Here’s a tip to budding romantics out there: Staring at the stars from that tapestry you spread out in the backyard, accompanied by some James Blunt CD and a $5 bottle of white wine, doesn’t really cut it. Especially not when the Blue Mountain Observatory offers free viewing nights throughout the summer.
On designated Friday evenings, weather permitting, the University of Montana-owned observatory is open to the public (the next viewing is slated for July 25, at 10:15 p.m.). Built in 1970, not much has changed over the years. The cozy, Cold War-era structure doesn’t offer much ambiance, but the original 16-inch Boller and Chivens telescope still delivers pristine views of stars some 25,000 light years away. On the first viewing of this summer, visitors were treated to the Ring Nebula (it’s 200 times as luminous as the sun) and M13 (a scattering of pixie dust-like stars also known as the Hercules Global Cluster). UM staff and students help guide visitors through the particulars, and usually stay late into the next morning to scope out as many different stars as possible.
Just getting to the observatory is half the adventure. It takes roughly an hour from downtown Missoula, thanks in part to a 10-mile-plus drive up the treacherous Blue Mountain Road—in the dark. (Luckily, the good folks at the observatory offer excellent directions at www.physics.umt.edu.) Once you reach the parking lot, it’s another 200-yard, flashlight-aided hike to your final destination.
It may be a trek, but, judging from the abundant hand-holding, lip-locking and star-gazing we witnessed, it’s worth the two-hour roundtrip to see things literally worlds further away.