I took an overnight trip to Caprock Canyons State Park in July, solely for the purpose of photographing the stars. A few of my friends mentioned taking a road trip to New Mexico, and I tagged along for the first leg. We drove out on a Friday, and it is a nice 5.5 hour drive. Texas becomes quite hilly further west. There were plenty of giant wind farms and freight train lines dotting the landscape.
When I was researching the park, information was scarce. Hopefully this post helps others come and visit this great dark skies location.
West Texas is hot in late July. Think 105F, and even hotter on the asphalt of a parking lot. We parked to pay and could feel our skin crinkle up from the dry heat. Thankfully, it cooled off once the sun went down. There was hardly any humidity, which made it pleasant that night. Low humidity is a real boon for star photographs.
We saw some bison and prairie dogs on our way in – the main entrance road runs through a prairie dog town. They were easily spooked and very skittish, but still incredibly fun to watch. If you get too close they would chirp at you and run into their holes. Sometimes they would be brave and sit just outside their hole snacking on whatever it is prairie dogs eat. The one to the left seemed cautiously content with me and my distance from it.
Caprock Canyons is home to the official bison herd of Texas. This herd is one of the five herds that the present day American Bison were revitalized from. The Caprock Canyon State Park website has a fascinating read-up (PDF warning) on their history. The bison were not moving around at all. Most of them were laying down in a herd by the small lake in the park. This bison to the left was napping off all by himself. We drove by several times while scouting photo locations, but he did not move. After dark, we did not see him, but that may have been the darkness.
After the bison, we setup camp and took some great sunset photographs. West Texas starts to get into that region of the classic golden western United States sunset. The air is dry, there’s a little dust on the horizon, and the whole sky just glows like something you have to see to truly understand. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, maybe it’s the elevation, maybe it’s the red rocks. It just has that special something. Below is my favorite sunset from the evening. I took the photo at such a narrow aperture, f/16, to maximize the sunburst effect. This photo was with my 35mm lens.
After sunset, we were treated to the darkest skies I have ever seen. We could see the entire galactic core of the Milky Way arcing from horizon to horizon. Sadly, I do not have a lens anywhere near wide enough to capture the full extent of the heavens. I feel like my 24mm is really wide on most days, but that night it was incredibly narrow. We shot pictures for a few hours, and then slept through some wild howling of coyotes traipsing through the campsite.
Shooting the Milky Way, has always been a goal of mine. The trick is to get to some place really dark with little to no light pollution – something quite difficult for someone who lives in Dallas. West Texas has several areas that are incredibly dark, and some of the state parks south of Amarillo fit that bill. I have previously been out to Copper Breaks State Park, an International Dark Skies Park, but the weather conditions did not lead to great star photographs – clouds, haze, and small bright towns are not your friend.
According to Dark Site Finder, Caprock Canyons is darker AND has no light pollution to the south. As you can see to the left, the only light anywhere near Caprock Canyons State Park (the red circle) is Lubbock to the southwest. The Milky Way rises to the south, and Lubbock was far enough away that we did not see any light domes on the horizon. I think the only better skies in Texas are at Big Bend National Park.
The skies were absolutely breathtaking all night. Everyone is familiar with how their vision gets twinkly in the extreme dark, where you see fuzzy, blinking lights. Imagine that across the entire sky. There were so many stars visible. More stars than darkness. The entire sky was twinkling. You could see the galactic core arcing overhead – this dense line of stars.
All over Instagram and any photo sharing websites, I see the image of someone silhouetted against the horizon, headlamp on their head, with the light beam pointing into the starry heavens. That photo has been a bucket list item for me ever since I first saw one, and I finally managed to get the shot. That shot is all a single image – no compositing or anything.
I shot with my 24mm all night. The settings of choice were ISO 3200, f/2.2, and about 20s. They gave good results, and I’m happy with the photos I brought back. Milky Way season is over, as it becomes less visible from September to March (ish) in the Northern Hemisphere. But I’m debating doing another weekend trip out there, because the next bucket list shot I want is a time lapse of the stars.
After we went to bed, coyotes could be heard howling all night long. It did not help that there were a few dogs sleeping at our campsite too. We woke up around sunrise and tried taking some more photos. The sunrise was very nice, but there were not great compositions. We ended up at the same spot as the night before, just with that sweet, soft, golden morning light.
I know I’m late in posting this – my adventure was back in July and it is already September. It was just the last photo-centric adventure I went on. I highly recommend spending a night at Caprock Canyons State Park. The skies are incredible, the buffalo are fun to see, and the prairie dogs can be watched for hours.