We stopped at the observatory on our way from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to Saguaro National Park. The observatory has three guided tours. Each tour features a different telescope. Tours begin at 10:00, 11:30 and 1:30 in the visitor center. We arrived too late for the first tour so we took the opportunity to tour of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope on our own while we waited for the 11:30 tour to begin. It was a cloudy day so no one was working at the telescope. This was still an interesting self guided tour as there are very good static displays explaining the science behind the telescope and its construction and operation. Even though there was no one on-site, you could still see how things might work if the sun was out.
Our 11:30 tour of the 2.1 meter telescope started at the visitor center. There is a fee for the tours, a single tour is $7.75 for adults, 13 years and above, children ages 7 to 12 pay $3.00 and children 0 to 6 years can tour for free. The three tour package is a bargain. Adults pay $9.75 and children pay $3.35.
Our docent, Andy, gave an excellent overview of the observatory, its history and mission to the six of us who signed up for the tour. As we walked from the visitor center to the telescope Andy pointed out several of the 22 telescopes and discussed some the projects the researchers are working on. We were also cautioned to be quiet as we toured the grounds. The bulk of the people who work here are sleeping. Once inside the Telescope's dome, Andy used a model to show how it works to explore deep space. You do not have to be an astronomer or a fan of astronomy to appreciate this place and its significance.
When the tour was over there was still time to check out the big Mayhill 4-meter telescope. From the telescope's visitor gallery you get a 360 degree view of the observatory and a good portion of southern Arizona.
The visitor center is operated by the Tohono O'odham tribe as the observatory is on reservation land. This makes for an interesting gift shop, seeing deep space and Native American traditions share shelf space. You can picnic here but there are only a few snacks and drinks available for sale.
This is a not to be missed experience and we highly recommend spending a half to a full day here.
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