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Fantasy Vacation at the Star Hill Inn

Written for the NOVAC newsletter; September 1998

Sorry, all this is history. I heard in 2011 that the Star Hill Inn is no more.

Late last winter (1998) when we accumulated enough frequent flyer miles for one ticket to anywhere in the US, my wife suggested that I use them for a trip to the Star Hill Inn in northern New Mexico (Did I say wife?  I mean, Wonderful Wife). The Star Hill Inn is located at 7000 feet in the Sangre de Christo mountains two hours north on I-25 from Albuquerque. It is run by Phil and Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon. Phil is an avid amateur astronomer who has collected a set of excellent telescopes which are all for rent on a nightly basis. The accommodations are super with $70-120 per night (I paid $70 but his literature lists this range) getting you a nicely decorated studio (bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one) among the evergreens with a queen-sized bed and a futon couch (if you bring kids). Additionally, near the observing site is a great warming hut containing an excellent library of astronomy (mostly) books.

The 17.5" Dob                          The Cabin                                       The 22" Dob            

Remarkably, I was able to get plane, car, Inn, and telescope reservations for three nights at the July new moon. Leaving Dulles at 8 am on Tuesday, I arrived at the Inn at 3 pm giving me time for a good nap prior to the evening viewing. At dusk I walked down to the observing deck where Phil has two 8", one 11", and one 14" Celestron Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes, two of which (8" and 14") are computer-controlled. Additionally, he has a 7" Meade refractor, a 17.5" Sky Designs dob, and a 22" Starsplitter dob as well as a new 24" R-C reflector. I had put in for the Sky Designs for Tuesday and Thursday and the Starsplitter for Wednesday night. I am not a fan of 'ladder astronomy' and thought I would prefer the 17.5" as Phil has cleverly placed it on a concrete pedestal that is 8" lower than the wooden deck. Thus, even pointing at zenith I did not have to use a step stool. However, I couldn't resist the thought of using a 22" telescope in really dark skies which prompted me to reserve it for one night. Although I brought my own eyepieces, Phil had a nice selection (45 mm Celestron Ultima, 30 mm Orion wide-field, and 9 mm Nagler) which he offered me to accompany the telescopes. It also turns out that he will give you a sky-tour if you don't know what to look at or don't know how to use a telescope.

Tuesday night was incredible with the Milky Way a very bright jagged slash bisecting the sky. Several Messier objects were visible by naked eye and it was difficult to think about where to begin. Starting with low objects near the big dipper, I found that galaxies were big and bright and the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), in particular, showed lots of detail in the spiral arms. Not being able to resist the southern Milky Way I hit about 20 globular and open clusters in Sagittarius, Ophiuchus, and Scorpius, followed by M13 and M92 in Hercules. At 220x the amount of resolution and detail that could be seen was remarkable. Nebulae such as the Lagoon, Triffid, Swan, Ring, and Dumbell were also exceptionally bright and at low powers stood out beautifully against the black background and at high powers yielded great detail in the dark lanes and mottling. I spent some time tracking down a couple of dark nebulae (B86 and B143) which gave the appearance of dark holes in the star-rich Milky Way. B86, in particular, was very impressive with the open cluster NGC6520 bordering the east edge and a bright orange star bordering the west. My only complaint in this region of the sky was the trees cutting off access to anything much further south than the bottom of the teapot in Sagittarius. Thus, M7, which was fabulous in binoculars, just barely skimmed above the treetops. I then moved on to Scutum (M11 was to die for!), Cygnus (the Veil was super bright), and finally Pegasus (dark lane in NGC 7331 was clear) before packing it in about 3 am.

Waking up Wednesday late morning I was greeted with blue skies. Sitting on the porch after breakfast, I heard the buzzing of what sounded like some very large insects. This turned out to be a flock (?) of hummingbirds coming to feed at the sugar water hanging from my porch. One with a bright red head and neck seemed to be dominant and claimed the whole thing for himself. The others kept trying to get a sip but he successfully drove them all away. While watching this battle go on, a four pronged deer sidled slowly by munching on the grass. The day was spent with a little reading and a lot of naps. By late afternoon a thunderstorm moved in and, unfortunately, continued until midnight at which time I went down to the deserted observing deck to consider my options. As the sky was closing down again and there was serious lightning in the north and west, I took this to be a sign from above and went back to bed for a night's rest.

Thursday morning also had bright blue skies and, following breakfast, took a nice mile hike to the top of a ridge which gave beautiful vistas of the Sangre de Christo peaks. Because of the last night's wash-out, I switched my reservation to the 22" for that night. The evening began beautifully and I revisited many of the sights from Tuesday. It seemed to me that the 22" not only gathered more light but also gave clearer views than the 17.5". As I was mind-boggled by the 17.5", I don't have a word for what the views in the 22" were like. About midnight clouds rolled in and everyone but myself and one other die-hard went to bed. Their loss! By 1 am the sky began clearing and many more wonderful sights passed through the eyepiece. At 2:30 am I decided to give up my night vision and pulled up Jupiter at 380x. There was an astonishing amount of detail in the clouds and the Galilean moons were  cleanly resolved into disks. By 3:00 Saturn was high enough to see the crepe ring, a crisp Cassini division, and nice cloud bands. At 3:30 I had to pack up my eyepieces and hit the road to catch a 7:00 am flight out of Albuquerque.

All-in-all, this was a vacation I could recommend to any amateur astronomer. Beautiful mountains, clear (mostly), dark skies, as well as beautiful and varied birds and other wild life. As the Star Hill Inn is open year-round, next time I might consider trying out the winter Milky Way.

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N.B.  Sky and Telescope ran a nice article describing various astronomical resorts.  It was in the August, 1999 issue and featured, among others, the Star Hill Inn.  In reading this article I found myself being biased towards the approach taken by the Star Hill Inn, compared to the others.  I enjoy comradeship while observing which the observing deck at the Inn, with its 7 or 8 scopes in close proximity, provides.  This contrasts with other resorts; some of which have individual observatories for each scope.  Understandably, this is a personal issue.

June, 2005 I revisited Star Hill Inn and rented the 22" again. I don't know what the problem was, but I never could focus it very well. Phil said it was poor seeing, but I am not convinced. I don't think I would go back. Or, if I did, I wouldn't rent the 22". The 17" is out of commission. He is focusing on goto scopes with a 16" LX200, which might be a good choice, but not much fun, in my opinion.