The sky’s the limit when you plan an astronomical escape in the dark, dreamy hinterlands of Arizona.
Michael Poppre is a stargazer in Arizona, which is sort of like being a surfer in Waikiki. Or a mustard fanatic in Dijon. Or a gloomy poet in Seattle.
“[The] climate obviously makes for advantageous stargazing,” says Poppre, an environmental engineer who moonlights as the president of the Saguaro Astronomy Club in the West Valley. “You can go almost anywhere in the state, and it’s pretty much great all year round – except for the monsoon season.”
Our famously arid weather – some parts of the state enjoy over 200 days of cloudless skies annually – coupled with vast tracts of unincorporated, unlit wilderness make Arizona something of a big-wave destination for stargazers the world over. The inky-black nighttime skies of Flagstaff and Oracle routinely make worldwide “best of” lists for amateur astronomers, including the No. 1 spot in a 2014 Huffington Post article, and Arizona is the only U.S. state to boast three communities sanctioned by the International Dark Sky Association – a nonprofit organization that functions more or less as the Oscars of stargazing.
With cosmological curiosity at peak levels – who ever talked about blood moons, near-Earth asteroids and Martian water-flows a generation ago? – Arizona’s skies are ripe for the ogling. Without straying too far from the nearest B&B or craft brewery, you have an enviable selection of mind-expanding celestial escapes, from the sandstone waves of the north to the full-canopy vistas of the south, to dark-sky delights just outside of town.
Grand Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs
Best For: Campers, astronomical self-starters
Though prime planetary viewing doesn’t arrive until early spring (see Astro Dates, bottom of page), the winter is a prized season for “deep sky” objects like galaxy clusters and nebulas. And nowhere are you likely to find crisper, clearer winter air than Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument (nps.gov/para), a roughly Rhode Island-size federal reserve located north of the Grand Canyon between Lake Mead and Page. Designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2014 – one of only 13 in the country – Parashant is renowned for its tar-black night skies. Not coincidentally, it’s also one of the most remote and primitive federal parks in the country. No guides. No resort-provided astronomy expert. If you decide to camp it, check out Twin Point, a legendary stargazing precipice.
Slightly less remote – but no less epic – is Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (blm.gov) near the Utah border. Permits are required to hike the monument’s most prized features – including Coyote Buttes North, home of the surreal sandstone swirl known as The Wave – and to take overnight trips at scenic Paria Canyon, but developed campgrounds are abundant just outside the monument. For a one-two punch of nighttime/daytime splendor, it might be Arizona’s premier specimen of nature porn.
Best For: History buffs, beer nuts
Located just up the road from historical downtown Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory (1400 W. Mars Hill Rd., 928-774-3358, lowell.edu) offers a more curated, orderly, technology-oriented approach to stargazing. Anchored by the 4.3-meter, $53 million Discovery Channel Telescope, the observatory – where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto way back in 1930 – is open seven days a week and conducts nighttime programs Monday through Saturday. Sample program: “Star of Bethlehem” (December 1-18, 7-8 p.m.), a presentation exploring the astronomical underpinnings of the Magi-guiding Biblical legend.
Flagstaff was the first city in the world to achieve International Dark Sky distinction, and is noted for its efforts to fight light pollution. Thus, it offers Arizona’s best city-based stargazing experience. After your Lowell visit, head down Mars Hill Road to downtown’s Lumberyard Brewing (5 S. San Francisco St., 928-779-2739, lumberyardbrewingcompany.com) to catch an eyeful of starstuff on the brewery’s patio. Or for a thematically-apt sip, walk an extra two blocks to fledgling Dark Sky Brewing Company (117 N. Beaver St., 928-440-5151, darkskybrewing.com) and get lost in a snifter of Zinfandel saison.
Best for: Families, luxury-lovers
“The thing that’s unique about us, is we don’t use go-to scopes and computer drives,” Cliff Ochser says, momentarily indulging a fit of astronomy jargon. “All of our astronomers do it manually. They know where the stars are, where to find them. They tell stories about how ancient Egyptians named constellations. It’s the best way to enjoy astronomy.”
Ochser is extolling the virtues of Evening Sky Tours, his boutique stargazing service in Sedona (928-853-9778, eveningskytours.com). For astronomical neophytes, it truly is the best way to ingest star-knowledge: with a well-informed expert who can, for instance, teach you mnemonic tricks to remember the stars in Orion’s belt, or how to locate Omega Centauri, the remnants of a smaller galaxy consumed by our own Milky Way eons ago. Leading groups of eight to 12 people, Oscher and his astronomers conduct telescopic viewings at a dedicated observation site in the Village of Oak Creek with no ambient light and a striking 360-degree horizon. The 90-minute class is $60 for adults and $35 for kids.
For Sedona resort visitors, a curated astronomy experience may be as close as the front lobby. As part of its deluxe suite of activities, L’Auberge de Sedona (301 L’Auberge Lane, 928-399-7002, lauberge.com) offers an on-site dark-sky experience with local stargazing buff Dennis Young. The class is offered Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights year round, and makes for a superb holiday-trip stocking stuffer. Bargain-hunters should also check back in July, when the AAA Four-Diamond property typically unveils special promotions geared toward Valley residents.
Best for: Weekend cowboys, the B&B crowd
As the most recent initiate of the International Dark Sky fraternity, Oracle State Park (520-896-2425, azstateparks.com/Parks/ORAC/) presents an irresistible temptation for Valley star-watchers. Located 30 miles northeast of Tucson on the other side of Mt. Lemmon, the town of Oracle is sheltered from both the Tucson and Phoenix light masses, which is why the park is prized by astronomers.
Unfortunately, the state-administered park is a bit coy with its charms – aside from biannual “star parties” (the next one at Oracle is March 5, 2016) and other special events, the park hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. In other words, not super stargazing-friendly. Park rangers suggest staking out a spot in the parking lot at night to enjoy an eyeful of the crisp starscapes.
Another thing that’s great about Oracle as a night-sky destination: The place is absolutely awash in sprawling, ranch-style B&Bs. And the owners know they’ve got a good thing. “It’s a great town for stargazing, and it’s bringing a lot of attention and visitors, which we love,” Triangle L Ranch owner Sharon Holnback says.
A mixed-media artist, Holnback purchased the Triangle L (2805 N. Triangle Ranch Rd., 520-623-6732, triangleranch.com; guesthouses $125-$155/nightly) in 2001 and went to work turning the historical guest ranch into a light-show in its own right, with illuminated topiary labyrinths, nighttime sculpture paths and – most famously – a two-weekend light-and-fire art festival called GLOW, which she hosts every October. But the Triangle L is equipped for quieter, more contemplative pleasures, too – including a “celestial theater” space perfect for stargazing. In the morning, Holnback will set you up with a constellation of Dutch pancakes, fruit and bacon before you hop back in your spaceship for the two-hour journey back to the Valley.
Close to Home
Best For: Homers, quick trips
Valley hobby groups like the Saguaro Astronomy Club (saguaroastro.org) meet regularly to co-educate and stargaze, exploiting near-urban wilderness like the White Tank Mountain Regional Park (20304 W. White Tank Mountain Road, 623-935-2505, maricopa.gov/parks/white_tank/), which will host a free “Stargazing for Everyone” viewing event on January 30, 2016. “The metro area is pretty good for looking at the moon and planets, and sometimes major constellations; the problem is the light pollution and carbon monoxide pollution,” Saguaro’s Poppre says. “So to see dimmer objects, it pays to drive outside of town a little, to put something between you and the city.”
Located 55 miles west of Phoenix in Maricopa County, Hummingbird Springs Wilderness (623-580-2929, blm.gov) satisfies that prerequisite. Sheltered both by the White Tanks and 3,418-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, the rocky, saguaro-studded wilderness will inspire no complaints in the light-pollution department. Take the Salome Rd. exit off the 1-10 and drive west to Eagle Eye Road; make a right and drive north into the blackness until you find a spot you like off the road.
Poppre has a favorite near-Valley stargazing spot: Picketpost Mountain trailhead near the town of Superior, about 20 minutes east of Mesa off the I-60. Most visitors use it as a launching off point for the Arizona Trail; camped out with your telescope or binoculars, wrapped in blanket of starstuff, you’ll be hiking with your eyes.
If you’re going somewhere with cellular coverage, install a smartphone astronomy app like Star Chart, an augmented reality tool that will identify and outline constellations as you point the camera skyward.
Light pollution is a killer, but technology has improved the stargazing experience in other ways; check AccuWeather.com or other online services to check for clear skies.
Don’t have a mobile telescope? Don’t worry. Experts say a sturdy pair of binoculars will suffice.