The best places to stargaze in Southern California beat out the competition due to the region’s vast desert expanses and clear night sky. Once you escape the hovering smog of urban areas like Los Angeles and San Diego, the stars splash across the SoCal night sky in vivid clusters. Stargazing in the desert surpasses most other locations due to its isolation and warm weather. You can find the perfect spots to observe these celestial specks in deserted towns, vacation areas and remote campsites.
The stars and the moon take over for city lights in the desert. Instead of glaring lights, a bright glow envelopes the chaparral. Bring a picnic blanket and some snacks, a guide book and a flashlight – or pack for a night of camping. Dress for a cold night. Even though the sun provides plenty of daytime heat, the desert can drop to frigid temperatures once the sun goes down. Feeling like a fun photo shoot? Live out your Phoebe Bridgers dreams in her signature skeleton costume while you play “Punisher” in the background.
California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is accessed through Borrego Springs, which happens to be one of the few stargazing sites in the Low Desert. They have lighting regulations in place to ensure the nighttime atmosphere is undisturbed. Unlike many other California cities, the minimal light pollution allows a beautiful view of the stars. Hungry? Looking for a place to stay for the night that isn’t a tent? Restaurants and lodging are available nearby. If you prefer to camp out, you can pitch a tent at the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, which hosts a vast amount of campgrounds with amenities like showers and restrooms.
Concrete pads for scopes mounted on tripods scatter the shoreline for more avid stargazers. It’s a good distance away from other cities, so the sky remains relatively unpolluted by urban light. If you need more than the stars to visit this – quite frankly – barren wasteland, check out the multitude of activities like art exhibits, a banana museum and a beach made of fish remains. Though camping is available between October and May at the Salton Sea State Recreation Area, you don’t have to set up camp to check out the starry sky.
Joshua Tree National Park
Just two hours away from downtown Los Angeles, Joshua Tree crosses most people’s minds when they think of stargazing in Southern California. Around half of the National Park is located in the Low Desert, and it’s the best half for stargazing. You can easily spot constellations and even a shooting star or two. Stake out a nice campsite at the Cottonwood Campground, but make sure to get there early as the sites are claimed on a first-come-first-served basis. Though most prefer Cottonwood, you can find eight other locations to pitch a tent.
Midland Ghost Town
Live out your Wild West stargazing dream in Midland Ghost Town, an abandoned town in the desert. Only foundations and desert shrubs remain. Even the railroad has been torn from the town. Once a thriving town of commerce, Midland shut down in the 60s shortly after the nearby mine closed. The Colorado River Astronomy Club meets here for the dark skies. The only sign of city light comes from Blythe, only a 22-mile drive. Midland also has concrete and asphalt pads for scopes, along with ample campsites for you to sleep under the stars or in a tent, free of charge. Be sure to bring anything you might need, given that the nearest town is Blythe.
Ever heard of the Mojave National Preserve? Any outdoorsy Californian has. It’s a popular spot for photographers. The Kelso Dunes are formed from sand blown in from the Mojave River’s basin. Visitors named them “singing dunes” for the sound the sand makes when your footfalls on the crest cause little avalanches, which in turn make echoing sounds. Unfortunately, the wind may damage your expensive stargazing gear, so bring along some cheap binoculars for panoramic night sky views. If the blowing sand daunts you, stay by the road. The dunes block out light from nearby cities, like Las Vegas, the den of neon lights. You’ll find campsites near the road to set up your night of finding constellations. You can reach this area of the Mojave from downtown Los Angeles in a couple hundred miles.
Just outside of San Diego sits the town of Julian, best known for its delicious apples and apple-related desserts. It also happens to be one of the premier locations to see the Milky Way in California. Book an hourlong sky tour on the rooftop of Julian’s Observer’s Inn, a quaint bed-and-breakfast catering to novice and advanced astronomers. They provide top-notch telescopes to view star clusters and nebulae. Oh, and did we mention that the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) awarded Julian a spot in the International Dark Sky Community, one of 30 such designations and only the second in California?
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