Rides & Destinations: Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona

A thrilling ride, the climb to Kitt Peak National Observatory is filled with twisties, cactus and abundant wildlife. Just watch out for jaguars.

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by Joe Berk

What: Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Admission is free.
How to Get There: Kitt Peak is at the end of State Route 386 on the Tohono O’odham Nation, approximately 52 miles southwest from Tucson. Take SR 86 from Tucson to the SR 386 junction, turn left, and keep going.
Best Kept Secret: There are jaguars in this area (the actual cats, not the cars). No kidding.
Avoid: Livestock and rocks. Livestock sometimes wanders onto the roads leading to Kitt Peak, and rocks can fall from the cliffs leading up to the observatory. Check the weather before starting. The Sonoran Desert can be brutally hot in the summer, and at 7,000 feet, Kitt Peak can be brutally cold in the winter.
More Photos
More Info:noao.edu/kpno

Kitt Peak National Observatory is perched high above the Sonoran Desert floor on a 6,900-foot ridge in southwestern Arizona’s Quinlan Mountains, roughly 52 miles southwest of Tucson. Kitt Peak is one of the world’s great observatories, and much of what it does could be the plot of a good science fiction movie. It is home to 22 telescopes for a consortium of universities and others who study the heavens. Kitt Peak National Observatory has the largest and most diverse collection of telescopes in the northern hemisphere. In addition to its nighttime astronomy activities, Kitt Peak is one of the world’s premier locations for daytime observation and study of the sun. Part of the Kitt Peak mission is to scan the heavens for asteroids and predict the likelihood of an Earth impact (like I said, it has all the makings of a great sci-fi movie). Founded in 1958, Kitt Peak National Observatory is one of three observatories forming the National Optical Astronomy Observatory group (the other two are on Sacramento Peak in New Mexico and Cerro Tololo in Chile).

No Kitt Peak discussion would be complete without reference to the Tohono O’odham Nation, the region’s history, and the taller Baboquivari Peak to the south (see top photo). The Tohono O’odham are the Native Americans who own and lease the land to Kitt Peak National Observatory. The first written reference to this area comes to us from Padre Kino, a Jesuit missionary who explored and established missions in this region starting in 1699. The Spanish military came, too; Tohono O’odham legend has it that when the soldiers tried to dig their way into Baboquivari Peak (a holy place to the Tohono O’odham, where they believe their spiritual creator lives) the earth swallowed them whole. U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered creation of the San Xavier Indian Reservation in this area in 1874; Chester A. Arthur created the Gila Bend Reservation in 1882. 1916 saw the creation of a third reservation with nearby Indian Oasis as its center (the town is now called Sells; it is the current seat of the Tohono O’odham Nation). In 1986 the three reservations became one along with official recognition of the Tohono O’odham name (Native Americans of this area were formerly known as Papago Indians). Kitt Peak was christened by Arizona surveyor George Roskruge in honor of his sister Phillippa Kitt in 1893 (it was initially misnamed Kit’s Peak, but the spelling was corrected in 1930).

Getting there is a grand part of any visit to Kitt Peak. Kitt Peak lies just more than 50 miles from Tucson, but even from Tucson, the observatory’s distinctive silver domes are clearly visible and unmistakable. The Sonoran Desert and Kitt Peak’s Quinlan Mountains offer atmospheric clarity, a relatively remote location, and freedom from light pollution, making for ideal observatory conditions.

From Tucson, it’s roughly 40 miles southwest on SR 86 to the SR 386 junction, and after a left turn onto 386 it’s a magnificent 12-mile climb to the top, complete with twisties, turnouts and magnificent vistas of the desert floor below. Think clear air, a deep green desert punctuated by saguaro cactus, brilliantly blue skies and abundant wildlife (the area has mountain lions, bobcats, javelina, coyotes, bear, deer, snakes and more), and you’ll have a good idea of what this thrilling motorcycle destination is. — Joe Berk

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