Flagstaff, Arizona, is perfect for stargazing because of its mountain landscape, good weather, and citizens’ guardianship of the environment. At 7,000 feet elevation, Flagstaff enjoys four seasons and is in the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest surrounded by Native American culture.
As an avid night sky photographer and a return visitor to Flagstaff, I enjoyed the in-depth presentation of hosted experiences. All opinions are my own.
City Of Seven Wonders
Known as the City of Seven Wonders because there are seven experiences within 10 to 80 miles, Flagstaff makes an ideal home base to explore during the day and at night. These seven remarkable destinations are Grand Canyon National Park, Wupatki National Monument, Oak Creek Canyon, Sunset Crater Volcano, San Francisco Peaks, Coconino National Forest, and Walnut Canyon. Flagstaff is close to locations like Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest, and Sedona for stargazing parties, too.
History In Flagstaff
Historic Route 66 runs through the center of Flagstaff and offers a charming downtown with a visitor center tucked inside the Amtrak train station. Self-guided walking tours include the historic downtown and Flagstaff’s haunted places. A recorded tour, Walk This Talk Tour, is narrated by actor Ted Danson, a Flagstaff native.
Food, Beverage, And Lodging In Flagstaff
Two hundred restaurants in Flagstaff feature amazing chefs and cuisine with everything from casual takeaway picnics, meals delivered by robots on the NAU campus, and fine dining establishments with extensive award-winning wine lists.
Flagstaff is designated a leading craft beer city with award-winning breweries that extend samples and tours.
Convenient campgrounds and 5,000 hotel rooms ranging from budget to luxury make Flagstaff a destination perfect for stargazing comfort and adventures.
1. Lowell Observatory
While I shared the particulars of this great northern Arizona town above, the primary reason that Flagstaff, Arizona, is perfect for stargazing is that you can visit Lowell Observatory.
In 1894, Percival Lowell established the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff to study Mars and possibly intelligent life there. By sharing his theories with scientists and the public, Lowell created a pop culture that scientists succeeding him carried on. Even Walt Disney, influenced by work at Lowell Observatory in the 1950s, featured scientists in an early Disney program.
Close To Downtown Flagstaff On Mars Hill
Today, a visit to Mars Hill includes guided tours and numerous talks throughout the day. At night, discover galaxies, gas clouds, and planets as you gaze through six state-of-the-art telescopes on the Giovale Open Deck Observatory.
Pro Tip: General admission tickets give you all-day access to tours, talks, and telescopes. For an additional fee, guided tours occur several times a day.
Pluto–Planet Or Dwarf Planet
Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, an amateur astronomer working at Lowell Observatory, Pluto was declared to be the ninth planet from the Sun in 1930. In the 1990s, Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet because scientists found other similarly sized objects at the outer edges of our solar system. When you visit Lowell Observatory, vote for your choice for Pluto’s standing.
On my evening visit to Lowell Observatory, the impressive 350-foot Pluto Walk piqued my interest. The illuminated path illustrates the solar system’s scale with planet stops along the way and puts our solar system into perspective.
Standing outside the telescope dome, waiting for my turn to peer through the eyepiece to view Saturn and Jupiter, it was awe-inspiring to look up into the night sky and see shooting stars. Good thing it was dark because my mouth was agape with wonder and reverence. When was the last time you saw a shooting star?
Historic Clark Telescope
First commissioned by Percival Lowell in 1896 to study Mars and the other solar system planets, the Clark Telescope is the workhorse of discovery used by scientists to explore the expanding universe and by artists to create lunar maps for the Apollo moon missions. Now dedicated to public education programs, the dome and telescope are in use every day.
Our host, Kevin Schindler, author, researcher, and observatory historian, shared valuable insight for activities at Lowell Observatory on our evening tour. Education is still a vital mission of the observatory, as it was Percival Lowell’s.
“This building has been used for decades, so we have bicycle chains because the people that built the dome owned a bicycle shop in town. The kitchen chair that Percival Lowell used — it’s the iconic picture of Percival that forms the basis of our logo. That’s him sitting on the ladder; the Ford tires date back to the 1950s. Lots of mixes of dates in the dome.” Schindler shared.
“We move this [Clark Telescope] today the same way we did back 100 years ago before we had electricity, and that’s to move it by hand,” Schindler demonstrated with the help of someone in the audience.
2. Flagstaff Was The First Dark Sky Community
The International Dark-Sky Places (IDSP) Program, founded in 2001, encourages communities, parks, and protected areas worldwide to safeguard and preserve dark sites through public education and responsible lighting policies. Flagstaff enacted the world’s first outdoor lighting ordinance in 1958 and was the first to receive the Dark Sky Community designation.
Industrial civilization causes light pollution. The excessive use of artificial light plagues many countries worldwide and includes glare, skyglow, light trespass, and clutter. Mountains shield dark sky places from urban glow in Arizona.
The Dark Sky Places Program offers five types of designations. They include communities, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and urban environments.
The International Dark-Sky Association has a rigorous application process to become a Dark Sky Place, and awardees go through a review quarterly. As of August 2021, over 180 certified IDSPs throughout the world carry the designation.
3. Highest Concentration Of Dark Sky Places On Earth
Arizona has 19 dark sky communities, places, and parks — the highest concentration anywhere on earth. Two are National Parks (Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest).
Three National Monuments within a short drive of Flagstaff are also dark sky places and worth a visit. Waputki, Walnut Canyon, and Sunset Crater Volcano are open from sunrise to sunset. While you cannot enjoy them under the night sky, the sheer beauty of the landscape, experiencing the history of the people who lived there, and walking in the astronauts’ footsteps during daylight hours are enriching experiences.
4. Stargazing Parties
A great way to learn about astronomy, stargazing parties are ideal for all ages. It’s a great way to spend family time, multi-generational time, or solo time with other like-minded individuals. Several parks have campgrounds and cabins for rent if you want to stay overnight.
Pro Tips: At a star party, give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to darkness — 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t use bright white flashlights or headlamps. You can buy red light flashlights and headlamps at most outdoor stores. If your vehicle is parked nearby, ensure that all interior lights and remote lock/unlock lights are turned off before the evening starts.
5. Astronauts And Athletes
Since the 1960s, Flagstaff has played an essential role in preparing astronauts for Moon exploration. Every Apollo astronaut, including the 12 that walked on the Moon, trained in Flagstaff. Training continues today with NASA programs for unmanned lunar and planetary exploration.
World-class athletes train in Flagstaff. In the 1960s, sports science research found that working out at the perfect elevation, approximately 6,500 feet above sea level, caused the human body to perform better. As athletes prepared for the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, they achieved world records and earned 276 Olympic and Paralympic medals resulting from Flagstaff training.
Flagstaff is ideal for its elevation, entertainment, and diversions during days off from training. While I wasn’t training for competition during my visit, I did notice improved stamina and well-being post-trip.
How To Prepare For Elevation
- Drink lots of water.
- Go slow if climbing or exerting yourself.
How To Prepare For Stargazing
- Red light headlamp or flashlight; night vision 20-30 minutes for eyes to adjust in meager light conditions.
- Turn off your cell phone.
- Bring a lightweight chair or stool.
- Bring warm clothes, dress in layers — hat, boots, gloves.
- Bring food and water. Dispose of food and wrappers properly.
What To Bring
- Bring a sturdy tripod.
- Bring an intervalometer for measured exposures during the night.
- Bring fully charged batteries.
- Bring a wide-angle lens.
How To Get There
Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (FLG) is the destination with daily, nonstop flights to and from Phoenix (PHX), Dallas (DFW), and Denver (DEN).
Amtrak services Flagstaff at the historic station downtown three times weekly on the Southwest Chief.
Driving from Los Angeles or Albuquerque, take Interstate 40; from Phoenix, take Interstate 17; from Lake Powell, Page, or Monument Valley in the north, take Highway 89.
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