Apache Point Observatory
New Mexico, USA


Planning the Logistics of a Class Trip to APO

Who is eligible to plan class trips to APO?

ARC member institutions and leasing partners are welcome to plan observing trips for their students. We recognize that these trips may consist of groups of different sizes and with different goals in mind. Here we provide some information that can help with the logistics of planning a successful trip to APO.

Planning your trip

Who does the planning?

When a class trip is conceived it may be well before a call for quarterly proposals. So giving the 3.5-m Schedulers, Russet McMillan and Ben Williams, advanced warning before the observations are scheduled, a description of your trip goals and parameters is essential. If the group size is greater than 3, the group leader must contact APO before the application deadline to discuss the planning of their trip. The trip will be a shared experience with your students (sharing of rooms, food prep, installing TUI on their laptops, day activities). If you have questions or need assistance feel free to ask APO staff or other people in your department if there have been past trips for advice early on in the planning.

Proposing your class trip to your TAC using the formal proposal document. A half? B half? full night?

This depends on the types of science projects you are involving your students with as well as other scheduling constraints over the time frame you want to bring your class. Don’t forget to add these details in your observing proposal. Sample Form.

Quarterly schedule is published and you have dates, what to do?

Software and computer access

APO has a guest wifi network to handle most sized groups; however, it is limited and large groups may tax the system. Students are welcome to bring their laptops. Wired access is available and is encouraged for large groups. It is strongly recommended that you install and test all needed software (IRAF, IDL, TUI, ds9, etc) before coming to the site. There is a shared observing computer (obs3), with institutional accounts, at your disposal but most groups will either have TUI on one laptop and use the site projector in our conference room for a shared classroom experience (optional). You can also break your class into smaller groups of 2 or 3 students and take turns collecting data and cals for a more hands on experience. Consider describing and preparing user catalog files before coming to the site.

Traveling to the site

When to arrive

If you’re new to APO/TUI/or have students who are new, please consider arriving to the site a day before your observations (not just the afternoon before your observations). In addition to the time it takes to fly to Albuquerque or El Paso, it’s a 3+ hr drive to arrive on site from either airport and you’re going to be tired, which will make observing more difficult. You will also need time to shop for groceries. You’ll need time to prepare for your observations as well as have a buffer to address any software issues while onsite.

Directions to site

Click for a map and directions to the site. Remember, if no one has been to the site previously, please do not rely on GPS. We have had GPS systems direct individuals down secondary or unimproved roads in the winter where they have gotten stranded. During periods of winter storms contact the observatory BEFORE heading up the mountain for weather and road conditions.

Altitude sickness

Apache Point Observatory is 9200 feet above sea level (2788 meters). Coming to the site a day befor your observations also provides you the oppurtunity to adjust to the altitude. Make sure you and your students are familiar with the symptoms and dangers. Make sure to buy foods heavy in carbs (like pasta) and caffeine (Pepsi/Coke is always best to have on hand), this should help with headaches. Iron pills also help as people who have low iron levels are more prone to altitude sickness. If you have a student that is particularly concerned ahead of time or is at a higher risk (such as asthma or respiratory issues), they should consult a doctor before coming to altitude.

Grocery run in Alamogordo.

There are 4 main grocery stores in Alamogordo. All are East of White Sands Blvd (aka Hwy 70/54). Coming from El Paso this would be a right turn off of White Sands onto the mentioned streets. From Tularosa direction, a left.

Remember if you forget something it is a minimum of 1 hour travel round trip from the observatory to any businesses.

Need to plan a meal for your group before coming to site?

Alamogordo has a variety of local and traditional fare. Most places are open until 9PM with several fast food and a couple others open later or 24 hours. Cloudcroft dining has smaller choice depending on the season. Most close before 9pm. Local restaurants (Cloudcroft) are listed here:

Arriving on site

It is always best to arrive during the day and on weekdays when staff are present. However there are times during the weekday and weekend that staff may not be on site and awake to greet you.

Arriving after dark (dimming car lights and operating telescopes)

Please only drive past the sign on the APO road that warns of dimming your head lights at night using your parking lights. It is best to test this on your rental car before you get to the site. The road has been striped with white reflective paint to make viewing the boundaries of the drive easier at night.

Arriving during the day on weekends (how do I get in the buildings?)

All doors on site are locked and require a numerical combination to access a building. All buildings share the same combination. Call ahead for the door combination. Identify yourself and purpose of visit to a staff member and they will share the current combination with you. The observatory does change the combination occasionally.


Feel free to park in the loading dock area to unload your students, luggage and food. After you have settled in, please park your vehicle in the lower parking lot.

Room assignments (where do I find where I am staying, where do I find keys to my room?)

In the main operations building kitchen area is a white board with room assignments and keys hanging above it. If you can not find a key to your room please ask a staff member and they can assist you.

Respecting other day sleepers (slamming doors, talking, privacy)

Please remember we operate 24 hours a day most of the year so there may be people sleeping around the clock. When in the dorm buildings keep your voices low and try to keep the noise to a minimum. Respect others privacy including the shared bathroom (pods) areas.

Food storage

The lower dorm kitchen has designated cabinet space for food storage for each room. There are 2 refrigerators that also have marked shelves. Do your best to leave space for other guests not in your group. This includes not using lots of storage space in the operations building kitchen. Mark all your food with your name or group name and date. Note there is often left over condiments or spices from previous groups that are marked ’house’ for general consumption. Any food that you have left over at the end of your visit can be added to this pool, likewise feel free to use any items marked ’house’

Planning meals with your group so not to interfere with your own observations.

Come up with meal ideas before you travel to the site. It will simplify your shopping trip amd make preparing preparing meals easier. You may want to consider just one or two group meals a day and leave the other meals to your students to prepare their own.

Preparing meals

There is a kitchen in the operations building as well as the lower dormitory. It is best to prepare your meals before or after your scheduled observing time. Please also be respectful of our staff and guests by cleaning up after yourself and not expecting our janitorial staff to do your dishes or empty dishwashers. There are 2 dishwashers in the lower dorm and one in the operations kitchen.


APO uses a contract housekeeping service. They do not work on Sunday or some holidays. They will not service your room during your visit, only common areas. There are many spare linens available if you need them.

Where your group should gather / work

The main operations building has a conference area that can be used by instructors to hold lectures or as a place where your class can meet. The 3.5-m Control room can only comfortably hold 3 or 4 people at time. The conference area has white boards, overhead projector (great for displaying a common TUI) and plenty of table space. Power, WiFi or Hardwire internet connections are also available in this area. The observing specialist workspace is the control room and there is a shared desktop computer available for visitors there but there is not much room. Instructors can break up their class groups of one or two to give them the experience of working closely with the observing specialist in the control room otherwise please use the conference room for shared space. The TV lounge area is also an available space at night but is shared during the day with staff. Large groups may be distracting to staff during normal day time business hours.


Who will show me around? Observing Specialist, member of engineering day staff?

The Observing Specialists (Support Astronomers and Telescope Operations Specialists) will give you lots of detailed information about things like TUI, instruments, taking cals, doing instrument changes, weather safety, etc. They can also provide your group with a thorough top - down tour of the 3.5-m Telescope and Instrumentation. However during some times of the year when days are shorter (winter), they may not have as much available time for a tour, since they have to prepare the telescope and instruments for your observing night. Nights of the year that are shorter are easier for them to give detailed tours. If your group is visiting during the winter months or would like to have a more in depth technical tour please contact the Telescope Engineer and see if you can arrange a time for a tour for your group independent of your time with the Observing Specialist. This may not always be possible if your group is visiting over a weekend for example or if the day staff is busy with other tasks.

Tours of other telescopes

Tours of ARCSAT, NMSU 1-m and SDSS 2.5-m are welcome and encouraged but if possible, please arrange those tours with the staff ahead of time. Contact the Telescope Engineer or the Program Manager to arrange a site tour.

Tours of Sunspot

Sunspot has a new outreach person at the Visitor Center. Contact the Program Manager and they can give you that person’s contact information to arrange a private tour or there is a self guided walking tour of the grounds if a time can not be arranged.

Area activities if you have a day off or to fill extra time

Your visit will be a busy one but planning in other activities keep your students occupied and makes the trip a more memorable one. The following are a few local and New Mexico attractions that might interest your group.

Leaving APO

Data can be downloaded later when you get back home but most of the data should be already on your devices as you were collecting it. The observing specialists can explain more in detail APO’s data policy and how long your data remains on disk after you leave. There will be instructions in the dorm rooms about stripping the beds of linens and where to place used towels. Be good stewards of the observatory by policing the area for trash and gathering up all your items for travel (toiletries, cell phone and laptop chargers, etc). Mark and put extra food stuffs on the operations bldg kitchen table or in the refrigerators or freezer marked clearly as ’house’. Return room keys to the operations housing assignment board. If you have other places planned on your trip after a visit to the site give yourself time to rest. Sleep a few hours. Sometimes groups will observe B-half and then just rush off to the airport afterwards. Be safe and well rested, it will make the return trip less stressful. Never depart the observatory during a winter storm. The roads will have almost no traffic on them from 11pm to 6am. If you were to have issues no one will be by to help you. Cellphone coverage on NM6563 is nearly nonexisitent.

This page last updated February 4, 2019.