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.
3. Route 166
This road between Taft and Santa Maria criss-crosses the Cuyama River for much of its length. The Cuyama River marks the line between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Which means that when the road is south of the river, it's in the very northernmost parts of Santa Barbara County, which are also some of the darkest parts of the county. Amenities along the road are few, but when you find an isolated pullout like this one, ten miles from the nearest small town, that may seem like a good thing.
4. Figueroa Campground, Los Padres National Forest
Figueroa Mountain in the San Rafael Mountains near Los Olivos is a favorite of local stargazers and astronomers for its altitude, its relative isolation from city lights, and its peace and quiet. But the mountain, in the Los Padres National Forest, has lots of tree cover. The Figueroa Campground, run by the U.S. Forest Service, is in fact so thickly forested at its entrance that first-time visitors to the area might pass it by, thinking there's no way they'll see any stars from beneath the forest canopy. But at the end of the campground opposite the road, a broad ridge devoid of trees offers unparalleled views of the sky in almost all directions. The campground is up 13.5 miles of often incredibly narrow mountain road, so take care getting there and yield the right of way. Don't feel like camping? the nearby Figueroa Lookout offers a shorter-term alternative. The Los Padres National Forest requires that all parked cars show Adventure Passes, so be sure to get one.
5. Camino Cielo, Los Padres National Forest
This one's a real treat. Just shy of two miles up Camino Cielo from Route 154, a small pullout at the crest of the Santa Ynez range offers an elevated grassy hill with fantastic views to the north, shielded from the lights of Goleta and Santa Barbara just 15 minutes away. With civilization so close at hand, who needs amenities? Be sure to have that Adventure Pass handy should an inquiring ranger happen by.