One of the best ways to view the celestial night sky is at an observatory. The southwestern United States is riddled with them, a region known for being an astronomer’s paradise with its clear, vast skies.
History, too, molds the tale of sky watching in the Southwest — with it being such a highly traveled to spot for star gazers for over a century.
Take Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; the astronomical research and education center was founded by Percival Lowell in 1894, 18 years before Arizona became a state.
“Lowell is a place with fascinating heritage of discovery that continues today,” said Kevin Schindler, historian/PIO at Lowell Observatory. “In the two years prior to COVID-19, we welcomed an average of 105,000 visitors to the observatory.”
The observatory currently caps group sizes at 10, although will again host larger groups once conditions allow.
Groups will experience the night sky through a variety of telescopes including the Clark Telescope and six advanced telescopes on the newly opened Giovale Open Deck Observatory.
“The historic 24-inch Clark Telescope was used by Percival Lowell in developing his controversial ideas about life on Mars, V.M. Slipher in detecting the first evidence of the expanding universe and Apollo astronauts to help prepare for their missions to the Moon,” Schindler said.
Even during the day, Lowell provides one-of-a-kind and fascinating experiences for its visitors with historic tours.
“Tours include visits to the Clark Telescope, Pluto Discovery Telescope, historic Rotunda Museum and Putnam Collection, as well as access to our beautiful grounds,” Schindler said.
Visitors will also enjoy the space-themed Starry Skies Gift Shop, selling a variety of astronomical paraphernalia and gifts.
Currently, Lowell is under an aggressive expansion, which includes a new visitor facility that will triple the size of the current visitor center. The new addition is set to open in 2023 and will include three key features: youth and family exhibits, the Universe Theater and the Richard F. Caris Dark Sky Planetarium.
“The United States is blessed with a variety of museums, parks, historic sites, science centers and places of exploration,” Schindler said. “But Lowell Observatory captures all of these, and with the very unique characteristic of telescope viewing that inspires people of all ages.”
McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas, too has a lengthy history, which began in 1926; Banker William J. McDonald left the University of Texas at Austin the majority of his estate at the time of his death with the wish that it would be used for the “study and promotion” of astronomy.
“Since its dedication in 1939, McDonald Observatory has pursued topics at the forefront of astronomy,” said Rachel Fuechsl, public relations coordinator at McDonald Observatory. “It is currently home to one of the largest telescopes in the world, the 10-meter Hobbly-Eberly Telescope.”
McDonald Observatory and its facilities are located atop Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains. Located at the base of the mountains is the Visitors Center, which includes an exhibit hall, theater, gift shop, telescope park and outdoor amphitheater.
During afternoon guided tours, groups of up to 10 can drive to the summit of Mt. Locke, home to two of McDonald’s largest research telescopes.
“A guide will discuss the history of the observatory while guests enjoy stunning views of the surrounding region,” Fuechsl said.
On Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the observatory hosts its Star Party programs. Groups will experience night sky constellation tours and projected views of objects in the sky at the amphitheater.
“Our programs continue to evolve as circumstances change, so it is best for anyone planning a group visit to contact us ahead of time for the latest information on what we can offer,” Fuechsl said.
As groups look for trips away from crowded spaces, observatories offer remote experiences and a look into other worlds. Adding one of these facilities — or any of the number of observatories in the Southwest — to an itinerary provides a chance for unmatched discovery amid expansive vistas.