2017 Southern Arizona & Astronomy

Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA
Amtrack route from Seattle to Tucson via LA

The point of this 18-day trip is to join my astronomy buddies in southern Arizona for a week of observing the night sky at a really dark site about an hour southeast of Tucson, where a friend has a ranch and observatory. I also want to spend a few days in Tucson to explore the place, since I have not visited this area before.

I travel by fast passenger ferry between my home in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and Seattle, Washington, USA; stay overnight in Seattle; and take the Amtrak train to Tucson through Los Angeles. I return home the same way. This is slow travel, since it takes me three days each way between home and Arizona. This is my first time experiencing overnight train travel.

My full itinerary is listed below in my travelogue. Feel free to click on what location interests you, however if you click on the top-most locale, there are links at the bottom of each page (just above the Comments section) to take you to the next locale – from beginning to end. This is the best way to explore the whole trip as it happened, day by day.

If you simply want to experience the trip visually, by all means jump straight to my online photos to choose whatever locale interests you – Washington, Oregon, California and Arizona, or view a slideshow of the whole trip.


How it started

Although I have travelled the world quite extensively, I have yet to experience the United States to any great extent. This invitation from my friend who has a hobby ranch and observatory in southeast Arizona presented an opportunity to see southern Arizona and experience the ecology, history and culture of the southwestern USA. Taking the train instead of flying is an ideal way to experience some of the points in-between the final destinations – in this case the states of Washington, Oregon and California along the train route.

I considered flying to Phoenix or Tucson, which would have been considerably less expensive than the train (when a sleeper car is involved), and of course flying only takes a few hours versus a few days on the train. I also considered driving down, since my destination is served by good Interstate freeways the whole way. Driving costs about the same as the train and would lengthen the trip by several days, since it is such a long distance (some 3,000 kilometres or 2,000 miles each way) with overnight rest stops along the way.

How it evolved

Looking into my Roomette in the sleeper car
Looking into my Roomette in the sleeper car

Although some of my astronomy buddies flew down, stayed the eight days at our friend’s ranch and observatory, and then flew straight back home, I wanted to see more of southern Arizona. I also wanted to avoid the hassles of flying or driving, so travelling by train strongly appealed to me.

Taking Amtrak’s trains to Tucson involves getting to Seattle from my home in Victoria, Canada, and overnighting in Seattle both ways, since the train and fast ferry I needed to use do not connect very well. This adds time and expense to the trip, but the appeal of slow travel was strong, so I booked the train tickets.

Having extra time in southern Arizona was also important to me, because this was an escape from the winter weather at home, and also because there is lots to see and do in the Tucson area. I decided to stay in Tucson for five extra days, and use it as a hub to explore the area. This all added up to 18 days – 6 days travel time, 5 days in Tucson on my own, and 7 days with my astronomy buddies.


My friend’s offer included free accommodation for the week while my astronomy buddies and I were at his ranch, providing we make our own meals, and arrange for our own local transportation with rental cars. Obviously, we also have to get ourselves from our homes to southern Arizona at our expense.

Overall, the trip cost me a very reasonable CD$220/day including train fare, spending money, entrance fees, car rental and gas, staying two nights in Seattle, five nights in a Tucson hotel, and the ferry fare between Seattle and Victoria. I am paying with Canadian dollars with the US$ costing me about CD$1.35.

So was it worth it?

This was a very rewarding trip, both from the astronomy angle, and experiencing overnight train travel for the first time. Amtrak provides a very nice travel experience, especially when traveling in a sleeping car, since you qualify for extra perks like meals in the dining care and Parlour Car included, VIP treatment in the Metropolitan Lounges in the Los Angeles and Portland stations, and bed making and coffee, water and snack service in each sleeping car. A wonderful bonus is not having to tolerate the intrusive security measures in place at airports and with airline travel. Train travel checkin consists of showing your ticket to ensure you get on the right train and car. You can travel with essentially as much luggage as you wish at no extra charge.

Fisheye view of the southern night sky from Dragoon Mountains Ranch
Fisheye view of the southern night sky from Dragoon Mountains Ranch

Of course, observing the night sky from a very dark part of North America is exceedingly rewarding for an amateur astronomer such as myself, and to be able to experience this with my observing buddies was wonderful. I didn’t have to lug any heavy astronomy gear down with me, since my friend’s observatory is so well equipped. All I took with me was a tripod and the camera gear I normally travel with. I’ll likely return next year if my friend extends the offer again!