1. Travel

Finding Dark Sky Astronomy Sites in Arizona

Star Parties, Planetariums, Observatories and More


Dark Skies of the Southwest

Dark Sky Sites are Sought After in the Southwest

©Getty Images
Updated May 19, 2014
Dark-Sky Destinations in Arizona

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 actually 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. Before you leave home, be sure to download Audio Tours in podcast format.

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 cost from $36-$41 and 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 from 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. Map and Directions

More Information:

Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center & Museum Website

Steward Observatory

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.

Steward Observatory
933 N Cherry Ave.
Tucson AZ 85721

More Information:

University of Arizona and Steward Observatory

Discovery Park

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, made up of three telescopes, the Large Binocular Telescope, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter (Radio) Telescope and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, is 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 done by Discovery Park Campus (see below)

Tours of Mount Graham International Observatory Discovery Park Campus at Eastern Arizona College handles tours for MGIO.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.