In an attempt to escape the searing southwest heat, we headed north to Flagstaff, postponing our visit to Joshua Tree National Park for another time. When we planned this trip earlier this year, we started by checking the average daily temperatures for September at each park. We could not have anticipated the record heat at Saguaro and Joshua Tree, with temperatures 10-12 degrees above average. So rather than drive from one hell hole to another, we decided to ditch the desert and make our way to the mountains.
Upon arriving at Flagstaff, we were delighted to experience temperatures in the low 80s. Our basecamp was Greer’s Pine Shadows RV Park, a 60-year-old family-run park nestled beneath towering Ponderosa pines. After setting up, we settled in for cocktails and conversation with Jon’s mom. Then we enjoyed a camp-style supper of grilled smoked kielbasa sausages and ranch-style baked beans. After dinner, we went for a walk around the park to do some stargazing.
Known for its high elevation, mountainous views, and dark sky, Flagstaff was officially incorporated in 1882, and within 12 years, the Lowell Observatory was built. Since its creation in 1894, the Lowell observatory has been home to many famous astronomical discoveries, including the first sighting of dwarf planet Pluto.
In 1958, Flagstaff enacted the world’s first lighting ordinances that focused on limiting searchlights. Continuing this trend, the city announced new lighting codes in 1989 which restricted the amount of permissible outdoor light per acre in the city itself and in greater Coconino County. Then, in 2001, Flagstaff became the world’s first city to be recognized as dark sky friendly by the International Dark Sky Association.
Generally, outdoor lights must be fully shielded, which means minimal backlight and no uplight. The city’s lighting regulations divide the area into three zones, with Zone 1 (generally around the Lowell Observatory and the US Naval Observatory) having the most stringent rules, and Zone 3, while still remaining dark sky friendly, having some leeway in terms of shielding and lumen output. Our campsite was located in Zone 3, so we were able to light our flagpole with a small LED bulb.
Flagstaff’s success at preserving the clarity of the night sky was immediately obvious to us on our late-night walk. The stars were absolutely brilliant!