Star Hill Inn 4/14/07

by Steve Gottlieb

I enjoy mixing astronomy and vacation trips whenever possible, so when I was planning a trip with my wife to the Santa Fe area of New Mexico during early April, I thought I would use "Star Hill Inn" (, an astronomical retreat in northern New Mexico, started 20 years ago by Phil Mahon, as the base of the trip. I've mixed astronomy and family trips twice to Australia and it has worked out great. Last August, on vacation in Maui and Hawaii, I arranged a night observing on the top of Haleakala with Casey Fukuda and other Maui amateurs and another night near Mauna Kea with Doug Summers' 22-inch f/3.7 dob.

The Star Hill Inn property includes 8 guest accommodations (mostly cottages), ranging in price from $170/night to $380/night for a three- bedroom, two-bath house. The price includes use of one of several telescopes, including 8", 11", 12", 14" and 16" Schmidt-Cass scopes and 17.5" and 22" dobs. I reserved the 16-inch LX-200 for three nights. Meals and food are not available, but the units are self- contained with full kitchens and I made reservations at the "Sunflower" cottage. I also considered setting the trip up around "New Mexico Skies" ( in southern New Mexico. This astronomical inn seems more oriented to serious observing, but there was less to do in the immediate area with my wife if the observing ended up a bust.

Star Hill Inn is near the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains at an elevation of 7200 feet. Although in a mountain setting, the site is only a few miles from the high flat plains of northeastern New Mexico. Day trips are easily possible to Santa Fe (perhaps 70 minutes away), Taos (a bit further over a mountain pass) and historical pueblo ruins and cliff dwellings such as Pecos and Bandelier.

When we left last week on Wednesday, the weather forecast was not encouraging with a storm predicted to skirt the area midweek. After a night in Albuquerque, we spend Thursday walking around Santa Fe (including a visit to the Georgia O'Keefe museum), picked up food for the rest of the week and drove off towards Las Vegas. The weather was clearly changing as we left Santa Fe under hail and sleet. Although it seemed to clear up at sunset after we were settled in at Star Hill Inn, the real weather was just arriving and that night it snowed constantly. In the morning it felt like we were in the high Sierras during the winter and the grounds were covered with at least 6 inches of snow. So, we mostly hung out, read and took walks in the snow around the Inn. The forecast was for clear skies on Saturday, but with the amount of snow on the ground and the observing platform I wasn't very enthusiastic about the prospects of getting observing in.

I woke up to bright and sunny skies on Sunday -- the only question was whether the snow would melt enough during the day to allow observing. While waiting for this big melt-off, my wife and I drove off and spent the day exploring the surrounding area between Las Vegas and Santa Fe, including Pecos monument and Fort Union. By late Saturday afternoon, conditions were still clear and calm with gorgeous dark blue skies. After we returned to Star Hill Inn I found four other observers had arrived (I was probably the only one serious about observing, though) and we had excellent viewing conditions Saturday night. Skies were certainly mag 6.5-7.0 and I was very impressed with the brightness of the Sagittarius star cloud rising in the southeast late at night. I wasn't too impressed, though, with the equipment as some of it didn't seem very well maintained.

All of the equipment (except a 24" Ritchey-Chretien in a dome) is housed on a wooden deck (with sunken piers) with an attached room that serves as a library/reference and warming room. Just off the deck, there is a flat area that is just large enough for a few folks to set up their own equipment. Just down the road is the dome to the 24" RC. A couple of the other guests brought their own scopes and a couple of others used Star Hill Inn's 17.5-inch Sky Designs dob (an early truss-tube design) and a 14-inch LX-200. I used the 16-inch LX 200 with computerized GOTO all night. I quickly discovered the scope was not very well collimated (or shifted collimation as it slewed through the sky), though it probably didn't matter that much with the spring galaxies I was viewing. I had to fight the focus knob, also, as the focus was not smooth. Nevertheless, the GOTO was very accurate and it was very easy to star hop around small areas using the hand paddle. Overall, I took notes on 30 objects, mostly new faint galaxies, in addition to looking at bright eye candy. I didn't get to see the 22-inch Tectron or the large R-C scope in action.

Is is worth planning a trip to this inn? I may return there in a few years, mostly as a vacation with some astronomy thrown in as a bonus. It is located in a beautiful and interesting section of New Mexico and there is plenty to do in the daytime in case observing doesn't pan out because of the weather. As far as going there simply to observe -- I don't see the draw -- as we have just as dark skies available around here (Willow Springs, Lassen, Sierras) and the latitude is only a few degrees further south. As far as an observing trip, I'd like to check out New Mexico Skies as they offer potentially darker skies and both a 30" f/5.0 Tectron and a 25" f/4.0 AstroSystems Telekit. Has anyone been there?

-- Steve

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