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, the Village of Oak Creek, Camp Verde, and the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation are all 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 (reservations required).
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).
Visitors at Lowell Observatory take their turn looking through the giant telescope. Credit: Geoff Gourley
Come summer, locals often flee north to such lofty places as Flagstaff, 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 recreations of the night sky and displays of space objects such as meteorites are complemented by a free weekly astronomy program; and the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, 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 at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix. At the center’s American Airlines Flight Zone exhibit, 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. Read about them in "Stay & Stargaze."