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.
4. Oak Canyon Community Park, Oak Park
Closer in to the civilized end of the county, the Oak Canyon Community Park in the town of Oak Park near Agoura Hills offers reasonably dark skies for the 101 Freeway corridor. Unlike many city parks, this gem offers night-time visiting hours, at least if it's not the height of summer: bikers and pedestrians can hang out in the park until 10 p.m. (The road gates close at dusk, so be sure not to get locked in.) While 10 p.m. isn't late by stargazing standards, this park definitely provides an opportunity for kids and others with early bedtimes to get a little bit of night sky viewing done.
5. Sandstone Peak Trailhead, Santa Monica Mountains
Ventura County's share of the Santa Monica Mountains has some of the darkest skies that urban-influenced range has to offer. One spot here that's especially popular with serious stargazers is the Sandstone trailhead, a nice protected parking lot just a stone's throw from the Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and just 12 miles from the Westlake exit on the 101. The secluded parking lot has lots of room, but if you happen by on a popular stargazing night to find it full, the smaller Canyon View trailhead less than a mile farther along on Yerba Buena Road is a great Plan B.
You might not think of Ojai as a prime stargazing location, but the city at the foot of the Topatopa Mountains still has remarkably dark skies considering almost 8,000 people live there. But Ojai takes its dark night skies seriously. In fact, the Ojai City Council just passed a Dark Skies ordinance requiring that all nonessential lighting be turned off at 10 p.m., and requiring that existing lights don't spill over onto neighbors property. Ojai offers you the best chance of seeing the Milky Way of just about any similarly sized town in Southern California. Find a comfy spot and look up! Get there before the sun goes down, and you might witness Ojai's heralded "Pink Moment," when the setting sun illuminates the Topatopa Bluffs in alpenglow.
7. Moorpark College Observatory
Any discussion of stargazing in Ventura County would be lacking if it didn't include a mention of the Moorpark College Observatory. You probably won't be able to just show up and look through the telescopes, but the observatory does offer public programs during what the college calls "exceptional celestial events," and those programs might well include giving you a peep through the observatory's 12-inch reflective telescope. The observatory is often the site of star parties hosted by the The Ventura County Astronomical Society: check out their website for schedules.
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