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Best stargazing places for Dark Sky Week: See Milky Way, meteors, planets over Arizona

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 4/6/2021 Shaena Montanari, Arizona Republic

Stargazing is a naturally socially distant activity that can be done almost anywhere. While observatories with high-powered telescopes are great places to visit when you have the chance, stargazing can be done at any time with just your eyes and no extra equipment. 

And now is the perfect time to go outside after dark and look up. International Dark Sky Week is April 5-12. 

Many parts of Arizona are known for clear and dark skies, making the state the perfect place to see the Milky Way and planets like Jupiter and Saturn. The International Dark-Sky Association recognizes communities and parks as International Dark Sky Places when efforts have been made to make outdoor lighting night-sky friendly and prevent light pollution.

a large mountain in the background: Star trails and a meteor from the Perseid Meteor Shower can be seen beyond the Superstition Mountains early Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 in Apache Junction. © File/The Republic Star trails and a meteor from the Perseid Meteor Shower can be seen beyond the Superstition Mountains early Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016 in Apache Junction.

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Arizona has 10 International Dark Sky Parks and six Dark Sky Communities.

When can you see meteor showers in Arizona?

At set times throughout the year, you can enjoy a good show in the form of a meteor shower streaking through the sky. Several notable meteor showers can be seen in Arizona throughout the year. Skiff said the strongest summer meteor shower is the Perseids, which peak in mid-August, but the monsoon sometimes foils the viewing of this event. 

The 2021 peak dates of Arizona's best meteor showers are:

  • April 21-22: Lyrids.
  • May 4-5: Eta Aquariids.
  • Aug. 11-12: Perseids.
  • Oct. 20-21: Orionids.
  • Nov. 16-17: Leonids.
  • Dec. 13-14: Geminids

Curry said it is also fun to track specific satellites and the International Space Station using maps found online, which is something that can be done any day of the year.

Look up: When to see meteor showers, supermoons and the 'blood moon' in 2021

How far outside the city do you need to go to see stars?

Light pollution makes it difficult to see stars in urban environments. If you are in the Phoenix area you will likely have to drive a little bit to get to skies dark enough for good stargazing. 

Brian Skiff, a research scientist at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, said that you likely need to drive about an hour north or east of Phoenix to get to “reasonably dark skies.” For a prime viewing spot in Flagstaff, an International Dark Sky City, he said anywhere about 20 miles outside of the city will suffice. 

Tom Curry, president of the Saguaro Astronomy Club, said that the higher elevation you can get to, the better the viewing. This allows you to avoid any city haze and get into the thinner air that allows for a clearer view of celestial objects. 

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Where are Arizona's best stargazing spots?

Near Flagstaff, Skiff said, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument are popular stargazing locations. He also said that any turnout off U.S. 180 heading north toward Grand Canyon would provide a good spot to stop and look up.

Note that the Navajo Reservation is experiencing grave health issues during the new coronavirus pandemic and is closed to visitors. Be aware of your location and do not get out of your car on the reservation. 

Southeast of Flagstaff, Skiff recommends Lake Mary Road through Coconino National Forest.

Curry recommends "anywhere that you can pull off" in Coconino National Forest and said he likes to camp near Happy Jack on the Mogollon Rim, which is over 7,000 feet in elevation.

a view of a cactus: The 2010 Perseid meteor shower came to the Valley with a show lasting several hours. © Photo: Dave Seibert/The Republic The 2010 Perseid meteor shower came to the Valley with a show lasting several hours.

Oracle State Park north of Tucson is an International Dark Sky Park and a popular place for sky viewing. South of Tucson are two more Dark Sky Parks: Tumacácori National Historical Park near Tubac and Kartchner Caverns State Park in Benson.

Jim Knoll, star party manager for the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, said Tucson Mountain Park west of downtown is a good place to do some sky viewing because the Tucson Mountains block the city lights.

If you don't want to go too far afield, the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert is a good viewing spot. To the east of Phoenix, the trailhead at Picketpost Mountain near Superior is another good stargazing location. Curry said the White Tank Mountains to the west of Phoenix can be a good spot to set up for a night, but is "awfully hot" in the summertime. 

More places to go: Arizona's dark-sky locations

How to identify stars and planets

It can be tricky to figure out what you are actually looking at. The University of Arizona provides a Skywatcher's Guide six times a year that lists a calendar of viewing opportunities for planets and other celestial objects, which makes it helpful for planning trips. 

Curry said he recommends people buy a planisphere, or star map, which is a flat, round map that rotates so you can identify what you are seeing. 

Your smartphone also can enhance your sky viewing experience. Apps that are either free or for purchase use your location and augmented reality to show you a detailed map of what's overhead. Some of the best reviewed paid apps include Sky Guide, Star Walk 2, GoSkyWatch Planetarium and Sky Safari. For a free app, there is a "lite" version of SkyView

If you want to look at the sky with more magnifying power than just your eyes, you can upgrade to binoculars. If you're ready to really invest, you can get a telescope. This free beginner's guide from the East Valley Astronomy Club is a thorough resource for choosing and using binoculars or a telescope:

Reach the reporter at Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @DrShaena.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Best stargazing places for Dark Sky Week: See Milky Way, meteors, planets over Arizona


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