People have gazed at the stars for thousands of years. If you’re looking to continue that tradition in Arizona, you’re in luck.
The Copper State is home to plenty of places that are ideal for the age-old pastime, and during the hot summer months, you’ll want a nighttime activity over the relentless sun, anyway. In fact, some Arizona cities have even been designated as Dark Sky Places, meaning they sit under skies where you can really see the stars without a lot of light pollution blocking your view.
The International Dark Sky Association is even headquartered in Tucson. The organization is a “conservation program [that] recognizes and promotes excellent stewardship of the night sky.” It was founded back in 2001 to preserve and protect dark sites, many of which are in Arizona.
What to bring: Since it’s going to be dark outside when you stargaze, be sure to bring a jacket, a fully charged phone and a flashlight if you have one. During the summertime, bug spray is a good idea. You’ll also want to check the weather before you head out. Stargazing is obviously dependent on the weather and clouds.
If you’re going to start your stargazing journey, you should begin in Flagstaff. Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff—perhaps most famous for being the place where Pluto was first discovered—is a hot spot for stargazing. The Giovale Open Deck Observatory is home to six telescopes where visitors can gaze up at the night’s sky.
If you’re looking to stargaze with others, Lowell also hosts Star Parties every month of the year, save July. In these parties, educators point out galaxies, star clusters, and binary stars during laser-guided constellation tours.
The former mining-town-turned-arts-community of Bisbee is another Dark Sky City. You have great sky views pretty much anywhere in this southern Arizona town. If you’d like a more guided experience, head to the Bisbee Science Lab (519 W. Melody Lane) for Pie & Sky Astronomy Nights on the first Thursday of each month. Grab a slice of free pizza and gaze up at the night’s sky using the lab’s telescopes. These events are free and open to the public.
Sedona is most famous for its vibrant red rocks, but the city is also an International Dark Sky Community. Meaning that when you look up at the night’s sky, you’re likely to see a blanket of stars in the sky. If you’re looking for a specific spot in town, here are seven trailheads that Visit Sedona recommends for stargazing. Sedona is also home to a handful of companies that offer stargazing tours, such as Sedona Stargazing.
Located on the outskirts of metro Phoenix, Fountain Hills has been an International Dark Sky Community since 2018. It’s not typical for a city that’s part of a major metropolitan area to have this designation due to the usual presence of light pollution, but Fountain Hills is protected from by the nearby McDowell Mountain Regional Park. The city recommends several spots that are ideal places to watch the stars light up the sky. These include the backside of the city’s most famed site, Fountain Park.
Fun fact: An International Dark Sky Discovery Center is also currently in the works.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
2980 S. Hwy. 90 in Benson
Located just less than one hour from Tucson in Benson, Kartchner Caverns State Park is one of two Arizona state parks designated as a Dark Sky Park. The park’s rural location means it has very little to no pollution. It’s not uncommon to see astronomers with their massive telescopes near the park looking at the night’s sky. The Huachuca Astronomy Club also hosts star parties at the park.
Fun facts: The caverns were discovered in 1974 on private land, and the state park was started in 1988. The cave tours are also a great way to cool off during the hot summer months since they’re underground. The average temperature in the cave is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Tours are led by a trained guide and offered from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.
Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter
9800 E. Ski Run Road on Mt. Lemmon
If you’re looking to do some serious stargazing, you might want to drive up to the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter in the Coronado National Forest. Owned and operated by the University of Arizona, SkyCenter offers a five-hour stargazing program that kicks off two hours prior to sunset. These presentations are offered nightly from Wednesday to Sunday, weather permitting. Reservations are required.
Located at 9,157 feet, SkyCenter is home to two of the largest telescopes that the public can access in the Southwest. Visitors can enjoy an astronomy lecture and a light dinner before observing astronomical phenomena.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
28400 W. Ajo Hwy. in Tucson
Located on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, Kitt Peak National Observatory features one of the largest collections of optical and radio telescopes in the world. The road up to Kitt Peak has been closed (and is still closed as of press time) for a few years due to a fire, but Kitt Peak is gradually starting to offer more programming.
If you really want to do a deep dive into the world of astronomy, consider booking one of the overnight stays offered here. After you get to the visitor center, you’ll meet a telescope operator who will assist you. You’ll eat dinner and when a telescope becomes available, it’s yours for the night. You also get to sleep overnight at the observatory in a dorm room. The price is high though; tickets for the overnight program start at $945 per person. Be sure to have a full tank of gas before you head up. There are no gas stations along the way.
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