The Dark Skies of the Okie-Tex Star Party
We have just returned from a memorable astrophotography trip at a Bortle 1 dark sky site. The event was an annual star party hosted by the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club known as the Okie-Tex Star Party.
After a few location changes during the first several years, the star party found its home at Camp Billy Joe near the small town of Kenton, OK, not far from the Oklahoma/Texas border. The name ‘Okie-Tex’ was selected to show the collaborative efforts of the two states.
Aside from taking some amazing astrophotography images through our telescopes, the event opened our eyes to the experience of being under a truly dark sky.
Arriving at the Okie-Tex Star Party
Camp Billy Joe is a very remote location away from all city light pollution. This also means that depending on where you live, you might have to drive (or fly) a long distance to get there.
We flew from Toronto to Dallas/Fort Worth where we boarded our connecting flight to Amarillo, Texas. From there, we rented a car and drove approximately 2.5 hours to the star party site.
When you arrive, you can check in (if registration is open) and then set up anywhere on the field. Like most star parties, your chances of getting a better spot are higher the earlier you arrive.
- When traveling to the star party by car, there are significant distances between each of the small towns along the way. You’ll want to make sure you always have a lot of gas to avoid running out before the next gas station. There is no gas station in Kenton and the closest gas station to the star party is either Boise City, OK (36 miles) or Clayton, NM (43 miles).
- It is always nice (and often easiest) to arrive at a new location in daylight. For our travel, we arranged for an early morning flight to arrive around dinner time to get settled and set up the first night. For our flight home, we made sure to book an afternoon flight to accommodate the long drive from the star party back to the Amarillo airport.
Where to Stay for the Okie-Tex Star Party
Like most star parties, camping is your easiest option for enjoying the star party. You can set up your gear outside your camper or tent and enjoy all the other activities and events on-site.
If you’d prefer a little more shelter or a bed while at Okie-Tex, they do have a limited number of bunkhouses available on a first come first serve basis. This includes a separate bunkhouse for men and women, as well as a family option.
Aside from the above options, there are limited alternatives for sleeping arrangements outside Camp Billy Joe. There is a small bed and breakfast nearby that we heard books up early.
As a speaker at the event, they arranged for a mobile home rental for us in the small town of Kenton, OK. This meant we had to drive the short distance (3 mins) to and from the star party and park outside the gates, which closed at 9 p.m. to avoid headlights or any type of white light once it was dark out.
A view of the Okie-Tex Star Party from the rock formation nearby.
Meals and Food Options
When you are so far removed from city amenities, the logistics for running a star party are more complicated.
In terms of food, there is catering available for those who are in a tent or staying offsite. There is a separate registration process and cost associated with this, so keep an eye out for this when completing registration.
If you’re looking for a late-night snack, the Cosmic Cafe is also available on-site each night from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m.
If you are camping, please note that open flames are not allowed for cooking (to discourage smoke and fire issues) but cookstoves are okay.
And if you’re up for a bit of a drive (approximately 45 minutes), there are also food options available in Boise City OK, and Clayton, NM.
Events at Okie-Tex Star Party
There are a lot of activities to do at the Okie-Tex Star Party besides astronomy or astrophotography.
There are plenty of great speakers lined up throughout the week and some additional workshops you can register for. There is also a swap meet, vendor tents, and some pretty awesome giveaways.
If you’re up for a little adventure, there are some other sightseeing activities that you can do in the area, including hiking the Black Mesa Summit, walking along a dormant volcano, and checking out preserved dinosaur tracks.
South View on top of Black Mesa Summit
Black Mesa Summit
We hiked the Black Mesa Summit which is only a short 10-15 minute drive from the star party. You can use Google Maps to get you to the parking lot and follow the trail to the top. Be sure to bring a backpack with water to keep you hydrated for the 9 mile trek and be on the look out for rattlesnakes.
Fun fact: Cimarron County, OK, which includes the Town of Kenton and the summit, is the only county in the U.S.A to touch 4 different states (Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, & Kansas).
- You will want to make sure you leave plenty of time before dusk to complete the entire journey. It took us three hours to finish the 9-mile (14-kilometer) hike.
- You will hike a long way (approx. 2 miles) before reaching the point of the hike where you actually start to ascend the Mesa.
- Be sure to get your photo at the top of the summit, which is signified by a granite column. This is where you will see information about the 4 different states.
- There is apparently a logbook at the base of the column as we later saw on social media. We did not sign it as we could have sworn the case it was in said ‘do not open’.
- If you want the best view (and a view of the star party) but sure to follow a small path to the south. This will take you near the edge marked by two large wooden crosses. You can spot Kenton and to the left, the field of the star party. Again, be on the look for rattlesnakes that apparently like the tall grass.
Black Mesa Summit Column.
Bortle 1 Skies
As a Bortle 1 site, the skies at Okie-Tex were incredible. We were lucky enough to have two crystal clear nights under the darkest skies I have ever seen.
Unfortunately, one of those nights was the day we arrived and we were, of course, exhausted from travel. With a half-day workshop the next day, I had to pack it in early. But the following night was also great.
We were told by the regular attendees of the Okie-Tex Star Party that some years have been very windy, but this was not the case for our trip. The skies were calm, cool, and most importantly, dark.
A 25-second exposure of the Milky Way, Ash, Okie, and Tex.
The scenic, rolling landscape at the Okie-Tex Star Party is well-suited for nightscape photography. Our host (Andy) spent much of his time at the party taking incredible nightscape images with creative compositions (including this incredible 360-degree view of the night sky).
I tried to capture as many Milky Way nightscape-style images as I could with my stationary tripod and filming camera (a stock Canon EOS R6). The following image is a single, 25-second exposure at ISO 3200 of the Milky Way from our campsite.
A single 25-second exposure of the Milky Way from our campsite.
Deep-Sky Astrophotography Setup
Even though we flew, we were able to bring a fair amount of gear with us to take advantage of the dark skies. Because this was our first time under Bortle 1 skies, I did want to bring a little more focal length than I typically bring to a star party.
Below is the breakdown of the rig that I brought in my carry-on luggage and personal item (backpack). We did have to check one bag as our tripods did not fit in any of our carry-on bags. It also came in handy for packing some warmer clothing for at night.
Trevor (left) and Ashley’s (right) setup
- Telescope: Radian 75 Petzval APO
- Mount: ZWO AM5 Mount and ZWO tripod
- Camera: ZWO ASI6200MM Pro
- Filter Wheel: ZWO Filter Wheel
- Guide Camera: ZWO ASI290MM Mini
- Camera Controller: ZWO ASIAIR Plus
- Guide Scope: William Optics 50mm Unigude
- Telescope: William Optics Redcat 51
- Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi
- Camera: ZWO ASI533MC Pro
- Camera Controller: ZWO ASIAIR Pro
- Guide Camera: ZWO ASI120MM Mini
- Guide Scope: William Optics Uniguide 50mm
- Tripod: Radian Carbon Fiber Tripod
- Drone Footage: DJI Mavic Air drone
I chose to photograph the Embryo Nebula in Perseus in LRGB. Unfortunately, the clearest nights of our trip landed at times when I had to present in the morning, and I didn’t run the rig as long as I wanted to.
My final image includes just 2.5 hours of total exposure time, using a ZWO ASI6200MM Pro camera and LRGB filters.
The Embryo Nebula in Perseus.
(Ashley has not yet processed her images of the Cave Nebula, but we will add those to the post when ready!)
When you are flying to a star party, you realize there are lots of other things that you typically bring to make things more comfortable, that you wouldn’t be able to given the circumstances – things like chairs, a table, a blanket, etc. Thankfully, Andy, from the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club had us covered, and brought all those things for us, including extension cords.
He even brought and set up a sky-box for us to have a little place to go during the star party, which also doubles as protection from the wind, which is common at Okie-Tex. He also kept an eye on our gear, so we could leave it set up, while we traveled to and from the town where we were staying. Thanks, Andy!
Sky Box for Astrophotography
Star Party Speakers
In 2022, I was a speaker at the Okie-Tex Star Party. They expressed interest in having me attend in 2021, but due to the pandemic and the lockdowns between the Canada and USA border, it was arranged for the following year.
I presented on two topics: a half-day workshop on wide-field Astro imaging, and as per the request of the star party organizers, a presentation on the ZWO ASIAIR. Both talks went well and attendees seemed to be engaged in the information.
In addition to myself, there were other presentations from folks like Jonathan Talbot and Rick Fienberg on the topics of ‘Leveraging New CMOS Technology’, ‘Pixinsight Beginner Imaging’, ‘The New Era of Professional-Amateur Collaboration in Astronomy’ and ‘The Great North American Solar Eclipses of 2023 & 2024’.
ASIAIR Presentation at Okie-Tex Star Party
Rules at Okie-Tex Star Party
As far as rules go, Okie-Tex is a pretty laid-back star party. They do have a few rules to follow, mostly pertaining to white light which is normal for a star party:
- No white light after dark (laptops, cars, cell phones, etc.)
- No laser pointers
- Dim red light only and aim it at the ground
- Anticipate your vehicle lights (opening and locking doors) and take the appropriate steps to make sure there are no issues with light
- Park outside the gates after 9 p.m. if you are not staying overnight and park facing away from the star party
- Pets are allowed but they must be leashed and contained at all times. Be sure to clean up after them.
Okie-Tex Star Party Impressions
This is a very relaxed and casual star party that doesn’t impact the amazing Bortle 1 skies. People just ‘get’ the rules (i.e. no white light) so all you need to do is show up, set up, and enjoy yourself.
The Oklahoma City Astronomy Club are great hosts. Being in such a remote location, it can be easy to feel a little uneasy, but they really do make sure you have all the comforts and necessities at the site – washrooms, showers, catering, power, etc. The star party is well organized and runs like you think a star party that has run for 30+ years would run – like a well-oiled machine.
The Okie-Tex Star Party from above.
There are a lot of seasoned attendees at this star party that make it a lot of fun. You can join in on the conversation, and get the scoop on their stories from the many years they have spent attending the star party and make new friends.
You’ll also want to be sure to hike to the top of the nearby rock formation adjacent to the star party to see Okie and Tex, the official flamingo mascots of the star party.
Overall, we had such a great time at the Okie-Tex star party and can definitely see ourselves returning in the future. A big thanks to the Oklahoma City Astronomy Club for the invite and for taking such good care of us!
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