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Stargazing the Southwest

   A nighttime view of the stars.

It's one of the most sublime sights in nature: a dark sky filled with thousands of glittering stars. Our ancestors were well acquainted with this spectacle, and they could even gaze up most nights to see a gallery of shooting stars and a visible Milky Way galaxy. Today, unfortunately, light and pollution in populated areas of the world obscure all but a few hundred stars in the nighttime sky.

There are still places on Earth, however, where you can be awed by a view of the heavens, and one of those destinations is the Southwestern United States. This region has some of the world’s clearest skies and Arizona boasts more observatories than any other single state or country, according to the International Dark-Sky Association. Beyond that, the region stretching from West Texas to Southern California provides an abundance of excellent stargazing sites and, if you can dedicate a week or so to this pursuit, it’s possible to construct a road trip that takes in some pretty dramatic views of the heavens.
The total driving time is about 39 hours, but you’ll likely want to take at least a week in order to see the sites along the way. A Google map of the trip is posted at the end of the article.
Texas and New Mexico
Begin your tour in West Texas, at the McDonald Observatory not far from El Paso. Located in the Davis Mountains, this observatory takes advantage of its 6,800-foot-high altitude, dark nighttime skies, and one of the world's largest optical telescopes to provide visitors with quite a show. Although tours are available daily, you'll likely want to be there for one of the Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evening "Star Parties."
From here, cross the border into New Mexico. It's about a six-hour trip to the New Mexico Skies site, where you can rent a cabin in the Sacramento Mountains and take advantage of their mini-observatories and telescopes to observe the stars and constellations all night long if you so desire. When you're not engaged in nighttime stargazing, you can always take a day tour of the National Solar Observatory at nearby Sacramento Peak, or take a break from astronomy to check out the stunning dunes at White Sands National Monument.
Next, you'll no doubt want to see the Very Large Array Radio Telescope near Socorro, where 27 antenna dishes collect radio waves from across the universe. It's not exactly stargazing, but it will strike a chord with your inner astronomer as scientists here use radio waves to study the invisible universe. This is the place that was made famous by Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie Contact. You can take a self-guided tour daily.
Arizona and California
It's about a six-hour drive from here to Tucson, Arizona. There, you'll find yourself in the Sonoran Desert, where dry air and low levels of light pollution make for another excellent stargazing location. Two observatories near Tucson have public viewing programs - the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Mount Lemmon Skycenter.
Kitt Peak has the world's largest collection of optical research telescopes and visitors can take advantage of these resources during both introductory and advanced stargazing programs. Viewing evenings are available year-round, except during the summer monsoon season. Mount Lemmon likewise offers a Skynights program for visitors.
If you're still interested in organized viewing programs, you can then drive north to Flagstaff and the Lowell Observatory. A benefit of this trip is that you can set aside time to see the Grand Canyon, where you'll be able to take advantage of the darkness of nature to enjoy some awe-inspiring views of the stars. Some of the most memorable stargazing experiences, in fact, can be found in our national parks, far from any population areas.
If you want to plunge even deeper into nature, you can take a side trip across the border into Utah. Natural Bridges National Monument is an International Dark Sky Park and rangers lead night walks and astronomy programs. Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are also superb viewing areas.
After you've thoroughly explored the skies of Arizona, and perhaps Utah, it's time to move on to the final stop on our road trip: Southern California. There, you can visit the acclaimed Griffith Observatory, where you'll be able to look up at the heavens and down at the city of Los Angeles. Along the way, you might also consider stopping at Joshua Tree National Park. If you're up for some camping, Joshua Tree is another of those places in the middle of nature where the stargazing is spectacular.
Of course, if you get hooked on viewing stars in a national park, there is no limit to how long you can stretch out this journey. Other parks in this part of the world that offer fantastic nighttime shows are Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia and King’s Canyon in California, and Great Basin National Park in Nevada.
Map and directions
Here is a map of this trip. If you click on the “stargazing” link, it will take you to a larger map and more detailed information about the journey.

View Stargazing the Southwest in a larger map



Photo credit: Public domain image from NASA, via Wikimedia Commons.


  • Pauline 4 years ago

    It is hard for city folk to realize how many stars are really out there. The Big Island of Hawaii has a good observatory, and so does Australia. Both arre concerned about light pollution, which needs more attention. There are some simple ways of redirecting lights, putting blinders on the to direct the light downwards, etc.