California's third-largest county is a lot shorter on dark skies than it used to be. Between dust and haze at the west end, industrial energy development in the desert, and brightly lit sprawl in between, Kern County is not precisely a stargazers' mecca.
But the county does still offer a number of places where you can get away from the lights and see the Universe. Here are six of our favorites.
1. Downtown Bakersfield
Yeah, you heard right. It's not as silly as it sounds. Even right downtown, Bakersfield still has darker skies than you'll find in the L.A. Basin: dark enough to see planets and a few bright stars with the naked eye, and even more with the help of optics. And the Kern Astronomical Society takes advantage of that, holding public star parties at a rotating list of local spots, including Panorama Park, a couple of local bookstores, and the zoo at the California Living Museum. Check out the KAS website for upcoming events.
2. Wind Wolves Preserve
This 95,000-acre preserve operated by the Wildlands Conservancy just west of Grapevine closes daily at 5:00 p.m., so you might not think of it as a stargazing spot. But on weekends, if you make advance reservations, you can camp at Wind Wolves and take advantage of the San Emigdio Mountains' relatively starry skies. (You can make those arrangements by contacting the Wildlands Conservancy,) or stay in touch with the Kern Astronomical Society, which holds star parties here on occasion. Weather permitting, the skies here are dark enough that you should be able to see quite a bit of structure in the Milky Way. And if you see a dark spot moving and obscuring the stars as it passes, who knows? It could be one of the local condors.
3. Mount Pinos
Avid stargazers in Ventura County may think of it as their own turf, but amateur astronomy mecca Frazier Park is actually in Kern County, by way of a slight southward extension of the county line surrounding the town. Also in Kern County is the north face of Mount Pinos, the premier stargazing spot in Southern California. And the Mount Pinos Ranger Station parking lot on Cuddy Valley Rd. is in Kern County as well, a couple hundred feet north of the county line. You've got to drive through Ventura County to get there, but we won't say anything if you don't. High-altitude clarity, dark skies, and 8,000 feet above sea level means brilliant stars It also means lots of astronomers, so strict headlight etiquette is in force, as described here. Blinding astronomers with your headlights -- or headlamp, for that matter -- won't make you any friends.
4. Kern National Wildlife Refuge
Okay, so it's at the bottom of a valley that has some of the worst dust-related air pollution in the country. Okay, so it's a wetland that adds humidity to the air to obscure the view even further. Okay, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service locks the place up at sunset. The Kern National Wildlife Refuge near Lost Hills is a counterintuitive spot for stargazing, we admit it. But it's big, and it's quiet, and there's a convenient wide spot in the road outside the gate for parking, and it's in the dark northwestern corner of the county. Once you get off the main roads in this part of the valley, there's almost no nighttime traffic. If the weather and the local pollution index break your way, you might just be surprised at the depth of night here. A great spot for a dark break on those long road trips, and only 15 minutes from the junction of Route 46 and I-5.
5. Red Rock Canyon State Park
The Kern County desert isn't nearly as dark as it once was, with the bright red warning lights on the area's ever-multiplying wind turbines. But this State Park tucked into the El Paso Mountains has skies as dark as the rest of the western Mojave did way back in 2003. The park, which is 25 miles north of Mojave on Route 14, closes for day use at sunset, sadly. The good-sized campground ($25 per vehicle per night at this writing) starts to fill up early on weekends, but the best sites for stargazing are usually the last ones to fill up, as non-stargazers prefer the sheltered sites up against the park's dramatic old cliffs. Those sites have less wind, but they also have less sky. If the light from your neighbors' campfires is too distracting, grab your red-lensed flashlight and follow the trail at the south end of the campground over a low ridge into the upper reaches of neighboring Hagen Canyon for a little solitude.
6. Walker Pass
There are very few places in Southern California with virtually no light pollution. This is one of those places. The little BLM campground along Route 178 where it crosses both the Sierra Nevada crest and the Pacific Crest Trail isn't the most comfortable of lodging choices (but still made our best desert summer camping guide). You have to bring in your own water, and the pit toilet ranges in cleanliness from "not clean" to "I say we take off and nuke it from orbit." But you won't care, because you'll be looking at some of the best night skies in the state. We're talking night sky where the Milky Way's so bright you'll cast a shadow. Skies so dark you might be able to see the odd phenomenon known as gegenschein, in which sunlight reflects off interplanetary dust, seeming to shine from a point opposite the sun. All this in a sparse forest of pinyon, juniper, and Joshua trees. Groceries, drinking water, and restrooms more properly befitting a civilized people are available in Ridgecrest, 25 miles east on Route 178.