You don’t have to be an astronomer or a geek to appreciate the Kitt Peak National Observatory. While it’s a bit of a drive (a bit over an hour from Tucson, about two and a half hours from Phoenix), it’s well worth the drive just for the breathtaking view.
For me, this day trip was really a business junket, because I’ve been working on a story idea, part of which involves astronomy and astronomers, and Kitt Peak was big driver for us stopping in Tucson. Most of the detail work I’ll get into later as I actually start putting the story together, but putting boots on the ground in this particular place was a necessity to get the feel of it.
But even for the casual tourist, Kitt Peak should be high on your list for sights to see in southern Arizona. I’ll confess, the drive from Tucson along Route 86 isn’t anything spectacular, so be prepared to sing some songs or play twenty questions along the way. But once you reach the peak and start up the climbing, twisting road that leads to the top, your adrenaline level will surge a bit, trust me!
Now, I’m not going to go into all the details of the observatory itself, as you can find all that on the Kitt Peak National Observatory page, and visitor information at the Visitor Center page. You have a few options when you visit. The first is to join a guided tour by a docent who leads you through the complex. The second is to download (before you go!) an audio tour in MP3 format, and each stop on the tour map, provided by the visitor center, has an MP3 placard telling you which section to listen to, although they’re really pretty self-explanatory. Tours are available for the 4 meter Mayall Telescope (note: it’s a bit of a hike from the visitor center to reach this one), the 2.1 meter telescope, and the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope. While you can get into the buildings, you can’t actually wander around the telescopes themselves, for obvious safety reasons (and I’m sure the astronomers wouldn’t want us gumming up the works). And take care not to make a lot of noise as you’re walking the grounds, especially over by the 2.1 meter telescope, as there are visiting astronomers and site staff who sleep in guest lodging during the day. You have to keep in mind that most of what takes place here transpires at night, so during the day it’s a bit of a ghost town. However, the observatory does offer night observing programs to the public.
I’d also like to point out that it’s not a bad idea to spend a little time in the visitor center poking around. They have some cool displays and a lot of information in there on the observatory and the telescopes that’s quite fascinating.
The score from me is two thumbs up for Kitt Peak National Observatory. Don’t miss it!