The Four Corners region of the United States boasts more Dark Sky communities than any other region on earth. Arizona alone hosts 19 dark-sky communities, places and parks, which offer residents and visitors an exceptional chance to clearly view the brilliance of the night sky and the stars, planets and celestial bodies which inhabit the Milky Way.
“Arizona’s unparalleled ability to connect with the stars and night skies is partly due to our diverse geography and clear skies, but that isn’t the whole story,” says Lisa Urias, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism. “Most of our dark sky parks and places are also staffed by astronomers and science educators who volunteer their time to make this world very accessible to visitors. We’re very fortunate to have that!”
In honor of 2023 International Dark Sky Week, April 15 to 22, Arizona Office of Tourism shares a few ways to celebrate and discover the splendor in our Arizona skies after the sun sets and the stars come out!
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 houses the Multiple Mirror Telescope among its (literally) revolutionary astronomical instruments, as both the telescope and the building in which it is housed rotate. Head to the Visitor and Science Center for astrophysics exhibits or book a full-day, guided van trip up the 8,550-ft. peak in the Santa Rita Mountains.
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-ft. peak in the Pinaleño Mountains. It’s home to the Max Planck Institute’s Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter Telescope, the most accurate radio telescope ever built. Tours depart from Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park Campus, which is also the official visitors’ center for the telescopes on Mount Graham.
Dark Sky National and State Parks
Arizona proudly offers 12 national and state parks that are certified as Dark Sky parks. On a clear night, visitors can see a sky awash in stars, double stars, star clusters and even the planets Mercury, Mars and Jupiter. And yes, Arizona’s own natural wonder of the world is on the list!
As an officially designated International Dark Sky Park, Grand Canyon National Park‘s night sky rivals the views during the day. Six Grand Canyon National Park lodges on the park’s south and west rims provide everything visitors need to appreciate the stars above while relaxing closer to earth.
For a truly unforgettable experience, plan to sleep under the stars in your own safari-style luxury tent just 25 minutes from the park’s South Rim. Glamping operator Under Canvas’ “Stargazer” tent has a viewing window directly above its king-sized bed, allowing perfect views of the stars. Bookings are available April through November.
In southern Arizona, Oracle State Park is a 4,000-acre wildlife refuge in the northern foothills of the Catalina Mountains which offers great Arizona dark sky views all throughout the year. Plan a trip to enjoy its picnic areas and over 15 miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails and stay for one of its many annual stargazing events.
Dark Sky Cities
Arizona helped birth the dark-sky preservation movement when, in 2001, the Tucson-based International Dark-Sky Association designated Flagstaff as the world’s very first Dark Sky Place for the city’s commitment to protecting its stargazing-friendly night skies.
Flagstaff’s celestial sites are impressive. Lowell Observatory, founded in 1894 and home to the discovery of Pluto, celebrates this event at the observatory in 1930 with a tour, one of many daytime and nighttime activities for visitors. Plus, Lowell’s recently opened Giovale Open Deck Observatory offers visitors of all ages access to six advanced telescopes for public observing, delivering views including rich star fields, planets full of color and many other celestial treasures.
Before heading up to the observatory, be sure to stop by the Dark Sky Brewing Company, where visitors can enjoy out-of-this-world craft beers in the new outdoor beer garden and food from its Atmosphere Kitchen.
Just 40 minutes east of Downtown Phoenix is the town of Fountain Hills, which earned its designation as a Dark Sky City in 2018. The local astronomy club, in cooperation with the library, offers monthly star parties to introduce people to planets, constellations and extraordinary stellar objects. The Fountain Hills Library even earned a national award for its program allowing telescopes to be checked out just like books.
The town is working on building a first-of-its-kind International Dark Sky Discovery Center, which will offer visitors and researchers a multi-faceted facility focused on education, research, dark sky preservation and tourism.
For more information about Arizona dark sky places and experiences, visit VisitArizona.com.