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Best Star Gazing Spots in California

One of the most amazing things about going camping is to be able to look at the night sky away from all the “light pollution” in the city. You can get out in nature and enjoy wilderness or forests or hiking on interesting places by day, and at night, you get to watch the stars. Whether you’re a fan of “stargazing” or not, the difference in the night sky when you really get out of town is quite miraculous. 


These days lots and lots of satellites orbit earth but nonetheless, there are stars out there and they are abundant. Here are some of our favorite places in California to camp and look at the stars. We’ll separate these into two prime stargazing regions in Southern California. Of course, there are many more and Northern California has its share of great stargazing spots too. Just too many to cover in one blog.



1) The High Desert:


The High Desert is an informal designation, with non-discrete boundaries, applied to areas of the Mojave Desert in southern California that are generally between 2,000 feet (610 m) and 4,000 feet (1,200 m) in elevation, and located just north of the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and Little San Bernardino Mountains. 

Here are some great places for watching those heavenly bodies, including one site that's the darkest ever.


Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County

This spot is an easy jaunt from Southern California's crowded urban core, and it's easy to get a little way off from the campground's gas lanterns and take in some reasonably dark sky. The park's day use area, across Route 14 from the campground, closes at sunset, but campsites (with nearby pit toilets and potable water) run $25 a night at this writing. Get here before the entire southern horizon fills up with wind turbine warning lights.


Afton Canyon, San Bernardino County

A secluded BLM campground near one of the few stretches of the Mojave River that has year-round water, Afton Canyon is a good place in the California desert from which to see faraway stars. On weekends this campsite, about 40 miles from downtown Barstow (four of those miles on good dirt road) can get a little busy, as it's along the popular ORV route, the Mojave Road. But on school nights, you may well find yourself here alone, with just the stars and bighorn sheep and frequent freight trains to keep you company.


Amboy Crater, San Bernardino County

A great spot with almost no amenities whatsoever, this BLM scenic area off old Route 66 has a few things to recommend it nonetheless. It's got a parking lot where larger scopes can be set up securely -- though keep in mind the occasional ferocious winds. It's got a pit toilet. It's about equally difficult to get there from Barstow, Joshua Tree, and Needles. There's no camping here, so overnighters will have to either find dispersed sites on the BLM's eight trillion acres of surrounding land, or grab a room 80 miles west in Barstow. Some supplies and a hot meal are available halfway to Barstow in Ludlow, and extremely limited supplies might be had around the corner in Amboy.


Grandview Campground, Inyo County

It's not easy to find a higher spot in the high desert than this favorite among Southern California astronomers, at 8,500 feet in the pinyon juniper forested slopes of the White Mountains, well into the Inyo National Forest. Just 20 miles of paved road from the thriving metropolis of Big Pine gets you out of much of the pesky atmosphere and away from the night lighting in Owens Valley. Because it's so popular with the stargazing set, the Forest Service asks campers to keep their ambient lighting to a minimum. The result? A nearly unimpeded view of the night sky, with the High Sierra's peaks less than 20 miles across the valley below. The Forest Service asks for a $5 donation per night of camping. Sites are first-come, first-served, and keep in mind two very important details: 1) you'll have to bring water, because the campground doesn't have any, and 2) this spot is at 8,500 feet and well to the north of much of the desert, so count on winter storms closing it.


Bridgeport, Mono County

Mono County has an abundance of places to lay back and watch the stars wheel overhead, with literally thousands of places to camp or park for hours with no one going past. The Forest Service has a good guide to some dispersed camping spots. So rather than choose among the many spectacular primitive camping sites the county offers, we're listing two that offer some comfort. Bridgeport, the Mono County seat, is a must-visit. Despite being the spot where the county courthouse and offices shoulder up to busy Route 395, this small town has so little light that it barely edges out of the black in this authoritative dark sky mapping tool. Even standing downtown, you should be able to see the Milky Way running from one horizon to the other.


Benton Hot Springs, Mono County

The night skies are truly great in a small hamlet 40 miles off route 395. Benton Hot Springs is solidly in the sagebrush belt of the California desert, and despite being a few miles off all-weather, transcontinental Route 6, it's really quiet. The area doesn't have much in the way of amenities other than a market on the main highway and a Western-themed inn at the hot springs, so you'll probably want to stock up on food in Bishop. But something about the prospect of stargazing while sitting in hot water stirs something primal in us. The Inn at Benton Hot Springs even has campsites with their own hot tubs for those of you who will be understandably reluctant to go indoors at all. Try to resist the temptation to take your telescope into the hot tub with you.


Emigrant Campground, Death Valley National Park, Inyo County

Now we're talking. This campground nine miles west of Stovepipe Wells is not precisely "no-frills": it's got piped in water and flush toilets. It's also tent-only, and it's free to whichever ten parties show up first. The concessionaire at Stovepipe Wells makes a big deal of keeping the lights low so that their customers can enjoy serious dark skies, and aside from the traffic on Route 190, there should be no other visible source of light. The northern section of Death Valley National Park is the darkest spot in all of Southern California, and Emigrant Campground sits on the edge of that area, ever so slightly too close to Las Vegas to enjoy the theoretically darkest possible skies. But unless you've just been to the next site on our list, you'll hardly notice: the Milky Way will provide enough light for you to cast a shadow, and deep-sky objects like the Triangulum Galaxy will be visible with the naked eye.

Mesquite Springs Campground Death Valley National Park, Inyo County

If Emigrant Campground's skies aren't quite dark enough for you, an even darker place lies just 50 miles up the road. Of all the spots we've featured discussed so far, this easily accessible campground in the northern reaches of Death Valley has the darkest skies. How dark are the skies at Mesquite Springs? Dark enough that around midnight, you might well see the strange phenomenon known as "gegenschein," a brightening of the sky exactly opposite the Sun caused by interplanetary dust reflecting sunlight. Planets and the Milky Way will seem annoyingly bright. And the usual concerts from local coyotes don't hurt. An absolute bucket list place for stargazers.


2) The Low Desert:


The low desert covers all of Imperial and most of Riverside counties, and an eastern sliver of San Diego County. A string of brightly lit cities from Palm Springs to Mexicali drive back the night sky across a swath of desert 125 miles long.

But there's still quite a bit of darkness available here, especially in its remote eastern parts. Here are a few of our favorite low desert spots to contemplate your local portion of the universe, ranging from comfortable resort towns to ghost towns to remote, primitive campsites.


San Diego County: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


Two hours east of San Diego you’ll find California’s largest state park, and what many consider the best stargazing spots in the world. Within the park is Blair Valley, which offers such an awesome Anza Borrego stargazing experience that it’s commonly referred to as “Astronomy Way.” And, the Carrizo Badlands Overlook, in the park’s southernmost badlands is paved and easily accessible, making it one of the best Anza-Borrego stargazing spots.


Salton Sea, Riverside and Imperial counties

This State Recreation Area (SRA) sprawling along the east shore of the Salton Sea is unusual among State Parks properties in that its "day use" areas are open 24 hours a day. That means you don't have to commit to camping to enjoy the night skies here at 1:30 a.m., though camping is available between October and May: check with the California State Parks website for reservations. Quiet spots can be found up and down the shore, some of them with concrete pads -- a boon for those with tripod-mounted scopes. And best of all, the SRA is far enough from the bigger cities of the Coachella and Imperial valleys that skies here can get really dark.


Joshua Tree National Park, Riverside County

About half of this iconic National Park is in the Low Desert, and that just happens to be the darker half. If you have the good fortune to find yourself in the park's remote Pinto Basin on a moonless night, you might just never want to leave. There's comfortable camping available at the Cottonwood Campground, though it's first-come first served, but you can use the NPS tool here to plan accordingly. And it's worth noting that industrial development east of the park will likely add to the light pollution already creeping up over the Orocopia Mountains from the Coachella Valley, so the sooner you get here the better.


Midland Ghost Town, Riverside County

The Colorado River Astronomy Club holds its meetups here, and it's not hard to figure out why: this desert ghost town has nice dark skies (aside from the small light dome over Blythe) and it's accessible, with concrete and asphalt pads for scopes and plenty of existing campsites for you to roll out your pad and sleeping bag at no charge. Other amenities include... okay, there aren't any. Food, water, bathrooms, and other such comforts are a 22-mile drive away in Blythe. This is one place in the desert that's gotten darker at night over the years: Midland was once a thriving small company town. U.S. Gypsum rolled the place up in the 1960s after closing its nearby mine. It may be that some of the solar projects planned for the land south of town will brighten night skies again: you may want to sample Midland's night skies sooner rather than later.


Milpitas Wash, Imperial County

This is stargazing at its simplest and darkest. Milpitas Wash offers nothing but you, the night, the dark, the stars, the Palo Verde Mountains blocking the lights of Blythe, and an owl or two. Needless to say, you'll need to bring water, food, camping gear (if you're camping) and a sense of adventure. If your vehicle is of the four-wheel-drive variety, there are lots of options for very dispersed camping. But even if you have a low-slung two-wheeler, a little bit of exploration up and down Route 78 will turn up accessible spots where you can pull well off the road and look up at the sky.


And remember, whenever you are getting ready to set off on your stargazing RV adventure, be sure to check with your El Monte RV Rental dealer. See what special offers we have for the summer and fall.


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