Sunspot, New Mexico — easier than a trip to the Sun

National Solar Vacuum Tower. Photo by Jim Reed.
National Solar Vacuum Tower. Photo by Jim Reed.

If you really wanted a close-up look at the sun, you could fill up your gas tank and head sunward. Traveling eight hours each day at sixty miles per hour you’d cover the roughly 93 million miles from the earth to the sun in about 189,583 or so days (519.4 years) and arrive just before Thanksgiving in the year 2,517.

Faster and far more realistic would be a visit to Sunspot, located fifteen forested miles south of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, nestled between lovely tall pines and perched at the edge of Sacramento Peak . Here the Observatory’s numerous telescopes bring the sun’s activity to the human eye for study and observation.

Sunspot combines information, scenery and serenity in one small area. Stop at the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitors Center for an educational display of sun and star related exhibits along with photos of the area’s history. Pick up the brochure to learn about the first telescope built in Sunspot, the Grain Bin Dome, a telescope mounted inside a Sears and Roebuck mail order grain bin in 1950. The brochure will also act as a tour guide for your walk around the small area encompassing the Vacuum Tower, Evans Solar Facility, Hilltop Dome and Scenic View platform. On Saturdays from May to October, you can take the informative guided tour at 2 p.m.

The Scenic View platform is one of the area’s best features. When its not raining or overcast, as it was on the Saturday I visited, you can see for many miles up and down the Tularosa Basin, from the glow of White Sands to the northeast and beyond to a broad expanse of the deserts, mountains and mesas to the south. The combination of the 9,200 foot elevation and almost waterless and pollutant free air aids in the telecope’s obtaining sharper and clearer pictures. Scenery is a pleasant byproduct of Sacramento Peak; you can actually look down upon cloud formations from above. If you see storm cells to the north or overhead, heed the posted warning to stay off the platform as the entire area is understandably a magnet for lightening.

Just a mile down the road from The National Solar Observatory is Apache Point Observatory , where you are invited to the Astrophysical Research Consortium, of which New Mexico State University is a member, to stroll the grounds during daylight hours. Like Sunspot, the Apache Point Observatory also offers stunning views from the platform of the 2.5 meter telescope.

The trip to Sunspot contained a note of dismay; some of the area’s tall pine trees have been destroyed by pine beetle infestations and are being removed. The beetles seem to attack trees in clusters and then move on, says Mary McGraw who lives in Sunspot and works at the Visitors Center.

Even on a rainy day, a trip to Sunspot is worthwhile. You’ll get to meet helpful people like Mary McGraw, see educational displays on the sun and other stars, gaze in awe at the sun from enormous telescopes, and enjoy unmatched mountain scenes and views. And, it’s much easier than a 519.4 year trip in your car.