Best Stargazing Sites in Southern California

Because of the urban sprawl in Southern California, finding a good stargazing site is becoming a hard task. Even the locations in the local mountains are too light polluted nowadays, at least for my taste. To find what I feel is a suitable dark sky, that can mean a 2 hour drive on average; but no matter where you go, there will always be some semblance of distant glows from the cities.

What about places like Death Valley or the Sierra Nevada Mountains? Those locations aren’t in Southern California! We are talking about locations between the 35th parallel (the geographic latitude boundary) and the US/Mexico Border.

The first few listed sites have been personally observed at on numerous occasions by yours truly.

The rest  are well known popular sites that may or may not offer something for the casual inexperienced observer. These are all locations that are a Class 4 on the Bortle Scale or darker. Learn more about this criteria here. If a site you know is not listed, chances are it’s brighter than a Class 4!


Sites Personally Observed At

Cottonwood Spring Campground
Joshua Tree National Park, Riverside County

DSC_0299

Bortle Scale: 3
Landscape: High Desert
Elevation: ~3,000 ft
Public or Private: Public – National Park
Amenities: Bathroom Facilities, Picnic Tables, Fire Pits
Cell Service: None

Joshua Tree National Park, being designated an International Dark Sky Park by IDA, is often the first name dropped when Southern California residents discuss locations to see the stars. However, light pollution from the Coachella Valley cities washes out a portion of the sky. Of all the campgrounds in the park, Cottonwood Spring is the darkest; so if you want a remote location with a small amount of light pollution, this is the place to go. The drive is less than two hours for most residents in the Inland Empire.

For this reason, plus with the comforts of bathrooms, Orion Bear Astronomy usually organizes public star parties at this location.

5-3 site
Telescopes set up on the campground, 5/3/2019
8-2 site
Our Star Party Site 8/2/2019. Looking South West.

It is a popular camping destination that can fill up on weekends. If you want to do any imaging or serious observing from this location, it’s recommended you visit on a weeknight when there is less people . The individual and group sites can be reserved for $20/night ($40 for group), which is necessary if you are visiting over the weekend or during peak camping season (the cooler months).


Amboy Crater
San Bernardino County

img_1690.jpg

Bortle Scale: 2
Landscape:  Low Desert
Elevation: ~800 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: pit toilets and park tables
Cell Service: Spotty

Located near the historic Route 66 town of Amboy, this location has almost no light pollution. The distant glows from 29 Palms and even Las Vegas are still apparent, but they do not affect your dark sky. On good clear nights, the Summer Milky Way can cast faint shadows on white surfaces!

The parking lot is flat and level, with plenty of room to set up. Usually, I have had nights where I have the entire night to myself, but I have had exceptions where plenty of people are there to backpack or simply park their RV’s.

6-4-las-vegas.jpg

While there is almost no light pollution, the outdoor street lights from the town (1.5 miles NE) and passing trains can sometimes shine a glare and affect your dark adaptation – just don’t stare in that direction, though if you don’t mind hauling your gear a little, you can easily find a “suite spot” near the bathrooms that can shield you from the town’s glare.

While the place can get hot during the summer, it can also get pretty windy, and I only go up here if I know there won’t be too much of it.


Rice – Midland Rd, Rice, CA
San Bernardino County

3-27-20 mw1

Bortle Scale: 1.5 – 2
Landscape:  Low Desert
Elevation: ~800 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: none
Cell Service: Spotty

Located along CA-62 about 36 miles west of Parker, AZ/ 70 miles east of 29 Palms, aside from a few remaining foundations, there is NOTHING out here! In terms of light pollution, the glows from Parker/Blythe and 29 Palms are there but they’re barely noticeable.

The sky above is magnificent, and through an 8″ telescope you can glimpse the spiral arms of M51, M42 shows a lot of nebula structure, M13 looks just like its pictures with your own two eyes!

Only come here prepared if you are feeling adventurous, as there are no amenities and you’re a ways from any services. There are plenty of spots around the ruins with flat surfaces to set up, but the only downside is you will deal with glares from passing cars and trucks.

While you can take Midland Rd  (the dirt road that runs south) and get away from the highway, the conditions of that road always vary, and you don’t want your vehicle to get stuck in sand! Just try to stay on the solid portions as much as possible. If you set up ON the dirt road, just always be courteous and leave a lane open in the event of a passing car, which may never happen but I have encountered one myself.


Popular or Recommended Sites

Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station (GMARS)
Landers, San Bernardino County

gmars

Bortle Scale: 4
Landscape: High Desert
Elevation: ~ 3,000 ft
Public or Private: Private – open during star parties
Amenities: AC outlets, two houses w/ bathrooms, concrete pads
Cell Service: Varies w/ service provider according to GMARS’ website

GMARS is a respected popular site that I often get asked about. What the site lacks in a truly dark sky makes up for in amenities, which are free to use during star parties, with some rules of course!

It is the official dark site location for the Riverside Astronomical Society (RAS), who organize monthly star parties around new moon. The site is open to the public when RAS hosts its star parties, which includes a a 22″ Dobsonian on site, and of course, members who bring their own telescope equipment will allow you to look through their telescopes. 

Check out RAS’ GMARS website for more info. You don’t need to be an RAS member to attend their star parties, but when it isn’t open for such events, it’s private land.

Steve Kufeld Astronomical Site (SKAS)
Lockwood Valley, Ventura County

Lockwood star party.jpg

Bortle Scale: 4
Landscape: Mountain
Elevation: 4,839 ft.
Public or Private: Private – LAAS members only!
Amenities: AC outlets, pads, bathrooms, heated trailer
Cell Service: Spotty as reported by LAAS members.

This is the dark sky observing site for the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS), located 90 miles NW of the City of L.A., near Mt. Pinos and Frazier Park. The site is equipped with two large Newtonian reflectors, one a 16″ and the other a 31″. nicknamed the Clyde-O-Scope in honor of Clyde Tombaugh.

While outreach events do happen regularly, this is a private location maintained by LAAS members, and as such is not open to the general public during their dark sky parties. Only LAAS members and up to two guests per member are permitted to observe at the site!

Check out LAAS’ website, and the page about the location for more information!

Hole In the Wall Campground
Mojave National Preserve, San Bernardino County

HoleInTheWallCampground_01

Bortle Scale: 2
Landscape: High Desert
Elevation: 4,400 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: Pit Toilets, Fire Rings, Picnic Tables,
Cell Service: Yes (report)

Mojave National Preserve is your best chance in Southern California to see a truly dark sky with little to no light domes. It’s located in a wide “corridor of darkness” surrounded by Vegas the north, Barstow and Victorville to the west, Colorado River towns to the east,  29 Palms and even Blythe to the south.

The Hole In the Wall Campground is the most popular campground in the preserve, being a Bortle 2 sky means it’ll be as dark as you’ll get in SoCal! While it costs $12 to camp here, the place is first come first serve and doesn’t do reservations – keep that in mind if you plan on going during weekends or holidays.

Red Rock Canyon State Park
Kern County

3762965588_334fc7271f_b.jpg

Bortle Scale: 3
Landscape: High Desert
Elevation: 2,400 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: Pit Toilets, Water, fire rings, picnic tables
Cell Service: Spotty (tripadvisor)

Located just above the 35th parallel along CA-14, this is within 2 hours for most L.A. metro residents, and has great dark skies compared to locations further south along the route through the Mojave Desert.

The day use parking lot closes at sunset, but overnight campsites are available for $25/night. It is a popular camping destination which can fill up on weekends during the spring and fall months, but it is first come first serve (no reservation system). But if you’re an L.A. resident who doesn’t want to go far east for a darker sky, Red Rock Canyon is the place to start with.

Check out their website for more info. 

Blair Valley, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
San Diego County

Blair-Valley-Anza-Borrego.jpg

Bortle Scale:34
Landscape: High Desert
Elevation: 2,500 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: Pit Toilet
Cell Service: Yes (campendium)

For San Diego County residents, Blair Valley in Anza-Borrego State Park is the recommended spot to head towards. When the cities along the coast are covered by the marine layer, it actually makes the skies to the east above Blair Valley and the surrounding desert land quite dark! The rest of the time, there’s light domes from almost any direction but the sky above is still nice!

The only downside is that the campground doesn’t have paved roads to access, and may require vehicles with four wheel drive to get there. There is a pit toilet near the mile 22 marker along S2. This is the case for many sites in the park, so only travel to this park if you’re prepared with the amenities you need, especially enough water!

Milpitas Wash
Imperial County

Milpitas-Wash-Crop-1080x415.jpg

Bortle Scale: 2 
Landscape: Low Desert
Elevation: ~ 250 ft.
Public or Private: Public
Amenities: None
Cell Service: Yes (cawild)

Sure, there’s plenty of decent spots along the Salton Sea shores in Imperial County to set up, but if you’re a serious stargazer, you want to get away from all the villages near the Salton Sea and further south.

Along CA-78, between Brawley and Blythe, is a location called Milpitas Wash. While there’s no campgrounds or roads of any sorts, even a small car can find an accessible spot off the main highway to set up. You’ll need to bring everything you need besides telescope equipment: food, water, etc. and only go to this site if you have a thirst for a little adventure.

The best sites to look at stars are always the most rewarding to those who make the effort.

Aside from some small pockets in the hills above Malibu or near Lancaster/Palmdale, Los Angeles County doesn’t have very many places I would recommend for serious stargazing – it’s way too populated and there’s too much light pollution!

Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Kern Counties on the other hand have much bigger “dark pockets” in the mountains between the coastal and central valley cities, plus the Mojave Desert to the east in Kern County.

I hope this article helps, and feel free to leave a comment if you’re a So Cal resident and can think of a site that should be mentioned here.

Support Your Neighborhood Astronomers!

You know where mainstream media sites get their information? From people like us! Support Your Neighborhood Astronomers! Everything is free, but donations help keep the website alive and go towards outreach events!

$1.00

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s