The main reservation, a land of dry sandy washes and plains broken here and there by rocky hills or mountains, lies 25 miles west of Tucson on AZ 86. The first white people couldn't believe that humans could live in such wild and parched desert, yet the Tohono O'odham have thrived here for centuries.
Most Tohono O'odham are friendly, but the tribe has shown no interest in tourism. The vast reservation has hardly any visitor facilities and not a single motel, full-service restaurant, or tourist office. To learn about tribal life and history, drop by the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum (520/383-0201, open Mon.-Sat.); from Sells, drive 9 miles south on BIA 19, then turn left 0.3 mile on Fresnal Canyon Road. For desert scenery and astronomy, you'll enjoy the drive up the paved road to world-famous Kitt Peak Observatory, see below. Look for Tohono O'odham crafts—primarily basketry—at a store near Milepost 140 between Tucson and the Kitt Peak turnoff and at Kitt Peak's visitor center.
Large white domes perched atop the 6,875-foot summit enclose instruments that help unravel the mysteries of the universe. You're welcome to drive up and see the observatory and astronomy exhibits. The telescopes come in many sizes and types, including two that use radio waves. Seven cosmic ray telescopes were in the works at press time. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) operates these National Optical Astronomy Observatories for the National Science Foundation.
Step inside to see videos and exhibits that illustrate the nature of light and the workings of telescopes. The visitor center gift shop sells Tohono O'odham basketry at very good prices, as well as astronomy-related books, posters, videos, and T-shirts. Kitt Peak National Observatory is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily (to 3:45 p.m. for the visitor center) except New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Dec. 24-25; $2 suggested donation. During the "monsoon season" of July and August, try to arrive first thing in the morning as thunderstorms often build up later in the day. No smoking on the grounds, please. Check schedules, basic information, and winter road conditions by calling 520/318-8200 (recording) or 520/318-8726 (visitor center) or by checking www.noao.edu/kpno.
The air is cool up here—15-20º colder than Tucson—so a jacket or sweater will usually be needed. Kitt Peak lies 56 miles southwest of Tucson via AZ 86 and AZ 386. The last 12 miles are on a paved and well-graded mountain road, though winter storms can close it for short periods. Visitors need to come prepared with warm clothing, food, and a full tank of gas—there's no restaurant or store here. On the drive up, 1.5 miles before the visitor center, you'll pass the turnoff for a picnic area in an oak forest.
Tours and Visitor Programs
Pick up a map at the visitor center for the self-guided tour of the grounds that passes some of the most impressive telescopes. Visitors may enter viewing galleries of three telescopes and read signs about workings of others. One-hour tours (small fee) present more background and details; they leave the visitor center daily at 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. Stargazing programs take place nightly using either the 20-inch telescope located directly above the entrance to the visitor center or a 16-incher in a nearby dome. You'll need to make a reservation (not later than 3 p.m. of the same day) and pay $39 ($34 students and seniors). The Advanced Observing Program enables one or two amateur astronomers to use telescope equipment with professional guidance; reservations, a $375 fee (no rainchecks!), and $75 per person for room and board will be needed. The Web site www.noao.edu/kpno and visitor center staff have details of these programs, which run September to June.
Before Kitt Peak was built, students and women found it almost impossible to secure time at a major telescope; here they have an equal chance. Astronomers use the equipment free of charge, but must learn to be philosophical, sometimes waiting many months only to be clouded out.
Computers control the instruments; CCD (charge-coupled device) image sensors convert light into digital form and store it on computer tape for later analysis. It's rare for an observer to actually look through a telescope these days, and few instruments even feature an eyepiece. Most telescopes at Kitt Peak have designs to maximize their light-gathering power rather than their magnification—a distant star looks the same size through even the biggest scopes. The McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, however, produces a 30-inch image of the sun by using mirrors in a slanted 500-foot corridor, about 300 feet of which run below ground. You can go inside to peer up and down the long chamber and see the mirrors. This telescope won an architectural award in 1962, a rare accolade for an observatory.
The 2.1-meter (84-inch) telescope nearby was the first large instrument on Kitt Peak for nighttime observing; a viewing gallery and exhibits are inside. Astronomers use the scope to observe distant stars and galaxies in both the visible and infrared spectra. The Mayall 4-meter (158-inch), one of the world's largest telescopes, resides in an 18-story building. An elevator takes you to the 10th-floor observation deck, offering panoramic views of southern Arizona and northern Sonora. Spacewatch (www.lpl.arizona.edu/spacewatch), a group at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, explores the solar system for small objects—including Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids—with 1.8-meter and 0.9-meter telescopes. If you stop at the picnic area, you can get a close look at a giant radio telescope of the Very Long Baseline Array; it's one of 10 spaced between Hawaii and the Caribbean that link to form a single antenna with extremely high resolution; a sign explains how the system works.
Sells, the largest town on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, serves as tribal headquarters. The dependable water here has made the place a popular stop for travelers since prehistoric times. Originally known as Indian Oasis, the settlement took its present name in 1918 to honor Indian Commissioner Cato Sells. The town lies 58 miles southwest of Tucson via AZ 86, 20 miles past the turnoff for Kitt Peak. Offices, schools, and a shopping center (Basha's supermarket/bakery and a post office) line a business loop just south of the main highway.
Tohono O'odham All-Indian Rodeo and Fair
Tohono O'odham cowboys show off their riding and roping skills in the tribe's big annual event, usually held on the first weekend of February. The Tohono O'odham put on a parade, exhibit crafts, serve Indian fry bread, and perform songs and dances. Obtain the dates from the tribal office in Sells (520/383-2588, ext. 5) or the Visitors Bureau in Tucson (520/632-6024 or 800/638-8350).
Before camping or exploring the backcountry, check to see if you'll need a permit from one of the 11 districts of the reservation; the Tohono O'odham Tribe Administration (Sells, AZ 85634, 520/383-2028) can advise you on which district to contact and give you its telephone number. The administration office is in an all-white building with a man-in-the-maze symbol, near schools on the north side of the business loop; enter from the back. Ask about road conditions if you plan to venture off the main highway; dirt roads can become impassable after rains.
On to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument