- New Mexico
Home to more than 60 International Dark Sky Parks, the USA has plenty of places to witness a sea of stars and constellations with unobscured views.
But you don’t have to spend the night in the wilderness to get a deeper understanding of astronomy. From mountaintops in Hawaii and Texas to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, journey across the USA and discover visitor-friendly observatories, popular planetariums and important telescopes that will spark curiosity and inspire wonder.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Nestled in the terracotta landscape outside Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak National Observatory is home to one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of research telescopes. During the day, visitors can tour the grounds via self-guided, guided or VIP programs. See the innovative McMath-Pierce Solar telescope, or partake in solar viewings via special telescopes. The popular Nightly Observing Program draws in visitors from near and far, as do the more intimate Dark Sky Discovery and Night of Marvelous Moon programs. The Overnight Telescope Observing Program provides the opportunity to view deep-sky objects with the guidance of an expert, while the three-day Astrophotography Workshop teaches the basics of night sky imaging.
To round out your visit, head to the Tohono O’odham National Cultural Center & Museum for an in-depth look at local Native America culture. Tour the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s botanical garden to learn about Arizona’s natural history, or head to Saguaro National Park and hike winding desert trails surrounded by towering cacti.
A variety of telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory
Mauna Kea Observatories
Hawaii Island is more than sandy beaches and cerulean waves. Standing tall atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain at an elevation of over 4,200 meters, is a cluster of famed observatories. To start, visitors should head to the W.M. Keck Observatory Headquarters in nearby Waimea to learn about the observatories and shop for souvenirs. Next, travel up the mountain to an elevation of around 2,800 meters to the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station. This is an ideal spot get a deeper understanding of the mountain and observatories or see the stars without having to trek to the summit.
If you travel to the summit, it’s recommended to book a guided tour with a permitted company. The journey requires four-wheel drive and many rental car companies prohibit vehicles from traversing the rough terrain. On the summit, the W.M. Keck Observatory Visitor’s Center features galleries and exhibits on research and operations. Marvel at views of the Keck 1 telescope dome and the surrounding beauty of the island.
Nearby beaches provide the perfect backdrop for stargazing solo. During the day, browse local shops and the farmer’s market in downtown Hilo. Venture into Wailuku River State Park to see the cascading Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots, a series of bubbling pools. Don’t miss out on a Waimea farm tour to explore a working ranch.
Subaru Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea
Considered one of the most popular observatories in the world, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles is a Southern California icon that’s been featured in numerous Hollywood films such as “La La Land” and “The Terminator.” Featuring an array of telescopes, science exhibits, star parties and other special events, the observatory is an astronomical wonderland open to the public. Stop by the Samual Oschin Planetarium, where events are presented live (rather than recorded). At the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, watch the film “The Once and Future Griffith Observatory,” which details its history and recent renovations.
Surrounding the observatory, explore its grounds for an epic view of the city or go for a hike in Griffith Park. Elsewhere in L.A., check out contemporary art and cultural exhibits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), stroll down Hollywood Boulevard and snap photos of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or take a trip to the Santa Monica Pier for a ride on the Ferris wheel overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Exploring the grounds of Griffith Observatory at twilight
Tucked away in the remote Davis Mountains of West Texas, the McDonald Observatory provides unparalleled views of some of the darkest skies in the continental USA. Surrounded by a rugged yet stunning landscape, the observatory features a visitor center and exhibits throughout the year. During its weekly star parties, relish views of the surrounding mountains in silhouette while spotting constellations and other celestial objects.
For activities beyond the stars, nearby Davis Mountains State Park provides hiking, backpacking and horseback riding adventures. Fort Davis National Historic Site offers self-guided tours of the frontier military post, while the artsy community of Marfa is perfect for an afternoon of sightseeing.
The star-filled sky over McDonald Observatory
National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array
Only two hours from Albuquerque in Socorro, New Mexico, sits the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array. One of several observatories to take advantage of New Mexico’s vast deserts, the Very Large Array has been featured in popular movies such as 1997’s “Contact” starring Jodie Foster. Stop by the Visitor Center, browse the gift shop, see science exhibits or take a self-guided walking tour. For deeper insight into the Very Large Array and radio astronomy, visit the auditorium to view a short documentary narrated by Foster.
While in the area, see Socorro’s Old San Miguel Mission, a classic example of a Spanish colonial mission church, or check out the precious gemstones on display at the Mineral Museum. In the fall, birdwatchers should head to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for a chance to witness the Sandhill crane migration.