Hike and Stargaze on This Trip Through Arizona’s Dark-Sky Country

Verde Canyon Railroad

Courtesy of Verde Canyon Railroad

The rugged terrain and clear skies of Arizona attract millions of hikers each year and stretch far beyond the famous ridges of the Grand Canyon. World-class trails combined with equally impressive stargazing opportunities make Arizona an unparalleled hiking destination and distinguish it as a veritable “astrotourism capital” of the U.S. Dedicated to minimizing the harmful effects of light pollution, the dark-sky movement took hold in Flagstaff in the late 1950s before the city became the world’s first International Dark Sky Place in 2001. The Grand Canyon State is now also home to 17 certified Dark Sky Sanctuaries and many other dark-sky locations, continuing a legacy of preserving the majestic natural landscape and the night sky above.

Making the most of these especially starry nights, this five-day itinerary features hiking excursions and mountain-view drives during the day, followed by different dark-sky adventures each evening. This, all while journeying through diverse panorama that can only be found in Arizona.

The Arizona Office of Tourism is continuing to monitor the evolving COVID19 situation. Before traveling to or throughout Arizona, check for important travel and tourism updates.


Trip Designer

Visit Arizona

Visit Arizona invites you to discover life on a grander scale. The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, defines the destination’s beauty, while diverse landscapes across the state, rich and ancient history, and thriving culinary culture offer plenty more to discover. From Tucson’s fine dining to the ski slopes of Flagstaff and the curves of the Colorado River, adventures await all types of explorers.
Verde Canyon Railroad

Trip Highlight

The Starlight Express

Originally built in 1953 to serve the Alaska Railroad, the Verde Canyon Railroad is a renovated vintage train now running along 20 miles of old copper mine track on the banks of the Verde River. Large panoramic windows and an open-air car allow visitors an unforgettable view of the setting sun over the expansive Verde Canyon.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is one of several Dark Sky Places neighboring the Coconino National Forest. Arizona is renowned for clear, sunny days and incredible star-filled nights. Flagstaff was the world's first International Dark Sky Place, leading the movement to reduce light pollution in 1958 by enacting lighting ordinances that help protect northern Arizona's dark skies for local observatories, astronomers, and star gazers. Sedona, Big Parks/Village of Oak Creek, and area National Monuments have joined the ranks of Dark Sky Places, making the night skies over Coconino National Forest a magnificent sight most nights. The Milky Way is visible with the naked eye throughout northern Arizona, aided by Dark Sky ordinances, low population density, and extensive public lands.

Photo by Deborah Lee Soltesz, May 2017. Credit: Coconino National Forest, U.S. Forest Service.  Learn more about the <a  href="">Volcanos and Ruins Loop Scenic Drive</a>, the <a  href="">International Dark Sky Association</a>, and the <a  href="">Coconino National Forest</a>.

Deborah Lee Soltesz/Coconino National Forest

DAY 1Caves and Dark Skies

For a trek loaded with Dark Sky Communities, there’s no better place to start than Flagstaff. Whether you drive or fly in, you’ll instantly feel closer to the clouds at an elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, making it the highest city in Arizona. Take the morning to settle into a more traditionally accommodating venue like the Little America Hotel or choose any one of the more intimate, privately owned cabins or B&Bs such as the cheery Starlight Pines Bed & Breakfast.

Once you’re ready to hit the trail, take a scenic 20-mile drive through the foothills of Humphrey’s Peak, Arizona’s highest point, to arrive at Lava River Cave. Make sure you come prepared with closed-toed shoes, a headlamp, and jacket since the trail runs through a mile-deep cavern where the temperature hovers at about 40 degrees year-round. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head back into downtown Flagstaff. Treats like homemade bacon and craft coffee at the casual and cozy Tourist Home All Day Cafe make it a great option for lunch. After nightfall, take in your first Dark Sky at the Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered in 1930. Scan the stars through several famous telescopes on informative guided tours and visit the new Giovale Open Deck Observatory, which offers VIP access to six advanced open-air telescopes.
African American_Day 2.jpg

Steamboat Rock

Shane McDermott

DAY 2Sandstone Arch and a Starlight Train Ride

Get an early start on the day and drive about 40 minutes to the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness to reach the Vultee Arch Trailhead. While the nearby Devil’s Bridge Arch is one of the most popular spots for a photo-op, Vultee Arch also features a 50-foot-tall sandstone arch with breathtaking views of the surrounding cliffs. Since this trail isn’t nearly as heavily trafficked, you’ll be afforded a more personal, and much more peaceful, wilderness experience.

Head back into Sedona, another certified Dark Sky Community, and check into the El Portal Hotel, a luxury inn with authentic hometown charm. For a fresh take on Southwestern cuisine, stop at the nearby SaltRock Kitchen before driving over to Clarkdale (40 minutes). Once there, you’ll climb aboard the Starlight Ride’s vintage train car on the Verde Canyon Railroad to take in the sunset and moonlit views on this four-hour train ride through the Verde River valley. First-class service includes appetizers and a champagne toast, and all guests are welcome into the open-air viewing car to gaze out at the canyon as the stars sparkle overhead.
Montezuma Castle National Monument

Christine C. Photographie

DAY 3Stay in a Dark-Sky Zone

Take today as a rest day or get in some bonus trails before heading down to Scottsdale. The drive takes roughly two hours, around 130 miles, and can be traveled at your leisure. If you’re itching for another day on the trails, you can easily break up the drive by stopping at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Camp Verde to explore prehistoric cliffside dwellings on Montezuma’s Well Trail and Monument Trail. If you’re eager for something more laid-back, start out for Scottsdale early and stroll through the ArtWalk, Wonderspaces, or the shopping center at Scottsdale Quarter before checking into your accommodation for the remainder of your itinerary, the newly opened Adero.

The area’s first-ever luxury resort in a Dark Sky Community, perched high in the desert, Adero is a destination unto itself—so make some time to enjoy everything it has to offer. With two more days of hiking left to go, you can rejuvenate by treating yourself to the multiple outdoor pools, hot tubs, spa and massage services, and even desert meditation or spiritual guidance coaching to help you relax and reenergize. End your evening amidst spectacular nocturnal landscapes with a world-class dining experience at Cielo, the resort’s signature restaurant embodying their “farm-to-table-to-sky” philosophy.
Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. CMR: 7003972 Photo by Ryan Donnell

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona

Photo by Ryan Donnell

DAY 4Sunset Stargazing in The Sonoran Desert

After a restful night of sleep, grab some Protein Packed Pancakes at Phoenix-area staple Hash Kitchen to charge up for the hikes ahead. The Lost Dog Wash Trailhead allows access to miles of trails within the 30,000 acres of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. From here you can choose trails ranging from easy to the more ambitious, all well-marked and offering views of the Sonoran Desert blanketed with agave, saguaro, and prickly pear.

Before heading into Scottsdale for dinner, meander through Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert masterpiece, Taliesin West, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which sits just next door to the trailhead. Return to the resort in time for a hotel pickup, taking you deep into the Sonoran Desert for a Sunset Stargazing Tour. Along with knowledgeable guides and aided by high-powered telescopes in the vast quiet of the desert, you will embark on an intimate journey through the wonders of the Milky Way including Jupiter and its moons, Saturn’s rings, and much more.
The Superstition Mountains at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona

DAY 5End With an Epic Hike

Saving the toughest hike for last, get up early and make the hour-long drive to the Siphon Draw Trailhead within Lost Dutchman State Park. At this level of difficulty, allow yourself at least five hours to complete your final challenge. As you soldier on, the trail through the Siphon Draw canyon becomes steeper, gaining more than 1,000 feet in elevation. The distinctive Flatiron rock formation will be your beacon and could be the end point of your trek, while experienced hikers may wish to carry on through the difficult and often unmaintained trail to the summit of the Flatiron. Either will reward you with sweeping views of the Superstition Mountains and the desert below.

Celebrate your success with a drive south to the flatlands to tour the gourmet market at Queen Creek Olive Mill and grab a bottle of their world-renowned olive oil before ending your journey by watching the daylight fade at San Tan Flat, a lively local country bar and grill. After stacking your individual firepit with wood, take in some local music and kick back with a drink as you toast your own marshmallows for s’mores. From Queen Creek it’s very easy to continue traveling in the greater Phoenix area or fly out from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
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