Fountain Hills, Arizona is more than an International Dark Sky Community, although it is that. It is also the place I have called home for twenty-three years. The first time I visited Fountain Hills was three years before I moved here. We drove down Shea Boulevard from Scottsdale, watching the large cobra head street lights pass alternating light and shadow over us, one after another, for miles. At the location Scottsdale ended and Fountain Hills began, so too the lights ended and the darkness began.
Fountain Hills is a relatively young community, designed in 1970 by the same person who brought the London Bridge to Lake Havasu City. While we didn’t get anything quite as cool a piece of European architecture, our town’s iconic centerpiece was the Swiss-made fountain in the center of the community. At the time, it was the World’s Tallest Manmade Fountain. It still held that title when I moved here in 1997, but then Saudi Arabia took it away when they built King Fahd’s Fountain in the city of Jeddah.
When urbanites visit Fountain Hills at night for the first time, they often comment, “It’s so dark out here.” From the start, the community enforced strong lighting codes to prevent excessive lighting. There are no street lights except at intersections that have traffic lights or heavily-used pedestrian crossings. The brightest lights are found in the high school parking lot.
After growing up with nightly views of the Milky Way in northern Idaho, I was sad to lose nearly all the stars when I moved to Phoenix in 1995. I was lucky to spot the Hale-Bopp Comet from my apartment parking lot, but there wasn’t much else in the sky. I was thrilled when I moved to Fountain Hills and got some of my sky back.
When my kids reached high school, I decided to teach naked eye astronomy to the homeschool group to which they belonged. I had twenty students and a few parents who sat in the back so they could also learn about the night sky. During one class, I showed the documentary The City Dark that explored the impact of light pollution. Although our town was already pretty dark, I wished that I knew how to get our community designated as a Dark Sky Community.
Through this class, I connected with the co-founder of the Fountain Hills Astronomy Club, Ted Blank, who is also a NASA Solar System Ambassador (check out my podcast interview with him HERE). I learned that he was on the board of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association, an organization that was pursuing Dark Sky Designation for our town. I later met the president of that organization and was invited to join the board. I made my contributions to the effort and a year later, Fountain Hills was named the world’s 17th International Dark Sky Community. I now serve as Vice President of that board.
With the designation as a unique feature of our community, efforts are now moving toward building the International Dark Sky Discovery Center, an 18,000-square foot facility with a research-grade observatory, a planetarium, an interactive immersion hall, and a theater for presentations and films. It will be the only facility in the world with an emphasis on Dark Sky preservation.
A visit to Fountain Hills, whether a day trip or an overnight trip, will give you many options for adventure, arts, and culture.
Fountain Hills is nestled between the McDowell Mountains and the Lower Verde River Valley with Four Peaks and the Mazatzal Mountains in the distance. This location in the heart of the Sonoran Desert offers amazing outdoor adventure.
McDOWELL MOUNTAIN REGIONAL PARK
Just six miles north of town is McDowell Mountain Regional Park. It boasts even darker skies than Fountain Hills. But the real gem of this park is the trail system with over 50 miles of multi-use trails. It is a hot spot for mountain biking and is often the location for competitive biking events. Some of these trails offer amazing views of the unspoiled Sonoran Desert for hikers.
In addition to the multi-use trails in McDowell Mountain Regional Park, visitors should also consider the Dixie Mine Trail, the Sonoran Trail, the Ridgeline Trail, the Sunrise Trail, and the Adero Canyon Trail that begins from the resort lawn of ADERO Scottsdale. But no one should miss the best trail of all right in the heart of Fountain Hills, the Lake Overlook Trail. Although it’s under two miles, it gives 360-degree views from the top of the entire Town, Fort McDowell, and mountains and fountain. For an easy trail under a mile that will acquaint you with the native plants of the desert, take the Fountain Hills Botanical Garden Trail.
Although Fountain Lake at Fountain Park does not offer water recreation, Saguaro Lake is only twenty miles away. Formed by a dam as part of the Salt River Project to control flooding and provide electricity to the Valley of the Sun, Saguaro Lake offers gorgeous views of steep canyon walls and desert wildlife. Hike the trail that begins at Butcher Jones beach, rent a fishing boat or pontoon boat at the marina, take a lake tour on the Desert Belle, or enjoy a meal at the Lakeshore Restaurant overlooking the lake.
The Salt River also offers great opportunities for water recreation. Rent a tube and float the river or rent kayaks at the Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Salt River Wild Horses.
If golf is your game, Fountain Hills and the surrounding areas have a tremendous variety of golf courses: Eagle Mountain, FireRock, Desert Canyon, SunRidge Canyon, Rio Verde, Tonto Verde, and We-ko-pa at Fort McDowell.
MORE OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Other recreation that can be found in Fountain Hills is tennis at Golden Eagle Park and Four Peaks Park, pickleball near the high school, and disc golf at Fountain Park. Fort McDowell Adventure offers horseback riding, segway tours, and ATV rentals. Let Private Jeep Tours take you for an off-road adventure or take a tour with Desert Dog Offroad Adventures.
ARTS & CULTURE
Fountain Hills has one of the largest public art collections in the southwest with over 150 pieces throughout the community. The Town also has several art galleries and art studios.
The award-winning Fountain Hills Theater offers a great series of shows each season, including a children’s theater.
Live musical performances are offered throughout the year through the Community Band and Community Chorus.
Don’t miss a tour of the River of Time Museum where you will learn about the history of the Yavapai people of the Lower Verde River Valley and Fort McDowell, the beginnings of Fountain Hills, the P-Bar Ranch, and more.
Sami Fine Jewelry is a must-stop while in town. The shop is famous for its Four Peaks amethyst, some of which are in the collection of British crown jewels. Here you will find exquisite custom jewelry with locally sourced amethyst, Arizona turquoise, American gemstones, and more.
Fountain Hills is on the edge of becoming a foodie destination. Check out favorites like Euro Pizza Cafe, Sofrita, El Encanto, Arrivederci, Sapori d’Italia, Wicked Six, Desert Canyon Bar and Grill, Pietro’s, Cielo at ADERO Scottsdale, and more.
To enjoy a night of great drinks, check out Aguamenti Wine Bistro, Grapeables, and Bone Haus Brewing Co.
For the best chocolates you’ve ever tasted, don’t miss Chocofin Chocolatier. The Rum Coconut chocolate candy is my favorite. They also have the best ice cream in town.
If you want to take in the full Dark Sky experience, you should plan to stay at ADERO Scottsdale. This resort is the only Marriott Autograph Collecton hotel in a “Dark Sky Zone” and they reflect the theme of the starry sky throughout their resort. From signature cocktail drinks to star parties on the lawn, ADERO is conscientious about dark sky preservation and giving their guests a beautiful view of the night sky. You might even meet me there with my telescope as I join other “Star Dudes” to give guests a tour of the planets, stars, and deep space objects!
Other lodging options to consider are the Inn at Eagle Mountain and Lakeshore Hotel & Suites overlooking Fountain Park.
If you plan to visit Fountain Hills, email me at NightSkyTourist@gmail.com. I’d love to meet you if I’m available during your stay.