Santa Barbara County boasts that winning combination of limited development, mainly restricted to the 101 Corridor, and lots of mountainous protected open space. It's no surprise that it's a great place to look at stars, as long as the marine layer cooperates. Whether you're heading for the hills or taking advantage of a clear night along the coast, here are five places we especially like for casting our gaze skyward.
1. Jalama Beach County Park
South of Lompoc is about as far west as you can get on the Southern California coast, and its relatively remote location puts it well out of the worst of the county's light pollution zone. On clear nights this can be one of the South Coast's best beaches for stargazing. Downsides include the long wait for camping reservations, and the 14 miles of occasionally bad road to get here from Highway 1, discouraging day-use people who'd like to leave after dark. People with expensive scopes may curse the wind-blown sand. But for meteor shower watching or binocular astronomy practice, it's hard to beat this beach. (Check out our Jalama Beach travel guide.)
2. Lake Cachuma
North of the Santa Ynez Mountains, this fishing reservoir is shielded from the brightest of the county's urban lights along the 101 corridor. Clouds permitting, the Milky Way should be visible here most nights: in fact, you should be able to see some of the Galaxy's structure if your vision is good. You can rent cabins and yurts at the lake, or just find a convenient pullout along Route 154 like this one.
It's less than five hours away from the likely shut down of the U.S. government, but if you looked at the websites of California's national parks, things look normal. Head over to Facebook and you'll see a note about mating tarantulas from Joshua Tree National Park, information about wilderness permits in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and an announcement of cave openings in Lava Beds National Monument. Things, however, are different behind the scenes. Employees are preparing for closure.
"Instead of doing their jobs, they are planning for the forced and unnecessary shutdown," said Joan Anzelmo of The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "Public servants should not be used a pawns in partisans games."
Pawns or not, it's more than public servants who will be affected. Those with vacation plans, small businesses that thrive off parks, and others will face the closure of all national parks in the country.
In Joshua Tree National Park, the gates could swing shut as early as 9:01 p.m. PST and campers will be given 48 hours to vacate, according to Superintendent Mark Butler. In fact, where there are gates and where there are campers, the same is expected across California and the rest of the country.
"The disruption to visitors would be truly disappointing," said Woody Smeck, the superintendent for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which generates $160 million annually in visitor spending, supporting thousands of local and regional jobs. "1.7 million people visit the two parks annually. This includes international visitors who are critical to our tourism economy."
Smeck noted that backcountry campers, who likely do not have cell phone reception and little clue about what Congress is doing today, will be allowed to pass through park property if their destination is outside the park, but not be allowed to stay. And that's, of course, if they can be located. "We have to be practical -- it's a large wilderness area. Our primary objective is to protect life, property, and natural and cultural/historical resources."
The heavy rains that hit parts of the desert in recent weeks have created a spectacle that doesn't happen every year: a fall blooming season in the Joshua Tree National Park. Large areas of the park are now blanketed in yellow chinchweed blooms, and the bloom is likely to continue into autumn as the park's shrubs take advantage of the moisture from the storms.
Good places to see the striking fall bloom abound include the Hidden Valley area off Park Boulevard in the Park's high-desert western section, and between Smoke Tree Wash and the Cottonwood Visitor Center along Pinto Basin Road.
San Diego County's night skies were once so dark that the county was a location of choice for researchers to site their observatories. Urban lights have encroached on the county's dark skies since the mid-20th Century, but there are still a lot of stars to gaze at in San Diego County -- enough that some locales are home to astro-tourism businesses. Here are seven of the county's best places to get your night skies on.
1. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
California's largest state park remains one of the best places within an hour of the coast to see night skies. The locals take their stargazing seriously the park's gateway town Borrego Springs was designated by the International Dark Sky Association as the second "Dark Sky Community" in the world. The isolated Little Blair Valley on the west edge of the park gets rave reviews from seasoned stargazers.
2. Tierra Del Sol, Boulevard
The southeastern end of the county is shielded by mountains from the light domes of San Diego/Tijuana to the west, and Mexicali/Imperial County the the east. That means some pretty dark skies, and the local stargazing community takes full advantage. The San Diego Astronomy Association (SDAA) maintains an observing site in the Tierra Del Sol community outside of rural Boulevard where they hold monthly star parties that are open to the public. You'll get a chance to look through the SDAA's 22-inch reflecting telescope and get a guided tour of the sky from seasoned astronomers. The SDAA holds regular star parties throughout the county, so be sure to check out their events page.
It's not even officially fall yet and more reports of fall color peaking in the Eastern Sierra are coming in. Last week it was Bishop Creek Canyon, which is still going strong (see photos from the weekend here with more below), and now there's Rock Creek Canyon, Virginia Lakes, and the Sherwins, all in Mono County.
This has prompted California Fall Color blogger John Poimiroo to issue his second round of "Go Now" alerts of the season.
[Update, September 17: We went in person to check it out and came back with some great news and photos. Read about it here.]
If you were thinking of doing some autumn hue traveling this year, now is the time to start paying attention. Fall color blogger John Poimiroo has issued the first "Go Now!" alerts of the season. It's few weeks earlier than usual, but we're at the whim of Mother Nature -- or, perhaps, the current drought.
The alerts are for two areas in Bishop Creek Canyon: Sabrina Campground and Surveyors Meadow, both which are around 9,000 feet elevation and are currently 50 to 75 percent of peak, which means there is solid color change. Poimiroo expects Sabrina to peak -- that's when the color is at its best -- during the next week or so.
OK, let's face it: Orange County isn't exactly a stargazers' destination of choice. We haven't done the math, but it's likely the second-brightest county in the state (after San Francisco), with its renowned sprawling development and its position nestled between brightly lit Los Angeles and San Diego. But even in Orange County there are places where you can get out and see more than a few stars, especially on new moon nights, and especially if you get into its less-developed southeast end.
Irvine Regional Park
But let's try the north end of the county first. Irvine Regional Park sits just where the 24/7 glare of the southern L.A. Basin starts to slacken a bit, just at the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. You will generally be able to make out the major constellations here along with perhaps a few other objects. The stargazing window here is brief: The park closes at 9:00 pm in summer and 6:00 pm in winter, but their "summer" starts on April Fool's Day and ends on Halloween. There's also a (somewhat pricey) private campground on Irvine Lake not far away
Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach
The city of Laguna Beach is a trifle darker at night than its neighbors, as it's hemmed in by the undeveloped San Joaquin Hills that block some of the glare from the I-5 corridor. Crescent Bay Beach at the north end of town offers a quarter mile of sheltered cove perfect for horizontal lounging and skywatching, and it's beneath a bluff that serves to block out the headlights on the Pacific Coast Highway. There are houses on the ridge that face the beach, so don't expect pitch black skies. Still the beach is open until midnight, which allows a good amount of time to watch the stars wheel overhead. Beach cautions apply: be careful of the water -- this is not a beach for poor swimmers -- and don't bother the seals.
Ah, Ventura County, where the nights are stronger than moonshine, as that song you now have stuck in your head almost says. But even on nights where there's not much moonshine at all, this county just west of L.A. also holds some great places to look at those other heavenly bodies.
1. Mount Pinos, Los Padres National Forest
This peak in Los Padres National Forest in the northeast corner of the county has some of the darkest skies to be found in the Greater Southern California Megalopolis. Near Frazier Park overlooking the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, It's quite a haul from the more populated parts of Ventura County, but on a clear night you won't find better stargazing in the county. There are any number of good stargazing spots in the vicinity of Mount Pinos from campgrounds to wide pullouts. One of the best places to start is at the Chuchupate Ranger Station off Lockwood Valley road just south of Lake Of the Woods. Not only can you find lots of good advice for stargazing campgrounds, but the station itself isn't a bad spot for looking at the sky. You can also buy your $5/daily Adventure Pass there, which you'll need for overnight parking in the national forest -- even on pullouts.
2. Lockwood Valley, Los Padres National Forest
About 15 miles or so farther along Lockwood Valley Road from Lake of the Woods, the eponymous Lockwood Valley has some seriously dark sky by coastal California standards. Between Lake of the Woods and Ojai, nearly 60 miles away, there isn't much in the way of amenities out here, so be sure to stock up on everything you might need, including a full tank of gas. Through Lockwood Valley proper there are a few spots with appealingly wide shoulders, but be sure to pull all the way off the road -- and don't disturb the locals. Or head farther west to the turnoff for the Reyes Creek Campground, where there's a wide dirt pullout available.
3. Maricopa Highway, Los Padres National Forest (Route 33)
The artery has a number of pullouts in Los Padres National Forest that offer the possibility of serene stargazing. This 16-mile stretch north of Ojai has some of the best, though you'll want to be sure to pick pullouts where you aren't in the way of drivers seeking to let other cars pass. Getting there before the sun goes down is a good idea for maximum ease in choosing a suitable pullout.
When it comes to reliably clear skies with a minimum of light pollution, it's hard to beat the eastern California desert. But let's face it: those of us who live in urban Southern California can't always just pick up and head for the outback when we want to see a star. Fortunately, there are a few places closer at hand in L.A. County where the night skies are dark enough to make tilting your head upward worthwhile. And some spots aren't so dark, but are worth checking out anyway for the expert stargazing companionship to be found there.
1. Templin Highway, Angeles National Forest
The Templin Highway stargazing area has long been a popular spot among amateur astronomers. It's accessible, only 45 minutes from downtown (assuming nighttime traffic) and less than a mile from Interstate 5 near Castaic. Take Templin Highway .7 miles east from "The 5" until you spy a wide gravel pulloff on the right, sheltered by a ridge from some of the Interstate's headlight glare. (During popular meteor shows and other events, you'll often see a crowd gathered when you arrive: use your lowbeams as you park lest you blind your new stargazing buddies.) All this just a few minutes from the comforts of Castaic.
2. Saddleback Butte State Park, Antelope Valley
Saddleback Butte State Park is an unsung gem in L.A. County's desert, and though its skies are not as dark as they were 20 years ago with Lancaster and Palmdale slowly growing 15 miles west, it's still a great place to reacquaint yourself with the Milky Way and other dark sky wonders. The park closes for day use at sunset, but 50 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, and the campsites offer abundant great spots to set up a scope -- or just to lie back in a reclining chair with a naked pair of eyes.