Explore Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park in Safford

Discovery Park's shuttlecraft Polaris takes 'tours' to the planets

When I would think of Safford, the first thing that would come to mind is a small town in southeast Arizona, the center of Arizona’s patchwork of agricultural acreage. Now, after a visit last month to the Graham County seat, other images will appear: Safford — as the site of the world’s largest binocular telescope atop nearby Mount Graham, and as the location of Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park campus.

Discovery Park is several educational attractions in one. It’s more than just a community college campus, it’s the official visitor center for University of Arizona’s Mount Graham International Observatory, where travelers can embark for day-long tours to the top Mount Graham to view three world class telescopes: the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter (Radio) Telescope of the Arizona Radio Observatory, and the Large Binocular Telescope. The latter is reported to be the largest binocular telescope in the world.  Through advance reservations, visitors may book a 40-mile road trip up to the top of 10,720-feet high Mount Graham. They are treated to a sack lunch along with a tour of each of the telescope facilities. Trips are arranged through Discovery Park from May through October and spaces are limited, so those interested may want to call well ahead of time to reserve space for May 2013.

Old butter churn, paddle and mold: Discovery Park's also a temporary host for Graham County history

Discovery Park visitor center is also a historical museum. Portions of the Graham County Historical Society’s museum exhibit, originally housed in an aging school building in neighboring Thatcher, have been moved into the galleries at Discovery Park until the Historical Society can find a new home. Now Discovery Park visitors also will be able to get a glimpse into Graham County history. Here you can view artifacts, farm tools, cooking utensils and historic documents from the mid- and late19th century pioneers.

Learn about light and sound in Discovery Park's science gallery

And the Discovery Park visitor’s center also is a space science center, so it’s an especially great place to bring the kids. Families can learn about the planets, the Sun, and light and sound waves of space. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to “hear” space. The history of astronomy and contributions by important innovators of planetary, earth and physical sciences are described in the galleries. If you plan your visit on a clear Saturday evening, you’ll be able view the night sky through Governor Aker Observatory’s Tinsley 20” telescope.

A highlight of our visit to Discovery Park’s visitor center was the Space Shuttle Polaris, a flight motion simulator vehicle, which takes passengers on a 10-minute jostling, jolting tour of all the planets, lifting off from the top of Mount Graham and the Pinaleno Mountains. It’s reminiscent of Disney’s Star Tours ride attraction, with elevators, doors, long drops and fast swoops. Even though you’re only watching an on-screen video for the ride, you may want to hang on to the seat — some of those visual effects can be knuckle-whitening!

Walk through riparian wetland areas - part of Nature's Hideaway at Discovery Park

After my flight simulator ride, it was time to get a little fresh air. So, while I regained my composure, I learned that this multipurpose venue continues beyond the visitor center doors. Discovery Park is also a wildlife preserve. The riparian wetland area below the visitor center, called Nature’s Hideaway, includes several desert trails and walkways. During our visit, summer monsoon rains were preparing to refill the low-lying ponds, which attract migrating ducks and other waterfowl. Our visitor center host provided us with some snack crackers for Howard. (The duck, of course.) We walked down the sloping driveway to the grassy, reedy ponds looking for Howard. We didn’t see any ducks that afternoon, but we did find an excellent environment for watching wildlife.

It's snack time for Discovery Park's box turtle and tortoise

Just as we were leaving, we passed a miniature locomotive engine, the Discovery Park Express and its cars now sitting idle beyond a chain-linked fence. We were told that steep insurance costs now prevent the park from offering train rides. We hope — through private funding, grants or with a ‘Friends’ fundraising group — this train may once again may be chugging down Discovery Park’s narrow gauge track.

Eastern Arizona College’s Discovery Park campus, located at 1651 Discovery Park Blvd, is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (no shuttle rides after 4:00 p.m.) and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Call 928-428-6260 for tours, special event reservations and more information.

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