If you’re a SoCal resident who does not have the privilege of a yard or open patch of land to use or test your telescope equipment before you make the long journeys to a dark location, then this is the article for you!
I get it, you don’t like to go on long drives, or as a Southern California resident within the Greater Los Angeles or San Diego metro areas, you drive enough hours on your commutes! Others simply do not do well in long drives, and may be turned off by the thought of spending too much time in the car just to go look at stars.
“That’s too far for my taste at the moment, aren’t there spots nearby?!” You ask, and the answer is yes, yes there are! It simply depends on where exactly in the SoCal metro areas you reside in, as you’ll favor certain listed locations over the other. Some of them offer extra things for the beginning enthusiast – but don’t expect the skies to be anything that serious stargazers favor… or “dark enough” for this respective author’s tastes.
Of course, if you ARE willing to go far and enjoy the much darker spots, you can always check out the respective post.
This article is targeting more toward those who live in the inner cities, NOT those who live in outskirt towns, the mountain villages, or desert communities. On average, these drives will last no more than an hour, depending on your respective location and targeted region.
For Los Angeles Area Residents
Griffith Observatory – Los Angeles
While the skies are heavily light polluted under the best conditions, the city icon is still a great place to visit if you’ve never looked through a telescope before or are looking to get started in astronomy as a hobby. The science museum is free to enter, and the only exhibit you need to pay to see is the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. While the monthly star parties on the lawn hosted by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS) and Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers (LASA) are an attraction, what many visitors will find is that the Observatory does public telescope viewing every night it’s open as long as the skies are clear, and that includes the opportunity to view through the historic 12″ Zeiss Refracting Telescope on the roof – though the views through the 11″ SCT’s used on the lawn are just as good!
You should be advised however that the entire city park, including the Observatory closes at 10pm. Park Rangers will be ushering everyone to get out if you try to stay after hours! Because it’s a popular spot that attracts congestion on the Griffith Park roads, and because the telescope lines close at 9:30 pm, you must plan your visit wisely!
AUTHORS NOTE: The interior and telescopes are only open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. It has been this way since June of 2021 and there is no word on when the building will open to the public on more days. Always check with them and plan your visit accordingly.
Mount Wilson – Angeles National Forest
The skies above the historic Mount Wilson Observatory are slightly darker than the Griffith Park counterpart it inspired the creation of, and if you need a higher spot clear of haze to see something bright but low (like a comet or conjunction straddling the horizon), then you definitely want to climb up!
While the location is still active in scientific research, the two historic 60″ and 100″ Telescopes are open to the public via paid reservation, and you’re better off economically taking a group to split the cost. But if you’re not visiting the Observatory, the views alone of the LA Basin are worth the drive, and cannot be matched! There are also plenty of trails you can hike to make it a day trip too!
Garvey Ranch Park – Monterey Park
LAAS does weekly public observing every Wednesday from 7:30-10:00 pm at this park, which is host to an observatory that houses an 8″ refractor. Residents who live near East LA and would like to be introduced to the world of telescopes should definitely check this place out. Click here for LAAS’ info on Garvey. Click here for Monterey Park’s page on Garvey Ranch Park.
Notable Locations Close to or Within Los Angeles
Crystal Lake Recreation Area – Deeper into San Gabriel Mountains and slightly darker than Mount Wilson’s skies. There are plenty of spots to reserve and camp overnight.
Kenneth Hahn State Recreational Area – a large hilly urban park just like Griffith Park, only without the observatory. Lots of open land to find spots to setup and great scenic views.
Leo Carillo State Park – the closest thing to a dark sky for people living near Malibu, Santa Monica, and west LA. It’s closed at night, but you can still park along the side of the road and access the beach via stairs.
Templin Highway – For San Fernando Valley residents, this is the closest thing to a dark sky. This is a large dirt lot used by many astronomy clubs.
For Inland Empire & Orange County Residents
Gavilan Hills / Estelle Mountain
Located south of Lake Matthews and Cajalco Expressway, for Riverside residents who need a slightly higher and darker sky than what we get from the valleys, remote pockets of land that can be found – just make sure you’re not on any private ranches when you pull off the side of the roads. Yours truly used this area to capture and show Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) when it was a morning target in July 2020.
You may need to use some dirt roads that aren’t great for small sedans to find that perfect spot with no porch lights from someone’s ranch. especially if you choose to head towards Estelle Mountain.
Eastern San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains
For residents who live pretty close to these mountain ranges, they do provide some relief from the light pollution, especially if you head up CA-38 and find spots east of Big Bear Lake or in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. While you’ll still deal with a chunk of the sky washed out from the city lights, it’ll still be a noticeable difference! Even residents of Wrightwood, Lytle Creek, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead enjoy a steady sky that isn’t as light polluted while above the inversion layers.
Sleepy Hollow – Carbon Canyon
North Orange County residents who need a quick place to set up, test their equipment, and look at stars should check out the Sleepy Hollow area off CA-143 (Carbon Canyon Rd). The ideal location here will be at the top of Valley Springs Rd. It’s still heavily light polluted, but much better than if you stayed in Chino or Yorba Linda.
Ortega Oaks – El Cariso
South Orange County residents can always try to use the beaches as a location, but the marine layer can be a problem, and the need to get higher arises. CA-74 will get you into the Santa Ana Mountains as high as 2,600 feet, and offer slightly darker skies. Ortega Oaks will offer many campgrounds near the small community of El Cariso.
For San Diego Metro Residents
Palomar Mountain – Northeast County
Especially for those who live in the northern part of the San Diego Metro like Escondido, this historic Observatory is open for tours, where they show you the 200″ Hale Telescope. While the Observatory location is closed off to the public at night, the state park is a great spot for camping, and the sky above will look much nicer than the cities.
Julian – East County
Julian, having a slightly darker sky than Palomar, is an hours drive for northern San Diego residents on average, and is known for its dark sky community and stargazing events, especially the Julian Starfest every August.
Just a little further down the road and you can be in Anza-Borrego State Park, where you’ll find the darkest skies in the county!
Mount Laguna and Pine Valley – East County
For those deep in San Diego, this area is the closest you will find for a dark sky. It’s less than an hour on average, and offers all the necessities for stargazing while staying pretty close to civilization. Mount Laguna will also offer many scenic trails for day hiking before you settle down and set up your telescope!
Notable Spots Within San Diego
Torrey Pines Natural State Reserve – you’re safe as long as you’re wary of the tide levels!
Balboa Park – The first Wednesday of each month features the “Stars of the Park” event hosted by the San Diego Astronomy Association at the Fleet Science Center, which also contains a planetarium show.
Cowles Mountain – contains popular trails and offers a slightly less air polluted sky.