The Kit Peak National Observatory is located on the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation. It is in the Quinlan Mountains, at an elevation of 6,875 feet. The location was chosen, due to its dry atmosphere allowing for 260 days a year of clear skies and its isolation from light pollution. The Tohono O’odham Indian Tribe has leased the land “until the end of time”, as long as the structure is not used for military purposes.
The Kit Peak National Observatory is a three-building research structure. The National Optical Astronomy Observatories oversees the site operations of Kit Peak. The observatory has the McMath Solar Telescope, which is largest solar telescope in the world. The telescope is aligned with the North Pole. There are 22 optical and 2 radio telescopes from eight astronomical research institutions. Kit Peak also has the Mayall 4-meter telescope, which is the nation’s second largest optical instrument.
This observatory monitors solar, stellar and extragalactic activities. Visitors will learn about the history of optical astronomy and how Kit Peak Observatory has played an integral part in gathering research over the past years. Guests will take a tour and discover how astronomers have gained so much knowledge of the universe. One section that you won’t want to miss is the National Solar Observatory exhibit gallery. Here you will watch astronomers using the world’s largest telescope.
Kit Peak National Observatory offers visitors another unique opportunity. At night, the Visitor Center telescope dome is available for a tour. This tour begins with a light dinner while admiring the spectacular sunset from the peak. Following the sunset, there is a complete tour of the night skies. Using binoculars, star charts and a state-of-the-art 16-inch telescope, you will be able to look at the sky in a whole new way. It is a chance to see planets, galaxies, star clusters and the birth and death of stars. Night stargazing tours usually last three hours and is limited to 20 participants. Due to this tour’s popularity, it is required that reservations are made in advance. Since stargazing depends on the weather, if the weather turns poor, a decision will be made at 2:00 to determine if the tour will be held that night. If you are not a part of the night time stargazing tour, you will be asked to leave the peak at 4:00 pm.
Visitors should be aware that the temperature on top of Kit Peak is almost 10 to 20 degrees cooler, than in Tucson. Please bring the appropriate attire, especially if you are participating in the nighttime tour. The nighttime stargazing tour spends approximately three hours outside. Also, individuals with cardiac and respiratory aliments should be aware of the steep walking paths to many of the telescopes. There are no food or gas services available at Kit Peak, so come prepared. It is a good idea to pack a lunch and eat it at the picnic area at Kit Peak. Kit Peak National Observatory does provide restrooms and wheelchair accessible facilities.
The Kit Peak National Observatory is open everyday, except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas from 9:00 to 4:00 pm. Guided tours are offered daily at 10:00, 11:30, and 1:30 pm. Tours are approximately one hour in length. The nighttime stargazing tour costs $35.00 for adults, $25.00 for students with I.D. and $25.00 for seniors over 55. The daytime admission cost is free.
The Visitor Center dome is available to reserve in its entirety for a large group, by calling in advance. You will need to call in advance to go on a nighttime stargazing tour. However, if space is available, you may be fortunate to go on the same day as your visit. You may schedule a group tour by calling and making a reservation. If you are interested in a group tour, call 520-318-8732. If you have any other questions, you may call 520-318-8726 or for a recording you can call 520-318-8200.
You can get to the observatory from Tucson by taking State Highway 89 west out of town. Continue on State Highway 89 for approximately 56 miles, until you come to the signs for Kit Peak Observatory.
Kit Peak is an amazing spot. You will learn so much on a tour of this unique place tucked away in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.