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These Are California's 10 Darkest Places For Stargazing

Comet 45P during its last visit in 2011. Photo: NASA
Comet 45P during its last visit in 2011. Photo: NASA

A comet with the imposing monicker Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková, or 45P for short, has been delighting and frustrating amateur astronomers for months now. They're delighted because the comet, which has an orbital cycle lasting a little over five years, is displaying a gorgeous blue-green corona and tail, and also because, well, it's a comet. They're frustrated because in order to see 45P, you need a good pair of binoculars and enough familiarity with the night sky to find the thing. Not that committed amateur astronomers don't relish the chance to justify the money they've sunk into optics, mind. It's just that everyone loves a naked-eye comet. And 45P isn't one, at least not this time around.

But it's there, and it'll reach its closest approach to Earth on this swing through the inner solar system at about 3:00 a.m. Saturday, February 11, not long after a penumbral lunar eclipse, so it's been attracting a bit more attention this weekend than it has for the last few weeks.

That eclipse, in which the Moon will travel through the lighter, outer part of the Earth's shadow, will start around 4:45 p.m. California time, affording you an unusual chance to stargaze during daylight hours. But to maximize your chances of getting a good glimpse of 45P, you'll want to find yourself a place with as little light pollution as possible. Fortunately, even here in overdeveloped California, there are still pockets of very dark skies, places in which you're more likely to be able to make out the comet — and other faint wonders — without LED streetlight haze getting in the way. Here are ten great examples.

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Of these ten spots all are in theory reachable by car, though you're much better off leaving your car and finding a spot remote from headlights. Most are in places that are dark enough that you should be able to make out lots of detail in the Milky Way, including the shadows in the vicinity of Sagittarius and Scorpius. Three have such dark skies that you might not recognize even the most familiar constellations: they'll just have way too many stars in them. 

So, in order of increasing darkness:

Stars shine bright in this shot from the Big Sur Coast.
Stars shine bright in this shot taken along the Big Sur Coast. | Photo: Bob Vonderau, some rights reserved

10: Big Sur

Most of the California coast south of San Francisco Bay is too close to civilization to enjoy truly dark skies. But the stretch of coastline running from Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve northward to Limekiln State Park is sheltered from the urban lights of Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties by the Santa Lucia Mountains. The result: nice dark skies, at least westward (the mountains generally block the eastern horizon) and also at least when the fog hasn't rolled in. 

Gorda, the town closest to the center of this dark patch, is about 270 miles from DTLA. To get there, take Highway 101 to the Osos Street/Route 1 exit in San Luis Obispo, then keep going for about 70 more miles.

9. Somes Bar

There are even darker skies to the east of this settlement at the confluence of the Salmon and Klamath rivers, and I almost put Forks of Salmon in this spot because it's probably my favorite California place name, but the Klamath Mountains here are preposterously vertical, their summits close in and their bulk blocking out perhaps half of the night sky — and then there are all the trees growing on them. At Somes Bar the mountains are a little farther apart, and you can see more sky.

This is a bit of a haul from SoCal, at just under 700 miles from DTLA. (Take the 5 north to Redding, then take the Route 44 Exit for Eureka/Lassen NP and find State Route 299; follow that road west to Willow Creek, then take State Route 96 for 45 miles, past the Hoopa Indian Reservation and Orleans, to Somes Bar.) You might as well make a couple days of it, and spend daylight hours exploring the Klamath.

Night sky over the Rae Lakes
Night sky over the Rae Lakes, in a 297-second exposure that reveals the mountains as well. | Photo: Sathish J, some rights reserved

8. Southern Sierra Nevada High Country

Okay, this is more a big beautiful region than a single destination, but there are wonderful dark skies along the whole spine of the Southern Sierra from Mono Hot Springs down to Kennedy Meadows. (That's the Kennedy Meadows on the Kern River, not the one near Sonora Pass, though that one's not half bad either.) The best skies here will be enjoyed by people who get a couple days' walk away from the pavement. But even if you're tethered to your car, there are a few places (like the two mentioned above, Lake Sabrina, and a few others) where you can get a fair ways into this altitudinous dark spot.

To get to that southernmost Kennedy Meadows, take the 14 into the desert, continue after it becomes US 395, then turn left just north of Pearsonville on 9 Mile Canyon Road, which becomes Kennedy Meadows Road. It's about a three-hour drive, 175 miles and change, from DTLA.

7. Benton Hot Springs

Too many trees blocking your view in the Sierra? Stay on Route 395 past the turnoff for Kennedy Meadows, then keep going until you reach Bishop. Take Route 6 to Benton, then tack west on Route 120 to this little hot springs town. It's got an advantage over the Sierra and Klamath spots: it's surrounded by miles and miles of open sagebrush. In the evening, you can watch the alpenglow light up the magnificent White Mountains to the east: 13,146-foot Boundary Peak, the high point on the range, is the tallest mountain in the state of Nevada, whose state line is just a few miles east.

Benton Hot Springs is 305 miles from DTLA, about a five-hour drive.

A very long exposure taken in the Riverside County desert outback
A very long exposure taken in the Riverside County desert outback. | Photo: Jesse S., some rights reserved

6. Rice-Midland Road

You'll want to make sure and get to this spot while there's plenty of light left: conditions on this unpaved road may vary from month to month, and you want to make sure you don't get into something your vehicle can't handle. At this writing, a plain old sedan or compact shouldn't have any trouble getting a few miles off the pavement on this well-graded road. Find a wide spot to pull off the road — don't crush any vegetation or get yourself stuck in sand — and set up your stargazing cots. Here, as in Benton Hot Springs, you'll find almost nothing in the way of trees to block your view, and the mountains are conveniently off a few miles in most directions. You might get a little bit of light dome glow from Parker and Lake Havasu City in Arizona, but eyes accustomed to urban skies might take a few nights to even notice.

It's dark enough here that when there's no moon, you may be able to see a phenomenon called "airglow": the blue luminescence given off by cosmic ray strikes and chemical reactions in the atmosphere itself. Find a dark spot on the horizon and extend your arm, holding it so that your clenched fist just touches the horizon on its bottom side. The altitude at the top side of your fist, about 10 degrees above the horizon, is where airglow will generally be most visible.

Distance from DTLA: 230ish miles, depending on how far you go along the dirt road. Take the 10 east to the Desert Center/Route 177 exit; head north through the Chuckwalla Valley until you get to Route 62, then head east for just a smidgen more than 22 miles until you get to Rice, California, a cluster of ruins on the south side of the pavement. Rice-Midland Road runs southward from there, just east of the railroad tracks. Take a couple gallons of water for everyone in your group per day, and extra food, a spare tire, and hats and other such sun shields in case you're there longer than you planned.

Even when washed out by a bright moon, the stars at Kelso Dunes are quite beautiful.
Even when washed out by a bright moon, the stars at Kelso Dunes are quite beautiful. | Photo: solaridium, some rights reserved

5. Kelso Dunes 

It's one of the most-photographed settings in the Mojave National Preserve: the famous "singing" Kelso Dunes, built of sand blown in by west winds from the Mojave River's sink at Soda Lake. They're called "singing dunes" because if you walk along the crest just right when the relative humidity is also just right, your footsteps will send small avalanches of sand down the dune faces, making a booming sound. 

As it turns out, this scenic spot is also one of the most accessible places in the big patch of very dark skies that extends southward to Rice and Midland.

Blowing sand, as most seasoned stargazers know, does not play nicely with expensive optics. If you're armed with a pair of binoculars, you can probably risk heading to the top of the dunes for a nice 360-degree view of the sky. Those with more delicate (and heavier) hardware might prefer sticking to the wide spot along Kelso Dunes road that serves as a parking lot and casual campground for self-contained campers. That decision brings an advantage: the dunes will block the tiny little light dome from tiny little Baker, California, and the somewhat bigger one from not-so-tiny Las Vegas.

The Kelso Dunes are an easy 210 miles from DTLA. Take the 10 East to the 15 North to the 40 East, then, 78 miles east of Barstow, take the Kelbaker Road exit and head northward into the Preserve. In just under 15 miles you'll see a sign pointing you toward the dunes, via a left turn onto a usually well-maintained dirt road. The main staging area for the dunes is just under four miles down that road, though it's not like you'll miss it.

Night sky reflecting in the Amargosa River
Night sky reflecting in the Amargosa River | Photo: Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management

4. Most of Death Valley National Park

Truth be told, this large stretch of the California desert is part of a large patch of very dark night skies stretching westward to the Sierra Nevada (see Number 8 in this list), but there's enough of a chain of brightly lit towns running the length of the Owens Valley punctuating the darkness that it makes sense to treat DVNP as its own dark skies region. 

There's an unfortunate bright spot in the middle of the darkness: the conglomeration of infrastructure at Furnace Creek, from the visitor center to the Furnace Creek Inn and the Coleman lanterns of a thousand RV campers, that can wash out the stars a bit. And once you get east of the Amargosa Range, which define the east edge of Death Valley proper, the lights of Las Vegas wash things out more and more.

But just about anywhere else in the southern four-fifths of the Park, from the Valley south of Badwater to the Saline and Eureka valleys in the north, possess very dark skies — especially in summer, when far fewer visitors shine their headlights in your face as they drive past.

Stargaze without being annoying

Stovepipe Wells, as reasonable a choice of specific location in DVNP as any, with lodging, amenities, and lots of open desert to hike away from the highway, is 262 miles from DTLA.  Take the 14 into the desert, and keep going when it becomes Route 395 near Ridgecrest. In Olancha, turn right onto State Route 190, then stay on that route for just over 75 miles. 

So far, we've been talking about places with very dark skies. The remaining three spots are places with what you might call extremely dark skies. What's the difference? In a place with extremely dark skies, you can see at least one other galaxy with the naked eye. You will likely, when there's no moon, be able to see the gegenschein: the light of the sun reflected off interplanetary dust in the part of the sky directly opposite the sun. (Think of millions of dust-particle-sized full moons.) You may have trouble seeing your hand outstretched except by the hand-shaped hole in the stars it creates.

We're talking really dark. And there are three places in California that qualify.

3. Oasis 

This tiny little farming town tucked in between Death Valley National Park and the Nevada line is gateway to some of the darkest skies in the California desert.  

There's a whole lot of wild area to the south, between Oasis and Ubehebe Crater in DVNP, that boast skies as dark as any in the United States. The famous Eureka Dunes, Death Valley/Big Pine Road, and other such beloved off-pavement destinations are among the other good places to visit while looking upward in this extremely dark corner of the desert.

Getting to the southern half of this dark patch takes a little doing, and a proper vehicle. Flash floods have wiped out the main road through this part of Death Valley National Park — Scotty's Castle will be closed until 2019 — but at this writing you can still make it to the edge of the very darkest skies area without trouble in a standard car, and a high-clearance and/or 4x4 will take you even farther. Most of the time, passenger cars can reach Ubehebe Crater with little trouble, and sturdier vehicles can head northward from there on Death Valley Road, farther into the darkness.

Traveling off-pavement in Death Valley isn't for the unprepared, so prepare. Take all the supplies you'll need for a trip twice as long as you have planned. Don't expect phone coverage. Talk to a park ranger before you set out, not only so that you'll have the latest on road conditions, but so that someone will know where you're headed.

Or, just stick to the pavement and head to Oasis. From 395 in Big Pine, head east on State Route 168 for 38 miles until you get to the hamlet, basically a wide flat spot with lots of alfalfa fields 290 miles from DTLA.

Night sky near Alturas
Night sky near Alturas | Photo: Mike Scott, some rights reserved

2. Hackamore

This spot in Modoc National Forest is almost as far as you can get in a straight line distance from DTLA and still be in California. At 659 road miles from Downtown, getting here isn't something you do on a whim. But it's worth it for more reasons than just the stunning night sky. Lava Beds National Monument is just 30 miles away, and the thrilling flocks of migrating birds at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge another 30 or so past that. In the other direction, Alturas and its Wild West ambience offers a place to get coffee and breakfast and ambience.

Want more stargazing suggestions?

But if there's any place in California that feels like it's not in California, this would be it. The conifer forests and red soils here wouldn't seem out of place in Idaho or Wyoming. And the dry, semidesert air puts very little moisture in between you and the starlight.

From LA, take the usual 14/395 desert route past Bishop, into Nevada, through Carson City and Reno, then back into California heading toward Susanville. In Johnstonville Route 395 peels off to the right, but you let it go and continue on Route 36 into Susanville. In the center of town, turn right onto State Route 139. Take 139 northward for 105 miles to reach Hackamore, which is essentially a wide spot off the road near a small reservoir, right in the middle of a 30-mile-wide band of extremely dark night skies. Be mindful of private property: find some Forest Service land nearby you can hang out in to watch the stars.

1. Sage Hen

What distinguishes the Lassen County locality called Sage Hen from Hackamore? Basically this: it's in the middle of a wider band of extremely dark night skies, which means the slightly brighter very dark skies are farther away. You may find pronghorn here, out in the sagebrush steppe along with the sage grouse that give the town its name. You may also find some wonder at the fact that this remote desert settlement, three mountain ranges away from the coast, nonetheless drains into San Francisco Bay by way of the Pit River, a few miles to the north.

But at night, you won't care that you can't see the sage hens or the pronghorn in the dark. There before you, upward in all directions, is the blazing night sky. You may want to find a place off the highway, perhaps the appropriately named Moon Lake just east of "town," to reduce the ambient light from "none" to "really, no kidding, none."

And you can reflect on the fact that until the 1880s or so, when electric lighting started to spread through the world's cities, you could see all these stars from Pacoima.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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