As the sun rises and illuminates the jagged Sonoran Desert with rose-colored light, colorful hot-air balloons rise into the sky right along with it. This scene occurs seven days a week from September to May during Tucson Balloon Rides' one-hour sunrise floats. Soaring with the morning's easy wind currents, FAA-certified pilot Kevin Wilbur ferries passengers for 10 to 15 miles at altitudes between 500 and 4,000 feet over the cacti forests of Saguaro National Park West and the shrub-covered flatlands of Avra Valley. While gliding over the Tucson Mountains, he also points out important sites as well as deer, foxes, and coyotes. After a gentle touchdown, Captain Kevin and guests enjoy a champagne toast and brunch. If the voyage inspires anyone to become a hot-air-balloon pilot or a cloud, he can also help them earn their private or commercial pilot license with his training program.
Nearly a half century ago, horticulturist Harrison G. Yocum opened his backyard to the public, displaying a bounteous collection of cacti and palms. After a few relocations, expansions, and the establishment of a nonprofit charter, Tucson Botanical Gardens now spreads 17 distinct plots across more than 5 acres. A delicate rumble hearkens the arrival of the Garden Railway miniature train, which winds through gardens uniquely dedicated to birds, butterflies, wildflowers, and traditional Native American crops. Admission—which is free for garden members and children younger than 3—grants passage to five different tours, and groups of 10 or more can arrange self-guided or docent-led tours at a discounted rate. If visitors awaken their appetites by savoring aromas from the onsite herb garden or by staring at clouds shaped like canned goods, they can dig in at the Gardens' Café, where sun spills through a slatted gazebo onto iron tables loaded with roast-beef baguettes and mexican tortilla soup.
High above the Sonoran desert, on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, the Kitt Peak National Observatory keeps track of the night sky with the world's largest collection of independent telescopes. Throughout the day, guides lead tours of three of the behemoths, including the world's largest solar telescope and a historic gazing dome built in 1973 to broadcast the moon explorers’ games of golf. On those chilly desert evenings, visitors can take part in the nightly observing program and view distant planets and far-off galaxies through 20- and 16-inch telescopes. Reservations are recommended; the program is quite popular and stars tend to shyly hide behind comets around large groups.
Located on the University of Arizona’s campus, the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium opens the eyes of all ages to the scientific wonders of our planet, solar system, and universe. The center houses a mineral collection that dates back to 1892, and now holds more than 26,000 specimens including meteorites and minerals from Arizona, Mexico, and elsewhere in the world. They also feature exhibits such as an exploration of Arizona’s Sky Islands—mountains that rise above the desert basins and shelter myriad plants, birds, and animals. Other exhibits include Mars: Up Close and Personal, which features a scale model of the red planet’s surface.
A small group of explorers stands beneath an open dome of night sky as pinpricks of starlight glitter against the expanse's dark blues and blacks. Each spot of light even seems to look much clearer from here—likely because the group is standing 9,157 feet above sea level. At the Stewart Observatory inside Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter at the mountain's summit, scientists guide visitors through the use of gear such as a 32-inch Schulman telescope—the state's largest public viewing telescope—to probe the far reaches of space to learn about celestial phenomena and take in magnified images of the universe just above.
Days and nights at the center bring a slew of learning experiences to budding astronomers. Accompanied by University of Arizona scientists, Discovery Days lead explorations of topics such as tree rings, hummingbirds, and meteorology, frequently beckoning students into the surrounding outdoors. During nightly SkyNights programming, groups summit Mt. Lemmon for a five-hour evening of dining and stargazing at the observatory. One-on-one time with heavenly bodies comes courtesy of Astronomer Nights, wherein site staffers grant singles or pairs lodging, private access to the Schulman telescope, and the chance to contribute directly to the field upon discovering a supernova, nebula, or handlebar mustache on the man in the moon.
Periodically, the scientific team also expounds on specific topics, such as digital celestial imaging, with the public in multiple-day workshops. Each participant builds on the Stewart Observatory's list of achievements since 1970, which include furthering infrared astronomy, surveying the moon for Apollo lunar landings, and searching for near-Earth asteroids.