With some of the brightest night skies to be found in Southern California, and some of the haziest air quality, the Inland Empire might not strike you as a place where stargazing is possible. But the region's varied topography and fringing mountain ranges offer spots for night sky viewing that range from the acceptable to the sublime.
We're using former State Historian Kevin Starr's definition of the Inland Empire here, by the way, which includes the eastern section of Los Angeles County in the Pomona Valley. If you disagree, feel free to quibble in comments.
1. North Etiwanda Preserve, San Bernardino County
This open space at the north end of Etiwanda is just about the darkest place available in the Rancho Cucamonga area without heading into the mountains. The preserve was set up to protect habitat for the California gnatcatcher, but it also turns out to protect a bit of dark sky. Local stargazers will often drop by the Preserve entrance, where the paved portion of Etiwanda ends, to view meteor showers and other phenomena that don't require true dark skies. A high wall blocks most of the direct light coming from the neighboring housing. The local constabulary may come by to see what you're doing, but as long as you're not tagging that high wall, word is they'll leave you be. The preserve is popular with pre-dawn hikers, which suggests the possibility of early-morning stargazing as well.
2. San Timoteo Canyon Road, Riverside County
This country road between Redlands and Beaumont is lightly traveled at night, with I-10 and route 60 offering far speedier alternatives. That means not too many headlights to destroy your night vision -- though do look away from the regular trains on the tracks that parallel the road. Traversing a valley in the middle of the San Timoteo Badlands, this road is shielded from much of the direct light coming from the eastern Inland Empire. Though the skies really aren't all that dark by the standards of the desert an hour away, you should be able to see the Milky Way on clear nights. Find a wide spot in the road like this one on those nights when you just need half an hour of night sky.
3. East Fork, Los Angeles County Technically, you'll need to leave the Inland Empire for a minute to get to this great spot in the Angeles National Forest, but then you head back into the mountains above the I.E.'s west end. Skies here still bear the influence of the Pomona and San Gabriel valleys' nighttime illumination, but you should be able to see lots of relatively faint stars here that would be washed out in San Dimas. As this parking lot at the end of East Fork Road is within the Angeles National Forest, you'll need to buy an Adventure Pass. There's no overnight camping allowed in this spot, so research nearby campgrounds in this part of the Angeles NF before you pack if your plans involve an overnight. One advantage here over more informal road-pullout spots: pit toilets are available.
4. Lytle Creek, San Bernardino County
Just a ten-minute drive from Interstate 15, the Lytle Creek Ranger Station is an easily accessed stargazing spot in the foothills of the eastern San Gabriels. According to our sources, National Forest rangers don't insist that cars parked here bear Adventure Passes, but you may want to inquire before you go to see whether that's changed. The parking lot does have a few lights you'll need to contend with, but the thousand-foot walls on either side of the canyon do a great job of blocking out the lights of the Interstate, Fontana, and the sprawling urban valley beyond.
5. Swarthout Canyon Road, San Bernardino County
One valley north of Lytle Creek, this sleepy mountain road between Wrightwood and Cajon Pass will have slightly darker skies, and fewer nearby lights, than its neighbor. It also has fewer amenities, though you're only a few minutes away from the convenience stores at Interstate 15's interchange with Route 138, and about 20 minutes from Wrightwood's more civilized comforts. Pick your parking spot carefully: some seemingly wide pullouts are actually places where washes cross the road, raising the possibility that you'll get stuck. One possibility: park at the spot where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road and hike a little ways from the light traffic. (You did bring your red flashlight, right?)
6. Lake Hemet, Riverside County
Go much farther east than this reservoir in the Santa Rosa Mountains section of the San Bernardino National Forest and you leave the Inland Empire and enter the Low Desert. Skies are about as dark here as you can find in the non-desert portions of Riverside County, and if you can snag a campsite well away from your neighbors' blazing bonfires, or walk on out to the end of the Forest Service road to the Day Use area after the day users have been sent home (which happens at sunset), you should be able to see some serious starry skies. This spot benefits from the desert's proximity: on nights when clouds sock in places closer to the coast, these mountains often offer clear viewing.
7. Lake Silverwood vista point,San Bernardino County
This is another place that's great for those nights when you need some stars before you hit the sack. It's a bit farther away from cities than places like Lytle Creek but still just 20 minutes from the bottom of Cajon Pass, meaning you can get an hour of viewing in if the urge strikes you at 9:00 pm and still be in bed by midnight. Route 138 does have more traffic than is strictly speaking helpful for maintaining your night vision, and you may find yourself having to avert your eyes fairly often to keep from being blinded. (In case some of those blinding headlights belong to a National Forest ranger, you'll want to have your Adventure Pass handy.)
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