Arizona is an astronomer’s dream. Observatories have been built on mountains across the state. Many of these have extensive public outreach programs and offer tours and viewing opportunities year-round. In addition, dark rangers present “tours of the universe” at some of the best dark-skies sites in the country, and bed and breakfast inns offer in-room telescopes, viewing decks, and private observatories for stargazers.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak National Observatory offers so much to the dark-sky tourist that more than one day may be required to see it all. With twenty-four optical (and two radio telescopes) calling Kitt Peak home, the Observatory is the world’s largest collection of optical telescopes.
Visitors can tour three of those telescopes, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the 2.1-m Telescope which was built in 1964 and still works every night, and the Mayall 4-m Telescope. The Mayall is the largest optical telescope on Kitt Peak and can be seen from Tucson.
All-day tours begin at the Visitor Center. No reservations are required and all are walking tours. There is a fee for these guided tours. However, visitors may take a self-guided walking tour, using a walking tour map which can be obtained at the Visitor Center.
In addition to the daytime tours, Kitt Peak Visitor Center hosts a Nightly Observing Program except during the monsoon season from July 15 through September.
These popular programs require reservations at least two to four weeks in advance. Visitors participating in these night-sky programs have the opportunity to view the clear dark skies of Kitt Peak from three observatories, one a roll-off-roof observatory.
If you plan a visit to Kitt Peak National Observatory leaving from Tucson, you can take a shuttle from your hotel or the Clarion Hotel, Adobe Shuttle’s operations base. This transportation is available during the day and for the Nightly Observing Programs.
Location: An hour and one-half drive, about 56 miles, from Tucson on the Tohono O’odham Reservation.
The University of Arizona and Steward Observatory offer several dark-sky experiences. Steward Observatory’s original telescope was moved from its once-isolated dome to Kitt Peak after the city of Tucson expanded and brought too much light with it. The historic Steward Observatory is now home to the highly acclaimed Steward Observatory Public Evening. Before coming to Tucson, this observatory’s first director and passionate advocate, Andrew Ellicott Douglass, found a site on Mars Hill in Flagstaff and established Lowell Observatory.
If you want to see how scientists and engineers are making giant mirrors for optical and infrared telescopes you can take a tour of the Steward Observatory SOML Mirror Lab. Tours are offered on Tuesdays and Fridays, with reservations.
Safford, Arizona, located about 80 miles northeast of Tucson, is home to Eastern Arizona College and the Discovery Park Campus, which hosts the Visitor Center for the Mt. Graham International Observatory (MGIO).
In addition to astronomy (Gov Aker Observatory, telescopes and exhibits from the Vatican Observatory, and a full-motion simulator tour of the solar system), visitors to the park can also learn about mining, agriculture, and ecology. Discovery Park is open to the public Monday through Friday and is free except for special events.
The tour of the MGIO, which begins at Discovery Park and includes a forty-mile trip to Mt. Graham, costs $40 and is by reservation only. Please note that this is an all-day tour. Orientation begins at 9:00 a.m. and the tour van returns to Discovery Park just before 5:00 p.m. Tours are conducted from mid-May through mid-November and are always dependent upon the weather.
The MGIO is made up of three telescopes. The Large Binocular Telescope, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter (Radio) Telescope, and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope are operated by the Steward Observatory. Visitors are able to see all three telescopes on the MGIO tour.
Mount Graham International Observatory is operated by the University of Arizona, but tours are done by Discovery Park Campus. Tours of Mount Graham International Observatory Discovery Park Campus at Eastern Arizona College handle tours for MGIO.
Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter
Just outside of Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is home to the University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter. Visitors can take part in DiscoveryDays, SkyNights, or even multi-day SkyCamps. DiscoveryDays offer, in addition to “Cosmic Visions” astronomy adventures, Sky Island Ecology presented by University of Arizona scientists. Where else can you find a dark-sky destination that offers updates from those involved directly in the Phoenix Mars Lander Mission?
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory
This Smithsonian Institution Observatory is located on Mount Hopkins, with a visitor center at the base of the mountain, about thirty-five miles south of Tucson. The Visitors Center is open Monday through Friday, offering an extensive collection of exhibits and an outdoor patio with two spotting devices, a 20-power telescope, and wide-field binoculars.
During the spring, summer, and fall, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory offers guided bus tours up the mountain to the observatories. These tours last about five and a half hours and include a stop for lunch, which visitors bring for themselves. Be sure to check the details about the tours because they are not for everyone because of their length, the altitude, and the exertion required. But, for those who can make the tour, it is a chance to learn about Smithsonian Institutes’ largest remote field installation.
Stargazers also have access to a Forest Service picnic area and an “Astronomy Vista” to set up their telescopes, located just outside the front gate within the site of one of the observatories. What a great idea to offer one more opportunity to enjoy the same night skies that allow professional astronomers to do there on Mount Hopkins.
Flagstaff, where Lowell Observatory is located, became the world’s first International Dark-Sky City, on October 24, 2001. This designation is given to recognize towns and cities “with exceptional commitment to and success in implementing the ideals of dark sky preservation and/or restoration, and their promotion through quality outdoor lighting” by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA).
Of all the destinations in the Southwest, the Grand Canyon is probably the most well-known. It attracts eager visitors from around the world, but few stay long enough to see the other view, the one that lies above the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. Staying overnight and actually getting outside after dark is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences that this priceless treasure of North America has to offer. If you make this more than a daytime stop, you can be one of those privileged to visit the Grand Canyon that is a premier dark-sky destination.
Grand Canyon Star Party
Once a year stargazers get the opportunity to join in the fun at the Grand Canyon Star Party. You don’t have to be an amateur astronomer to attend this week-long event because the public is invited. Just register, make your housing arrangements, and plan to bring the family to enjoy a Grand Canyon dark sky adventure on the South Rim.
Not to be outdone, the North Rim now has its own star party. It’s much smaller because there is not as much lodging available and the space for telescopes is limited. Nevertheless, it does attract stargazers from around the world.
Evening Sky Tours of Sedona
Sedona, Arizona, is home to Evening Sky Tours offers a stargazing experience that is at once educational and entertaining. Evening Sky Tours was founded by Cliff Ochser, former Director of Development for Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Evening Sky Tour’s professional astronomers provide tours of the universe for visitors and residents, using telescopes and high-powered binoculars. Their dark sky sites are only ten minutes from downtown Sedona. You can take an Evening Sky Tour and enjoy Sedona’s clear night skies any time of year, seven days a week. Of course, weather can impact the viewing, so be sure to check the forecast.
Sedona by Starlight
Astronomer and astroscenic photographer, Dennis Young, will show stargazers Sedona by Starlight. That’s what he calls his star tours. He uses a wide range of instruments during a tour, including large astronomical binoculars and telescopes from small refractors to his large home built telescopes.
Specializing in custom tours for one to one hundred stargazers, Sedona by Starlight offers a personalized and professional dark sky adventure for all ages.
Boots and Saddles, Sedona Bed & Breakfast
This award-winning inn offers luxurious accommodations with Southwest-themed rooms. At Boots and Saddles, along with magnificent views and gourmet breakfasts, stargazers will find telescopes for viewing the clear dark skies of Sedona. What more could one ask for from a bed and breakfast inn?
A Shooting Star Inn
Want a double dose of astronomy? Then visit Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory and stay at A Shooting Star Inn, home to photographer, resident astronomer, and your host, Tom Taylor. This small, only two guest rooms, but very special bed and breakfast inn, offers guests a beautiful and comfortable place to stay, along with astronomy programs and dark-sky viewing from its own observatory, modern telescopes, space binoculars, and a 1908 brass planetary refractor.
In addition to breakfast, with advance reservation, your host will also cook dinner for his guests. You’ll also enjoy time in the inn’s spectacular 3,000 square foot great room with twenty-five-foot ceilings.
But, be sure to spend some time outdoors, enjoying the magnificent views and the wildlife strolling across the landscape.
The Astronomers Inn
This small bed and breakfast inn, formerly the Skywatcher’s Inn, has its own private observatory, the Vega-Bray. The hill-top setting is perfect for stargazing.
Guests receive a discount on the nightly astronomer-guided night sky viewing sessions. This small inn offers four themed rooms with a private bath. Breakfast is served and a kitchen is available so that guests may prepare other meals for themselves.
Location: The Astronomers Inn is located just outside of Benson, Arizona.
Arizona Sky Village
In Portal, Arizona, about two and a half hours southeast of Tucson, you’ll find the development called Arizona Sky Village. It’s a community of single-family homes and time-share haciendas, built on the principles protecting our dark skies and natural environment. Travelers looking for a destination to enjoy the beauty of the universe and world-class bird watching can rent a private home in Arizona Sky Village. This rental includes access to both the Community Observatory and Birding Station.
Location: Arizona Sky Village is located in Portal, Arizona, about 150 miles southeast of Tucson.
Stargazing for Everyone
Tony and Carole La Conte say that they bring the universe to Arizona, from Yuma to the Grand Canyon. Apparently, they take their name, Stargazing for Everyone, very seriously because they do seem to have programs for all groups and all ages. Their astronomy “field trips” reach more than 75,000 stargazers every year.
Stargazing for Everyone hosts activities that range from free public events at local parks to presentations for corporate groups. Schools, Scouts, and homeschoolers can learn about the universe and telescopes. They will even make your birthday party special with one of their multimedia tours of the night sky.