to elaborate, are within a 20-mile radius of the park.