If you want to plan a road trip filled with tremendous dark skies and great activities along the way, you should put Arizona on your travel list. While large areas of the state have spectacular dark skies, there is a corridor that runs right down the state’s center with certified dark sky places.
From Pipe Spring National Monument in the northernmost part of the state to Tumacacori National Historical Park in the southernmost part of the state, Arizona boasts 19 certified Dark Sky Places through the International Dark Sky Association. This number continues to grow as more locations work through the certification process.
You can add even more night sky interest to your trip by visiting several observatories and planetariums along the way.
FREDONIA TO FLAGSTAFF
If you start this road trip in the north, you’ll begin in the small community of Fredonia. Just 14 miles to the east is our first destination, Pipe Spring National Monument, located in the homeland of the Kaibab Band of the Paiute Indians. Pipe Spring is remote with clean air and no light pollution. Kaibab Paiute Reservation is the first nation to earn International Dark Sky certification. The park has developed strong astronomy and dark sky interpretation programs.
When the Kaibab Paiute Reservation received its designation in 2015, the International Dark Sky Association released a statement saying, “never before has an entire group of ethnically and linguistically related people come together to collectively embrace dark-skies principles. As a result of the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians’ work to protect the pristine night skies over its northern Arizona territory, IDA is pleased to announce the designation of the Kaibab Paiute Indian Reservation as an International Dark Sky Community. The IDA status makes the Kaibab Paiute truly the world’s first dark sky nation.”
From Fredonia, take Highway 89 A south. You can get a unique and less crowded view of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The highway takes you past some stunning Arizona scenery, from the high alpine area of Jacob Lake down to the renowned Vermillion Cliffs and Marble Canyon. This scenery will take your breath away. Be sure to take at least 15 minutes to get out of your car and explore the Cliff Dwellers Stone House.
Highway 89A merges with Highway 89 south at Bitter Springs. Continue south another 57 miles, where you can take a scenic detour to the Grand Canyon National Park at Highway 64. The Grand Canyon never disappoints and, as a certified International Dark Sky Park, it offers a variety of stargazing programs and activities.
After visiting the Grand Canyon, return to Highway 89 at Cameron and head south. Three certified parks allow you to visit with a single admission ticket. Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, and Walnut Canyon National Monument. At Wupatki, ancient pueblos dot miles of the prairie landscape. At Sunset Crater Volcano, the ground shook, and lava spewed high into the air around 1085 CE, changing the landscape and the people forever. At Walnut Canyon, walk along the curved canyon walls where you can peek into the ancient cliff dwellings of the ancient people.
Flagstaff is the world’s first International Dark Sky Community, earning that designation in 2001. This is a great place to hang out for a few days while you visit the above National Monuments and explore other great things to do. And a night sky visit to Flagstaff must include a visit to Lowell Observatory. It was here where Vesto Slipher laid the foundations for discovering that the universe is expanding. But the observatory’s real claim to fame came in 1930 when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.
Take a 43-mile detour to the east on I-40 to visit Meteor Crater if you have time. This is the best-preserved meteorite impact in the world. About 50,000 years ago, a 150-foot iron-nickel meteorite traveling 26,000 mph struck with force 150 times greater than an atomic bomb. The resulting crater is 550-feet deep and almost a mile across.
FLAGSTAFF TO PHOENIX
Head south out of Flagstaff on I-17, then jump onto Highway 89A toward Sedona. There are four International Dark Sky Communities in the area of the Verde River Valley and up to the famous red rocks of Sedona.
Sedona is a mecca for those who love the crystals, tarot cards, and votives associated with New Age. It’s also a gorgeous place for outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking. If you love architecture, check out the Chapel of the Holy Cross. If you want to cool down, don’t miss Slide Rock State Park, where you can splash in the waters of Oak Creek.
The Village of Oak Creek is a great place to go if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Sedona but want the experience of the red rocks of the area.
The best part of visiting Cottonwood is strolling down Main Street in the Old Downtown area. Enjoy wine tasting, fantastic restaurants, antique shopping, and more. This is an excellent base for visiting nearby history Clarkdale and historic Jerome while you’re at it. While you’re there, stop by Tuzigoot National Monument. The last I heard from a park ranger was that they’re working toward earning certification as an International Dark Sky Park.
Head east on Highway 260 to Camp Verde when you finish exploring this area. In addition to the amazing Out of Africa Wildlife Park, there are some great hiking trails in the area. Be sure to visit Montezuma Castle National Monument and marvel at the extraordinary cliff dwellings here.
Before you leave this area, be sure to visit the V Bar V Heritage Site. You will find petroglyphs created by the Sinagua who lived here from about 1150 to 1400 CE. Some petroglyphs combine with shadows and shafts of light to create a calendar, marking the seasons and the times for planting and harvesting. It’s my favorite archaeoastronomy, or cultural astronomy, site in Arizona.
When you’re ready to descend into the Valley of the Sun to the Phoenix metro area, continue south on I-17. Although Phoenix is the most light-polluted part of the entire state, there are still a couple of things you should check out in the area.
At the top of your night sky adventures in Phoenix, be sure to head out to the suburb of Fountain Hills. Fountain Hills is the world’s 17th International Dark Sky Community and one of the only ones that border a major metro area. Its unique location where it’s shielded from Phoenix lights by the McDowell Mountains and bound by reservations means that it has uniquely dark skies compared to the neighboring suburbs and metro area.
Fountain Hills is where I live. Consider hiking one of our many trails, or visit Fountain Park at the top of the hour to see our iconic fountain. Take in a show at the award-winning Fountain Hills Theater, and be sure to get mouth-watering, handcrafted chocolates at Chocofin Chocolatier. Then stay a night at the ADERO Scottsdale Resort, whose theme is “Where the Desert Meets the Sky.” They offer night sky-themed cocktails, have a beautiful viewing lawn for stargazing, and occasionally bring in my friends and me to provide telescope viewing.
Another tremendous place to visit is the Dorrance Planetarium at the Arizona Science Center. It is one of the largest planetariums in the United States. It offers an immersive experience that showcases impressive artistic images combined with riveting sound for a unique experience.
And finally, you can catch another great cultural astronomy site in the heart of Phoenix at North Mountain. The North Mountain Visitor’s Center has a great exhibit that shows how certain petroglyphs on the mountain are aligned with the equinoxes. Also known as the “Hohokam Observatory,” you can hike up to them on the Shaw Butte Trail.
PHOENIX TO NOGALES
When you are ready to continue your journey, head East on I-10. As you near the city of Casa Grande, take Highway 387 East to the junction with Highway 87 and head south to the town of Coolidge. Plan to stop at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. Here, you can check out the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s ancient farming community and the famed “Great House.” The Great House is an excelletn example of archaeoastronomy as some astronomical alignments built into the structure. Take a tour and ask a park ranger to explain these alignments.
From the Ruins, take Highway 287 to Highway 79 and head south. At the junction with Highway 77, head north to Oracle State Park. Oracle is a certified International Dark Sky Park. This 4,000-acre park is a wildlife refuge that offers many outdoor educational activities, including stargazing events and activities.
Suppose you have time for a significant detour, head over to Mt. Graham International Observatory in Safford. Scientific researchers from around the world use the high-tech telescopes at this location. Advanced reservations are required as you will need to visit with a tour group led by Eastern Arizona College in Safford.
Although Tucson does not have dark sky certification, it is the home of the International Dark Sky Association, the organization that bestows these designations. Tucson is a fun city to visit, and you can check out the Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium at the University of Arizona campus.
Kitt Peak National Observatory is another detour that’s worth considering. Located just an hour southwest of Tucson, Kitt Peak has over 20 optical telescopes and two radio telescopes, the largest gathering of astronomical instruments in the Northern Hemisphere. The facility is closed to the public during the pandemic, but you should keep it on your travel list for the future.
From Tucson, head south on I-19 and visit the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory. This is the largest satellite facility of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. It’s also closed to the public during the pandemic, but it’s another site worthy of your travel list for the future.
And finally, we reach the southernmost location of our journey across Arizona from top to bottom. Tumacacori National Historical Park is located just 20 miles north of the Mexican border. Here, O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache people met and mingled with European Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, settlers, and soldiers. Sometimes they met in conflict, and other times they met in cooperation. This International Dark Sky Park was more than just a church, but also a place where the people raised livestock and grew crops and orchards.
OTHER DARK SKY LOCATIONS
Aside from the Dark Sky Corridor that runs from north to south, there are a few other certified Dark Sky Places you might want to check out across the state.
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument
Petrified Forest National Park
Tonto National Monument
Kartchner Caverns State Park
Chricahua National Monument