Flagstaff’s Meteor Crater Feels Otherworldly Under a Vast Starry Sky

Get starry-eyed under the cosmos in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Flagstaff, AZ meteor shower
Photo courtesy of Discover Flagstaff
Photo courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

It’s easy to feel close to the cosmos in Flagstaff, Arizona. By day, standing at the edge of nearby Meteor Crater, nearly three quarters of a mile wide and 560 feet deep, you get a staggering sense of the literal impact of outer space on earth. Come nighttime, a dazzling canopy of stars fills the Flagstaff sky, vivid and bright even without a telescope in the dry desert air at 7,000 feet above sea level.

A summer trip to Flagstaff is not only a great way to beat the Arizona heat in the cool mountain air, but also a fun way to connect to the cosmos, to take an otherworldly adventure into both the history and the future of humankind’s exploration into outer space.
With visits to Meteor Crater, the Lowell Observatory, and backroads tours of “Dark Sky” city, travelers to Flagstaff can explore some of these stellar highlights.

Traveling Around Flagstaff, the “Dark Sky City”

While Flagstaff’s ponderosa pine–covered hills and tourist-friendly downtown make it a worthwhile destination, the city truly shines at night. As in the millions of stars that twinkle in a nightscape you’d normally only expect to see in a remote desert setting.

Flagstaff’s urban starry night is no accident of geography, but rather a decades-long commitment to reducing the artificial light profile of the city. In 2001, Flagstaff became the world’s first certified “Dark Sky City” earning the distinction with tight zoning rules governing the usage and brightness of outdoor lighting.

Casual visitors can reap the benefit of this Dark Sky City simply by looking up. It really is jarring (and quite pleasing) to be in a city environment and see this many stars above you. While you probably won’t be able to see the Milky Way from downtown on a lively Saturday night, it’s easy to walk a few blocks to the edge of town and get a five-star view, so to speak.

For those interested in taking a closer look at the night sky (and unable to pack their own telescope), Flagstaff has plenty of guided stargazing tours available, including Flagstaff Stargazing Adventures. The tour operator offers stargazing and astrophotography tours of the area, supplying equipment, education, and transportation to prime dark sky viewing spots in the area.

Stargazing aficionados should time their Flagstaff visit to coincide with the upcoming Delta Aquariids Meteor Shower July 28 & 29 and the Perseids Meteor Shower on August 11–13 with a meteor lighting trails across the night sky nearly by the minute.

Many area hotels provide rental telescopes and tips for prime stargazing spots in the area. For a sci-fi feel, stay at Flagstaff’s newly renovated Americana Motor Hotel, reopening this June, featuring a Jetsons-esque “retro-futuristic” design and telescopes to rent for stargazing just steps from the motel. The High Country Motor Lodge provides guests with stargazing guides and hosts occasional star watching parties. And maybe before or after the stargazing, toast a few brews to the skies at Flagstaff’s Dark Sky Brewing Company, with “beers as unique and beautiful as every star, meteor and comet we can see from our backyard.” And for a more down to earth activity with a starship vibe, launch into some late night Cosmic Bowling at the glowing, blinking venue of Starlite Lanes.

Meteor Crater, Flagstaff, AZ
Photo by Bill Fink for Thrillist

How to Visit Meteor Crater

Keeping with the cosmic theme, drive the 45 miles from Flagstaff to Meteor Crater through a bleak red-tinged desert landscape, and it’s easy to imagine you’re on the surface of Mars. Pulling up to the Barringer Visitor Center at Meteor Crater is like a visit to a space station incongruously perched in the middle of this empty vista. Once you pay your admission and walk through the portal to the crater rim trail, it really is as if you’ve stepped onto the face of the moon. It’s a “wow” moment to first look out over the crater, with a you-have-to-be-here feeling of vastness hard to capture in a photo or video.

In fact, Meteor Crater bears such a close resemblance to the lunar landscape, that the Apollo astronauts all trained here prior to their moon missions in the 1960s, shuffling through the crater rocks and dust in their spacesuits (leading to some conspiracy theorists to claim this was the so-called moon landing seen on TV). Join a guided tour along the crater rim-top trail for an explanation of the 50,000-year history of the crater, and its more than 50-year-long connection with NASA.

Not just a big hole in the ground, Meteor Crater is also home to a privately run attraction that includes the small but interesting Barringer Space Museum. It contains an Apollo 11 space capsule and plenty of actual meteorites, a fun “4-D” theater experience complete with shaking seats, and a newly opened mining-themed café and lounge with Flagstaff-area coffees and snacks.

Lowell Observatory
Photo courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

Visiting Lowell Observatory Is a Must, too

In the hills above Flagstaff, the venerable Lowell Observatory is the cornerstone of the city’s celestial past, present, and future. Founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the observatory is the place from which Pluto was discovered in 1930, and where the first measures of the expanding universe occurred in the 1910s. Visitors can learn about these stories and more with interactive visits during the daytime, including up-close looks at its old telescope. It’s pretty amazing to learn how these astronomers mapped the solar system using what seems now to be primitive technologies.

The Lowell Observatory is still operating as a premier research institute with its innovative Lowell Discovery Telescope charting new discoveries today. But you don’t have to be a professional astronomer to peer at the night skies from Lowell’s prime perch in the hills. The Giovale Open Deck Observatory at Lowell allows visitors to gaze through six different high-powered telescopes to get spectacular magnified views of different aspects of the night sky. Staff on hand can help guide your eyes to planetary features, moon tours, and even distant galaxies and nebulae. For an even deeper dive into outer space, register for a premium access tour with private guided telescope viewing or even a two-hour astrophotography course.

So whether you’re an aspiring professional astronomer or just dark sky-curious, Flagstaff is well worth a visit to explore its otherworldly connections. And after a full night of stargazing, take a quick nap and enjoy the many daytime adventures Flagstaff has to offer as well.

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Bill Fink is a contributor for Thrillist.