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The 7 Best SoCal Desert Locations for Night Sky Viewing

Dark skies in Joshua Tree National Park.
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Please explore responsibly. While "SoCal Wanderer" continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, public health guidelines and weather conditions are changing constantly. We encourage our readers to check the latest updates for each location. Stay curious and cautious.

A road trip away from a city's bright lights on a clear night will be a treat for anyone who looks up to the skies. Here in Southern California, we're especially lucky to live in a place with some of the best night sky viewing in the continental United States. You just have to venture at least 100 miles away from Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Here are 7 spots in our local deserts that offer brilliant views:

1. Joshua Tree National Park is a classic stargazing destination and one with plenty of public programs during the winter and spring seasons. Most of the events take place at the Cottonwood Campground amphitheater, which is known as one of the darkest places in the park — only the glow from Palm Springs and a nearby truck stop affect the view. A complete listing of events and locations can be found here.

2. Farther south and completely enclosed by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is Borrego Springs, which in 2009 became the world's second International Dark Sky Community. The park was also named by USA Today as one of the top 10 places in the country to gaze at stars. Local night-sky buffs agree.

3. Tucked between Death Valley National Park and the Nevada border is the eccentric town of Tecopa, home to century-old mud hills, the Yaga Labrynith and popular hot springs. For years the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort has hosted star parties on new moon weekends, complete with a high-powered telescope pointed up at the galaxies.

4. Located in the proposed Mojave Trails National Monument off Route 66 is Amboy Crater, a 250-foot high volcanic cinder cone with 24 square miles of lava flow beyond it. This great night-sky spot was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1973.

5. The southern half of Mojave National Preserve offers what many believe is the single best spot to view stars. Far enough away from both the Los Angeles and Las Vegas metropolitan areas (and smaller cities), the Hole-in-the-Wall and Black Canyon campgrounds are popular for amateur and professional astronomers who want to spend the weekend camping and staring upwards. Also noted are the night skies seen from the Kelso Dunes.

Note: As of April 2021, no water is available at the Black Canyon Equestrian and Group campground. Campers are advised to get water at the regular campground or the picnic area adjacent to the Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center. The Kelso Depot Visitor Center is currently closed due to a failure of the climate control systems. Limited visitor services are available at Hole-in-the-Wall Information Center.

6. Star parties are occasionally thrown by park rangers at Death Valley National Park, but when none are happening they recommend Borax Works near the busy Furnace Creek area. Farther north within the park one should try Scotty's Castle (expected to reopen no earlier than December 2022) and The Racetrack.

7. While the Sky's The Limit Observatory and Nature Center is a work in progress, keep this spot in mind for when it opens. Found just outside the northern end of Joshua Tree National Park off Utah Trail in Twentynine Palms, a non-profit group is in the midst of planning and building an observatory. This will likely become a heavily visited night sky viewing spot once completed. While Sky's the Limit is currently open, its buildings (including restroom and dome) as well as running water are not open to the public.

The deserts in California are expansive. Do not just rely on GPS directions or online mapping tools, as they have led travelers astray, sometimes into life-threatening situations. Please plan ahead and consult park rangers and expert guide books.

This post expands upon an earlier post on KCET's SoCal Focus blog .

Note: This article has been updated August 10, 2021. Please check the status of all recommended areas before heading out.

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