Getting Away From It All in the Big Bend: Viewsheds, Dark Skies, and Remoteness

Value 2 - Blog Banner

Photo courtsey of Ben Masters.

Getting away and taking time for yourself is important. Many people get away and take a break from a busy life by connecting with nature. Catching a sunset in a peaceful location, camping outside to see the night sky away from city lights, or just being alone in the quietness can soothe the soul.

In a highly populated state like Texas, finding a truly remote experience can be difficult. Fortunately, there are still places to “get away from it all”—none more remote or beautiful than the Big Bend.

Viewsheds and Vistas, Dark Skies, Remoteness and Quietness is another of the Respect Big Bend coalition values, identified by the Trans-Pecos Stakeholder Advisory Group. The Stakeholder Advisory Group is at the heart of the Respect Big Bend effort, and members of this group include landowners and community members from the Big Bend Region counties of Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio, who identified seven values that make Big Bend so special.

The tri-county region of the Big Bend (Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties) encompasses over 12,000 square miles, an area larger than Maryland or Vermont. Yet only about 18,000 residents call this area home, making it one of the least populated regions in the country.

Over the last 100 years the tri-county area has experienced a relatively slow increase in population, as documented in Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute’s June 2019 Texas Land Trends report. The Natural Resources Institute found that between 1900 and 2018, Jeff Davis County experienced a 200% increase in population, Presidio experienced a 190% increase, and Brewster experienced a 410% increase.

Although the population has inched up across the tri-county area over the years, the vistas and viewsheds remain, and people travel from all over the world to experience the remoteness, the quietness, and the amazing dark skies.

What is a viewshed? A viewshed is a geographical area that you can see from a specific viewpoint. For example, the view out the window of a weekend rental house in Fort Davis, a stopping point on the River Road along the Rio Grande, or your view atop Emory Peak in Big Bend National Park are all viewsheds.

Across the Big Bend Region, there are many viewsheds that you can enjoy. Although dominated by private lands, the region’s immense public landholdings, such as Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Davis Mountains State Park, augment the vast private ranches of the region and result in this area being the most ecologically intact in the state.

Land fragmentation is occurring across the state, but the “Last Frontier” of Texas is not nearly as developed as other regions. Less land fragmentation means there are large areas of intact lands, producing some of the darkest skies in North America.

These dark skies prompted the construction of McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains in the 1930s and have attracted both amateur and professional astronomers for decades. The observatory collaborates with local communities and businesses to promote better nighttime lighting as part of their dark skies initiative. The observatory is working with many partners to establish the Greater Big Bend International Dark Sky Reserve, which would make it the largest dark sky reserve in the world.

Across Far West Texas, there are already many organizations, initiatives, and groups that provide opportunities for viewsheds, remoteness, and dark skies, including:

McDonald Observatory – University of Texas
Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend Ranch State Park
Fort Davis National Historic Site
Davis Mountains State Park
Big Bend Conservation Alliance
Texas Agricultural Land Trust
Big Bend Conservancy
Friends of Big Bend Ranch State Park
Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area
Black Gap Wildlife Management Area
Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area
Texas Star Party
Big Bend Trails Alliance
West Texas Trail Walkers
Texas Mountain Trail Region
Texas Pecos Trail Region

For more information about viewsheds, dark skies, remoteness and quietness, check out the RBB report at: https://respectbigbend.org/final-report.

Read more about the Respect Big Bend coalition’s identified values here: https://bri.sulross.edu/stewardship-services/respect-big-bend/

The Respect Big Bend coalition was launched by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and is sponsored in part by the Permian Basin Area Foundation, The Meadows Foundation, and the Still Water Foundation. Find out more about the project at RespectBigBend.org.


Remoteness is a way of life in the Big Bend region. You don’t have to drive far from one of the small West Texas communities to feel isolated.


The McDonald Observatory is a destination for many people who want to experience some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S. This is an image of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest optical telescopes. Image retrieved from the McDonald Observatory.