Monument Valley, Arizona by Lorenzo Scarafia

Arizona’s Starry Nights

By: Edie Jarolim

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Clear skies give way to spectacular astronomy viewing.

About the author

Edie Jarolim

Edie Jarolim

Edie Jarolim is the author of three travel guides, including "Arizona for Dummies," and one dog guide, Am I Boring My Dog? Her latest book, "Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All," is a memoir about her career as a guidebook editor for Frommer’s, Rough Guides, and Fodor’s and as a Tucson-based freelance travel writer. Her articles about Arizona have appeared in numerous national publications, including "National Geographic Traveler," "Sunset," and "The Wall Street Journal." She is the Contributing Dining Editor of "Tucson Guide" and often writes about food for "Edible Baja Arizona."

One of the country’s most astronomy-friendly states, Arizona has long fought against “light pollution” – city glare that obscures the night sky. The Dark Skies Movement is headquartered in Tucson, and Flagstaff, Sedona and the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation are officially designated dark sky regions. It’s no surprise, then, that in Arizona you’ll find everything from posh resorts sporting telescopes to world-class observatories with vast arrays of instrumentation. 


Southern Arizona’s clear, dry nights and abundant mountain ranges attract astronomers from all around the globe. South of Tucson, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins counts the Multiple Mirror Telescope among its literally revolutionary astronomical instruments: not only the MMT, but the building in which it is housed, rotate. Full-day guided van trips up the 8,550-foot peak in the Santa Rita Mountains run from mid-March through November. 

Also during this time of year, vans transport visitors from Safford in southeastern Arizona to the Mt. Graham International Observatory, on the upper reaches of the 10,500-foot peak in the Pinaleno Mountains for which it is named. It’s home to the Max Planck Institute’s Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope, the most accurate radio telescope ever built. 

The world’s largest solar telescope, the McMath-Pierce, resides at Kitt Peak National Observatory, the country’s first national observatory. It sits on land west of Tucson leased from the Tohono O’odham people, which explains the gift shop’s excellent selection of native crafts. Guided and self-guided tours of the grounds are available during the day; dinner and stargazing sessions after dark (not offered mid-July through August due to summer thunderstorm activity). 

Come summer, locals often flee north to such lofty places as Flagstaff (elevation 7,260 feet), home to the Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894. Pluto may have been demoted as a planet, but its discovery at the observatory in 1930 is celebrated on a tour, one of many daytime and nighttime activities for visitors.

Planetariums & Space Centers

The University of Arizona has two stellar facilities in Tucson: The Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium on campus, where dramatic re-creations of the night sky and displays of space objects such as meteorites are complemented by a free weekly astronomy program; and the SkyCenter on Mt. Lemmon, with nightly dinner stargazing programs that feature Arizona’s largest dedicated public viewing telescope. 

Take a grand tour of the solar system in the world’s first NanoSeam dome – the latest in planetarium tech – at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. At the center’s US Airways Flight Zone exhibition, you can play engineer or pilot.

Stay & See

Several top resorts around the state take advantage of Arizona’s starry nights to provide unique learning experiences that have proved especially popular with families. Guided by an astronomer from the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, guests at Loews Ventana Canyon resort in Tucson peer through a high-tech telescope positioned poolside; after peering at the Big Dipper, you can take a nighttime dip. Days and times of the program change seasonally. 

Local astronomer Dennis Young draws on an array of equipment to allow his charges at L’Auberge de Sedona Resort to view space objects – planets, star clusters, galaxies and even quasars – in a variety of ways, from naked eye and binocular to telescopic. In keeping with the verdant Sedona setting, his large, lightweight scope is encased in three types of hardwood.

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