Travel: Stargazing in Arizona, US

The night skies over Arizona and its gargantuan graveyards of US aircraft are as awe-inspiring as the famous red rocks, discovers Stephen Emerson

A saguaro cactus in the desert beneath the Milky Way. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto
A saguaro cactus in the desert beneath the Milky Way. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Arizona is no ordinary holiday location. It is a place that will massage the explorer’s itch that grows within us when we’ve had one too many beach holidays. While tens of thousands of tourists flock to the state each year, only a trickle venture south beyond the Grand Canyon into the vast plains of this fascinating destination. Arizona is big America. Everything is super-sized; from the highways that snake throughout the state to the huge military presence that you notice in the air and on the roads.

Arizona has some of the clearest skies in the world so it is little wonder that star-gazing is major draw for visitors. The state can cater for serious astronomers alongside those who are just curious. If you want to feel insignificant then start studying astronomy. The universe is constantly expanding and our galaxy, the Milky Way, will eventually collide with another.

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I began my own space exploration with a trip to the University of Arizona’s Mount Graham observatory in Safford. It sits 10,700 feet high on the clouds, is surrounded by piles of snow even in summer and has a telescope next door owned by the Vatican. The journey up the mountain is worth the trip alone. You start at the foot of the mountain in the searing heat of the desert and ascend only a few hundred feet to lush vegetation before being chilled by minus temperatures and snowdrifts. At the top of the mountain is the university research facility, which houses one of the largest telescopes in the world. Housed in a shed akin to a nuclear silo, its giant mirrors beam back images from 102 million light years away. The hangar and indeed the whole complex itself has a whole other-worldly feel about it. The telescope moving its huge, hulking mass and rotating is a sight to behold.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The military have a major presence in Arizona, and a visit to Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG) in Tucson, where billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware lies idle in the sun, gives a vivid sense of that. With its dry humidity and low rainfall, Tucson makes an ideal place to store redundant aircraft and the facility, known as the Boneyard, is where the US military’s aircraft come to be scrapped, mothballed, sold off or turned into drones.

Upon arrival, aircraft are stripped of their guns and classified hardware, wrapped in protective covering and towed to the storage location. There are over 4,000 aircraft here, making it the largest aircraft storage facility in the world. The compound is classed as a restricted area and the only way to get in is with an organised tour by the neighbouring Pima Air and Space Museum.

Anyone with even a slight interest in aviation and the history that surrounds it will be bowled over the Pima centre. There are planes to inspire, amaze and make you think. Tom Cruise’s Top Gun jet sits alongside the US military’s Stealth bomber, whose very existence the government at one time denied. Then there’s the Hawker Hurricane with swastikas etched on to its side, marking how many German aircraft it had shot down.

After the fascination of Pima, it was on to Bisbee, a town caught in a freeze frame. The former mining community was virtually abandoned in 1975 when the last copper mine closed and it has since carved out a niche as an arts and tourist venue, home to artists and retirees attracted by its low property prices and stunning canyon setting.

Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In its heyday it became a magnet for Welsh miners when the copper industry began to wane in the United Kingdom. Walking down the town’s main street it’s easy to recreate a picture of what it would have been like. There’s a quirky, odd feel to the place, and in the former red light district, you’ll see other-worldly mannequins and sense rather than smell wafts of marijuana. You can get a taste of what it was like for the workers by taking a tour of the Queen Mine. There are tools on display from before the mine was automated with a spine chilling account of how one miner would hold the chisel while another smashed it in with a hammer. The tour is carried out on the rickety rails that were used when the mine was in production and you explore part of the myriad of the 240 miles of underground tunnels.

Arizona is peppered with quirky places to stay, such as the Triangle T Guest ranch in Dragoon. Laden with history, it has had such distinguished guests as the Rockefeller brothers, John Wayne and Clark Gable stay in its rooms. The ranch sits in landscape that looks as if it has been beamed back from Mars. Once molten rock has been fashioned by nature into awe-inspiring formations while giant blob-like shapes have the appearance of defeating gravity.

Also worth a visit if you fancy a spot of luxury is Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson, where you can truly relax and unwind from the moment you pass the giant cactus which greets you at the entrance. Take it easy on the hotel balcony with a glass of wine and marvel at the desert plains which collide gracefully with the city lights. And if the mood takes you, wander over to the poolside telescope and, remembering what you learned at Mount Graham, chat constellations with the hotel’s in-house astronomer.

While the north of Arizona state, with the Grand Canyon and neighbouring Las Vegas may suit those in need of high octane pursuits, the south is definitely for someone a little different, for the thinker, and the dreamer who just wants to relax and gaze at the stars.


America As You Like It offers a seven-night package to Arizona from £571 per person (based on two sharing) including flights from Glasgow, nine days’ car hire and accommodation on a room only basis. Accommodation includes one night each at Best Western Inn of Tempe in Tempe, Quality Inn & Suites in Safford, Triangle T Ranch in Benson, Loews Ventana Canyon Ranch Resort in Tucson, Casino del Sol Resort in Tucson, and two nights at the Tempe Mission Palms in Tempe. To book call 020 8742 8299 or visit