Stargazing (and we’re not talking about the celebrity kind) is a wonderful group activity in the Western states because of wide-open spaces, dark-sky initiatives, and public observatories on mountaintops that offer access to the country’s most powerful telescopes. Groups seeking out quasars, comets, planets, and the wonders of the night sky will enjoy awe-struck evenings at the Griffith Observatory, just a short jaunt from the famous Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.

The Griffith’s 12-inch refracting Zeiss telescope has been peered through by more than 7 million people since it was installed in 1935. Your group will also enjoy the Signs of Life program, which details how chemistry and physics incite the universe’s constant evolution. The program also takes your group through the solar system, the Milky Way Galaxy, and beyond to discover more signs of life.

Experts speak every evening in the summer during astronomy events at the Lick Observatory, perched on the 4,213-foot summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California. Groups are welcome, free of charge, to visit the visitor center during regular open hours, while tickets are required for evening programs during which visitors can look through the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor and the Nickel 40-inch reflecting scopes. A selection of evening programs also include musical events and photography sessions.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, Arizona;
Credit: Visit Tucson/Matthew P. Hunt

Arizona has several famous observatories. The rings of Saturn can be sighted through the Alvan Clark 24-inch refracting telescope at the Lowell Observatory, a mile west of Flagstaff. The Lowell’s instrument is so powerful it has been used to look for life on Mars. Farther south, about 50 miles outside of Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory at the summit of Kitt Peak claims the largest collection of research telescopes in the world, with two scopes available for viewing. The observatory is also very active during the day with a variety of programs for groups. When the sun sets, the Kitt’s famous evening and overnight programs teach groups how to discover constellations, view hidden objects in the sky with binoculars, and find deep-sky objects with the telescopes.

Last, but not least, the Mount Graham International Observatory in Safford, operated by Eastern Arizona College, includes the Discovery Park Campus that offers tours from mid-May through October. The tour includes information on the mountain’s rich geology, history, and biodiversity; lunch near the summit; and a visit to the observatory’s Submillimeter Telescope, Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and Large Binocular Telescope.

By C. L. LeFevre

Main Image: Lick Observatory, San Jose, California; Credit: Unsplash/Anshul Jain