As familiar backdrops for Hollywood thrillers, dramatic landmarks on the horizon and stargazers par excellence, astronomical observatories rule. The United States of America has some of the very best in the world, with superb public access at most. Check out some of our favorites.
OK, so this is a bit of a cheat, since our first observatory is actually in Puerto Rico. Still, as an an unincorporated territory of the United States, it makes the cut. Plus, how can we deny the wonder that is the Arecibo Observatory? Star of the silver screen, most notably in GoldenEye and Contact, the observatory’s immense, world record 305 m radio telescope is an absolute marvel. The jungle scenery and nearby city of Arecibo are pretty cool too.
For dramatic views of the Los Angeles Basin and Pacific Ocean, all from a superb perch on Mount Hollywood and Griffith Park, the Griffith Observatory is phenomenal. Countless films, music videos and popular television shows have been shot here, with perhaps none more notable than James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause.
The Diablo mountain range outside of San Jose is a worthwhile tourist attraction in and of itself. Throw in the scenic peak of Mount Hamilton and the Lick Observatory however, and you have one terrific destination. The University of California astronomical observatory has made several vital discoveries over the decades.
Davis Mountains State Park in West Texas is home to some of the most desolate and rugged beauty in the Lone Star State. Fort Davis National Historic Site is a wonderful tourist attraction in the area. The McDonald Observatory on Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes is the real star of the show however, with daily tours that allow visitors to gaze at the sky through some massive telescopes.
A distinctive National Historic Monument in the United States, thanks in no small part to the awesome Clark Telescope Dome on Mars Hill, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona is a gem. The superb facility has plans to construct a new giant telescope in nearby Coconino National Forest in partnership with the Discovery Channel.
The summit of inactive volcano Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii offers scenery that is almost unimaginable and even alien in nature. If you measure Mauna Kea’s peak from the volcano’s floor on the Pacific Ocean, it ranks above Mount Everest, most incredibly, at 10,203 m. The awesome observatory at the summit boasts some fantastic features, namely the fact that it soars above 40% of the planet’s atmosphere and over 90% of our total water vapor.
With minimal light pollution in low population density Hawaii, the starry scenery Mauna Kea Observatory offers is about the best astronomers have on Earth. Native Hawaiians and conservation groups have been at legal odds with the U.S. military and several scientific institutes about further development on Mauna Kea in recent years.
Kitt Peak National Observatory
The barren confines of the Sonoran Desert provide astronomers with another excellent base of study. The desert covers a large part of California, Arizona and Mexico and features a diverse ecology. Barren then, is merely a surface observation. Kitt Peak of the Quinlan Mountains, home to the Tohono O’odham aboriginal tribe, contains no less than 23 telescopes.
The California Institute of Technology operates one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Diego County. The Palomar Observatory, though a vital active research facility, offers wonderful daily tours.
The self-proclaimed “birthplace of modern astrophysics” is not only a marvel of science but aesthetically beautiful as well. The astronomical observatory managed by the University of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin has been a landmark on Lake Geneva since the late 19th century.