Another historic, public-friendly facility can be found atop Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s where Percival Lowell—wealthy Bostonian, self-taught astronomer, and avowed Martian chaser—built a world-class observing complex in the 1880s. In recent years Lowell Observatory has enjoyed a resurgence of professional prestige and public interest, which culminated in 1994 with a centennial celebration and the unveiling of a new visitors’ center. Today you can follow in Lowell’s storied footsteps at least one night per week in winter, up to six in summer. For a $3.50 admission fee (kids: $1.50), you’ll get a preview of the current sky sights, followed by observing with either a 24-inch refractor or a 16-inch compound reflector. Daytime visitors can enjoy a quick peek at the sun (daily at 12:30 p.m.) or stroll down the Pluto Walk to see the 13-inch photographic telescope that Clyde Tombaugh used in 1930 to discover distant Pluto.
If time permits, head 230 miles south to Tucson, the current mecca of American astronomy. There you’ll find the headquarters of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and the University of Arizona’s Flandrau Planetarium and Steward Observatory. An hour’s drive to the southwest brings you to the 6,875-foot summit of Kitt Peak and face to face with the most impressive collection of professional telescopes in North America.
In the past, NOAO offered public viewing on Kitt Peak only once a month, in a dome adjacent to its visitors’ center. But a new, expanded program lets you reserve the night you want in advance, and it’s limited to just 20 participants. After arriving at the summit before sunset, pre-registered guests are offered a light meal and an orientation lecture. The staff provides top-quality binoculars for everyone, and there’s plenty of time for eyeballing the heavens through a 16-inch compound reflector. Cost is the only catch: $35 for adults, $25 for kids, or $100 for a family of four. For $250 each, two diehard observers can take over the telescope for an entire night, recording their finds with state-of-the-art electronic cameras and even dining with visiting astronomers (room and board cost an additional $55 per person).
Off the Beaten Track
Astronomical opportunities are not always as obvious as a Griffith or Kitt Peak observatory. In fact, the very best places to cruise the cosmos are remote locations with sparse populations. One such gem is Goldendale Observatory in south-central Washington. In the early 1970s, four Vancouver men built a 24-inch reflector from scratch and donated it to the small city of Goldendale. Washington’s State Parks and Recreation Commission took over the facility in 1980, and today it exists solely for public use. The big scope is augmented by more than a dozen portable and permanently mounted companions of various sizes. Stephen Stout has been the sole staffer there for nearly 19 years. He provides lectures and telescopic viewing five nights a week from April through September and only on Saturdays during other months. Despite being hard to find, Goldendale hosts up to 200 visitors a night and 30,000 to 40,000 a year, many of them children from the region’s schools. Continued success has Stout dreaming of a $3 million renovation, but putting eyeball to eyepiece will always be part of the Goldendale experience. “I never want to take away the direct viewing through the telescope,” he says.
Two other well-hidden retreats are found in the Southwest. Eleven years ago Philip Mahon took a huge gamble: He bought 195 acres of remote, forest-rimmed land in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, built an observing compound with seven cozy cottages, and held his breath. Today the Star Hill Inn, which he operates with wife Rae Ann Kumelos-Mahon, is thriving. Each year, the inn hosts roughly 800 visitors, who come from as far away as Singapore to revel in the dark skies. One couple liked the place so much that they recently held their wedding there. An overnight stay costs as little as $80 for a single or $90 for a double, though there’s a two-night minimum. No meals are served, but all the cottages are equipped with kitchens. “That was one of my best decisions,” Mahon says. “Observers who stay up all night don’t want someone telling them when to eat.” Some guests bring their own gear, but most choose from a small arsenal of rental telescopes.
Another good choice for an astronomical sleepover is Skywatcher’s Inn in Benson, Arizona, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. Eduardo Vega had already set up his Vega-Bray Observatory when his wife Patricia decided to add the inn a few years ago. Guests share common living, dining, and entertainment rooms, along with three kitchen units. Rates start at $89 per room, but you might want to splurge. As recent guest Ed Ting notes, “I expected a simple rustic retreat. Boy, was I wrong! Within minutes I found myself happily installed in the Egyptian room, complete with marble jacuzzi, satellite TV, and walk-in marble shower.” Vega did not skimp on the astronomical amenities either. Vega-Bray offers a computer-controlled 20-inch telescope, seven others with apertures from six to 14 inches, a small planetarium, a radio telescope, and a photographic darkroom. Equipment fees range from $55 for the smaller scopes to $150 for an entire night with the 20-inch and the services of an imaging expert or professional astronomer. However, Skywatchers Inn, like Star Hill, is not just for the high-end astrophile. Both offer guided sky tours for novice observers and families.