Grand Canyon (Credit: Stephen Ditto)
Arizona's Dark Side
Arizona is the astrotourism capital of the United States
Fun fact: Arizona is home to more certified Dark Sky Places than any other U.S. state. And no country outside the U.S. can rival the state's 16 dark-sky communities, places and parks.
Arizona helped birth the dark-sky preservation movement when, in 2001, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Flagstaff as the world's very first Dark Sky Place for the city's commitment to protecting its stargazing-friendly night skies. Since then, five other Arizona communities—Sedona, Big Park, Camp Verde, Fountain Hills and Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky—have earned Dark Sky status from the IDA.
Arizona also boasts nine Dark Sky Parks, defined by the IDA as lands with "exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment." The most famous of these is Grand Canyon National Park, where remarkably beautiful night skies lend draw-dropping credence to the Park Service's reminder that "half the park is after dark."
Arizona's IDA-certified Dark Sky Parks
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Kartchner Caverns State Park
- Oracle State Park
- Parashant National Monument
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
- Tumacácori National Historical Park
- Tonto National Monument
- Walnut Canyon National Monument
- Wupatki National Monument
Why is Arizona such a wonderful place for stargazing? The simple answer: good weather, mountainous geography and sound stewardship. On a clear night, you can see Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and the Andromeda galaxy. The sky is awash in stars, double stars and star clusters.
"Arizona has been a preferred location for astronomers—professional and amateurs—since the early 1900s," says Mike Weasner, an astrophysicist who helped Oracle State Park earn dark-sky status. "It's due to generally good weather and the mountains to get above the thicker portion of the atmosphere."
Mountains also shield dark-sky oases from urban skyglow. In the case of Oracle State Park, which is only 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains block out the city lights. Likewise, Fountain Hills, an exurb on the northern flank of metro Phoenix, enjoys surprisingly dark nights thanks to the rocky veil provided by McDowell Mountains.
Across Arizona, on rugged public lands and inside scenic city limits, the visitor experience doesn't end at sunset. Because this state, so synonymous with sunshine and blue sky, is equally spectacular when the stars come out.