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.
If your tastes run more toward small stargazing groups of one or two people, you can still avail yourself of the southeast backcountry's skies. The little border town of Jacumba doesn't have much in the way of formal stargazing facilities, but it's small and dark, with a hill between the town and Interstate 8 two miles north. Find a wide spot along Old Highway 80, of which there are plenty, or grab a room at the hot springs and go for a walk after the sun sets. One drawback to Jacumba is the town's close proximity to the border, which means La Migra will very likely check you out if they notice you gathering at roadside. This may or may not constitute a personal inconvenience to you (carrying ID is a good idea), but the law enforcement spotlights can ruin your night vision for half an hour afterward. At least you'll have the frogs in Jacumba Creek to listen to as your retinas recover.
4. Palomar Mountain, Cleveland National Forest
It's tempting to call Caltech's observatory a relic of darker nights gone by, but there's still some top-notch astronomy being conducted here. The observatory is often open for public tours, but only during the day, so you can forget about peeping at Saturn through the 200-inch Hale telescope. Fortunately, the U.S. Forest Service's Observatory Campground two miles away can sate your desire to watch the skies from Palomar Mountain. This astronomy-themed campground has special concrete pads designed for telescope setup. If you aren't really in the mood for sleeping out, Lake Henshaw down the road has resort lodging that often plays host to star parties.
Midway between Palomar Mountain and Anza-Borrego, the placid mountain town of Julian is better known for its apple orchards than its starry nights. But Julian's night skies are dark enough that the town is actually host to an astronomy-themed bed and breakfast complete with observatory, and the annual Julian Starfest held each August by the SDAA. But you don't need to partake of the town's burgeoning stargazing industry to enjoy the skies in town. There's also the nearby William Heise County Park with a quiet campground and wilderness cabins for rent. Or just head east on Route 78 past the bottom of the Banner grade, about 8.5 miles from town, and find a wide pullout like this one in the broad valley east of the Volcan Mountains.
6. Mount Laguna, Cleveland National Forest
San Diego State has operated its Mount Laguna Observatory in the county's southeastern mountains since 1968. The observatory holds occasional public viewing events coordinated by the Mount Laguna Observatory Associates, in which visitors can look through a 21-inch telescope designated for use by visitors and SDSU undergrads. But as with Caltech's observatory farther north, you don't need to wait for one of these events to enjoy Mount Laguna's astronomical wonders. The U.S. Forest Service's Laguna Campground offers the same dark skies -- though you'll have to bring your own magnifying power.
7. Torrey Pines
Don't have a couple hours to commit to a stargazing road trip? You won't see nearly as many stars from the Torrey Pines State Reserve north of La Jolla, but the Reserve offers darker skies than you might expect, given its close proximity to urban life. The Reserve's parking lot gates close at sunset, but open parking along the ocean side of the road doesn't get cleared out until about 11:00 p.m., our local sources tell us, which gives you plenty of time to lie on the beach looking up. (Mind the waves and local high tide.) If you want to stay out later than 11:00, South Carlsbad State Beach up the road a ways does offer campsites -- but it also offers the bright lights of nearby Carlsbad.