Arizona’s 17 Dark Sky Places make the Grand Canyon State a magnet for stargazers. Under its cloudless desert skies—except perhaps in July and August when there’s a greater chance of storms—there are myriad opportunities to escape light pollution. Meaning astrophiles are likely to get a magnificent look at the night sky.
According to scientific research published in 2016, over 80% of the world’s population—and 99% of Americans—live under light-polluted skies (under a phenomenon known as skyglow). The fact that Arizonans work this hard to keep so much of their state dark makes it a very special place.
Although our first experience of lightless nights was relatively recent, Arizona’s Dark Sky story began way back in 1894. An astronomer from Boston named Percival Lowell realised the potential of Flagstaff, then just a small town, and founded an observatory on top of what would become known as Mars Hill. Its 6,909-foot altitude meant more transparent air, a relative lack of clouds, and an absence of artificial lighting, which gave Lowell the black sky he was after.
Fast forward to 2001, and a commitment to keeping its night sky dark meant that Flagstaff became the first Dark Sky Place, not just in the United States, but the world. Of course these days it’s not the only location to be awarded that coveted accolade. Sedona, Big Park, Fountain Hills, Camp Verde and Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky have all gained similar recognition to become Dark Sky Places in Arizona.
That’s not all: there are also 11 Dark Sky Parks in Arizona. These are among the best National Parks for stargazing, and include Petrified Forest National Park, Walnut Canyon National Monument and Kartchner Caverns State Park.
At the Grand Canyon, we found that night views easily rival those during the day. If you’re keen to stare up at the Milky Way, we recommend you head to the South Rim. Here, Moran Point and Lipan Point are two of the best spots to view the night sky, and both are easily accessible from Desert View Drive.
For a more in-depth understanding of the cosmos, you can catch some of the astronomy talks the National Park Service hosts throughout the year. Or the annual Grand Canyon Star Party (it was a virtual event in 2021), which features astronomy talks and constellation tours.
But if your travel plans take you to one of the state’s cities, all is not lost. Although the urban lights shine brightly, physical geography minimizes the effect of street lighting and night-time signage in nearby Dark Sky Places.
When we visited Oracle State Park just outside of Tucson, we were grateful for the Santa Catalina Mountains, which shield Oracle State Park from the urban glow. Similarly, any negative impact Phoenix might have had on our ability to see the stars in Fountain Hills was mitigated by the McDowell Mountains.
Aside from visitor programs at the state’s many observatories, operators offer star tours from mobile observatories. One such business is Arizona Star Tours, based in Tucson. Star guides link their powerful telescope to a 4K monitor, so there’s no chance of missing out on seeing the remarkable star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
We think that Sedona, another Dark Sky Community, is one of the best places to stargaze in Arizona on hosted tours. Alternatively, drive out of the city center to Beaverhead Flat Scenic Overlook, Dry Creek Road, the Fay Canyon Trailhead or up to Merry Go Round Rock. Switch off your headlights and simply look up. Carry a flashlight if you plan to hike any distance from the parking lot – you’ll thank us as you’re far less likely to take a tumble in the darkness.
Star bathing utilises the dark skies and builds on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing). It’s offered by outfits such as Aumbase Sedona and L’Auberge de Sedona. As your vision is reduced in the darkness, star bathing helps develop the other senses and create a feeling of peace.
Moonlight meditation is another Sedona speciality. This New Age capital is famous for its ‘vortex sites,’ thought by some to be locations where the earth’s energy is increased. This creates opportunities for mindfulness and sound healing ceremonies, with practitioners making the most of a full moon to enhance the experience.
Our top tips for first-time stargazers:
- Pick a dark, clear night and choose a location far from the city lights.
- Pack a beach towel for when you’re flat on your back.
- Stuff binoculars, tripod, red flashlight and laser pointer into your pack.
- Hold off buying a telescope until you’re more experienced—your eyes and a pair of binoculars will suffice for now.
- Familiarize yourself with the basics before you set out—get to know your constellations!
- Figure out the night sky: start with the patterns you recognize and work from there.
- If you plan on capturing celestial bodies on camera, take some time to figure out how to photograph the sky at night before you set out.
The Top 5 Observatories in Arizona
If a do-it-yourself stargazing session feels a little daunting, why not consider visiting an observatory instead? With experts on hand to help, you can take advantage of their equipment – in more accessible areas, their powerful telescopes will allow you to see far more of the night sky than through a humble pair of binoculars. Here are our picks for the top five observatories in Arizona:
Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson
You’ll find this observatory in the Quinlan Mountains in the Sonoran Desert. They’ll provide star charts and binoculars for identifying constellations and stars.
Mount Graham International Observatory, Safford
Weekend tours of the Mount Graham observatory take place from May to October, weather permitting. Visits take in the Submillimeter, the Vatican Advanced Technology and the Large Binocular telescopes.
Lowell’s Expanding Universe guided tour includes a look at the 24” Clark Refractor and the Pluto Discovery Telescope as well as guest use of their regular telescopes.
Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, Mt Lemmon
Tuscon’s Mount Lemmon’s SkyNights stargazing program starts with a lecture on astronomy followed by a chance to view neighboring planets, distant galaxies and star clusters.
Home to the largest public telescope in Arizona, this private observatory in Heber-Overgaard offers astrophotography experiences and viewing the night sky via telescope.
Whether the Grand Canyon State is a stop-over on a roadtrip through the American West, or it’s your final destination, be sure to check out our guide to Arizona.