Stargazing in Sedona

When the sun goes down and Sedona's red rocks are blanketed by darkness, it's possible to watch a heavenly light show--one that is rarely seen in cities where bright lights drown out the limpid night sky.

"The Sedona area has some of the best viewing conditions in the state of Arizona," says Clifford Ochser, founder and president of Evening Sky Tours, which offers personalized guided tours of the heavens. Ochser, the former director of development at the Lowell Observatory and a 25-year Arizona resident, was instrumental in helping the observatory build the Discovery Channel research telescope in Happy Jack, Arizona.

Now Ochser and his staff of amateur astronomers decipher the heavens for curious star gazers like me. On a night in November I joined an Evening Sky Tour, eager to learn more about Sedona's diamond-studded sky.

About five miles outside of the city limits, I became acquainted with heavenly bodies I had heard of but never seen. It was a fascinating crash course.

The evening began with a naked-eye walkthrough of the heavens. Looking up at billions of stars it's easy to get lost. But with a little direction, the sky becomes navigable; there are signposts of brilliant stars in all directions. Three of the brightest stars the night I was looking formed a large triangle: Vega in the constellation Lyra, Deneb in the constellation Cygnus, and Altair in the constellation Aquila.

As we sat on canvas chairs bundled in blankets, David Sanders, our guide, used a laser pointer to outline stars, constellations and galaxies - some familiar like the belt of Orion; others less well known like Cassiopeia, just above comet Holmes.

After a 360-degree overview, we looked through a large custom-built, state-of-the-art telescope to see the firmament up close. We peered at binary stars, the planet Mars, interstellar gas clouds, the galaxy Andromeda, the Pleiades cluster and the Orion nebula where new stars are born. We even saw the remains of a comet.

At the end of the tour, we left with a rudimentary orientation and a much greater appreciation for the beauty and bounty of Sedona's night sky.

Some Sedona resorts also offer nights of stargazing in their courtyards. There are occasional community-wide celebrations of the heavens, and the Institute of Ecotourism offers a weekly celestial tour on Monday nights.

What makes Sedona such a magical place to explore the mysteries of the night sky?

Sedona's skies are free of most of the light pollution that blocks stargazing in large cities, Sedona's elevation decreases the air space between viewers and space, Sedona's haze-free, cloud-free skies make stargazing possible most nights of the year, and The transparency of the desert air which, because it is free of humidity, increases visibility.