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7 Best Places for Stargazing in California's Low Desert

The Milky Way just before morning at Joshua Tree. | Flickr/Jeff Sullivan/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Milky Way just before morning at Joshua Tree. | Flickr/Jeff Sullivan/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Milky Way just before morning at Joshua Tree. | Flickr/Jeff Sullivan/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There's a lot of nighttime light in California's low desert, which covers all of Imperial and most of Riverside counties, and an eastern sliver of San Diego County. A string of brightly lit cities from Palm Springs to Mexicali drive back the night sky across a swath of desert 125 miles long.

But there's still quite a bit of darkness available here, especially in its remote eastern parts. Here are seven of our favorite low desert spots to contemplate your local portion of the universe, ranging from comfortable resort towns to ghost towns to remote, primitive campsites.

1. Borrego Springs, San Diego County
We've already noted this official Dark Sky Community in our San Diego County stargazing guide, but we just can't leave it unmentioned here. Borrego Springs is a great gateway to the state's largest state park, Anza-Borrego, and its residents and businesses have enthusiastically taken on the task of keeping night lighting to a minimum to preserve Anza-Borrego's night-time environment. As a result, Borrego Springs is almost alone among these Low Desert stargazing sites in offering local amenities like lodging and restaurants. Local businesses here just don't have the impact on night skies as their counterparts in less lighting conscious communities.

2. Salton Sea, Riverside and Imperial counties
This State Recreation Area (SRA) sprawling along the east shore of the Salton Sea is unusual among State Parks properties: its "day use" areas are open 24 hours a day. That means you don't have to commit to camping to enjoy the night skies here at 1:30 a.m., though camping is available between October and May: check with the State Parks website for reservations. Quiet spots can be found up and down the shore, some of them with concrete pads -- a boon for those with tripod-mounted scopes. And best of all, the SRA is far enough from the bigger cities of the Coachella and Imperial valleys that skies here can get really dark.

3. Corn Springs, Riverside County
We've mentioned this place before, too, in our guide to winter desert camping spots. About an hour east of Indio not far from I-10, the Bureau of Land Management's Corn Springs campground is surprisingly quiet for being so accessible, and the formidable Chuckwalla Mountains that surround the campground do a great job of blocking off light from the highway. There are nine campsites, and amenities include drinking water, pit toilets, wide-open skies, and the occasional scorpion. Other necessities you'll need to bring with you. At about 1,600 feet above sea level Corn Springs is higher than a lot of the Low Desert, so bring something to put on over the tank top when it gets cold.

4. Joshua Tree National Park, Riverside County
About half of this iconic National Park is in the Low Desert, and that just happens to be the darker half. If you have the good fortune to find yourself in the park's remote Pinto Basin on a moonless night, you might just never want to come back. There's comfortable camping available at the Cottonwood Campground, though it's first-come first served, so plan accordingly. And it's worth noting that industrial development east of the park will likely add to the light pollution already leaking up over the Orocopia Mountains from the Coachella Valley, so the sooner you get here the better.

5. Midland Ghost Town, Riverside County
The Colorado River Astronomy Club holds its meetups here, and it's not hard to figure out why: this desert ghost town has nice dark skies (aside from the small light dome over Blythe) and it's accessible, with concrete and asphalt pads for scopes and plenty of existing campsites for you to roll out your pad and sleeping bag at no charge. Other amenities include... okay, there aren't any. Food, water, bathrooms, and other such comforts are a 22-mile drive away in Blythe. This is one place in the desert that's gotten darker at night over the years: Midland was once a thriving small company town. U.S. Gypsum rolled the place up in the 1960s after closing its nearby mine. It may be that some of the solar projects planned for the land south of town will brighten night skies again: you may want to sample Midland's night skies sooner rather than later.

6. Milpitas Wash, Imperial County
This is stargazing at its simplest and darkest. Milpoitas Wash offers nothing but you, the night, the dark, the stars, the Palo Verde Mountains blocking the lights of Blythe, and an owl or two. Needless to say, you'll need to bring water, food, camping gear (if you're camping) and a sense of adventure. If your vehicle is of the four-wheel-drive variety, there are lots of options for very dispersed camping (This canyon in the Palo Verdes is a nice option, for instance.) But even if you have a low-slung two-wheeler, a little bit of exploration up and down Route 78 will turn up accessible spots where you can pull well off the road and look up at the sky.

7. Black Hills, Imperial, and Riverside counties
If being five miles up a deserted canyon in the Palo Verde Mountains seems a bit too civilized for you, then the Black Hills is where you'll want to be. You'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance and some experience with desert dirt-road driving: the road that leads you to the Black Hills, the Bradshaw trail, is an historic route that's often a bit of a sand trap. (Conventional sedans and such will likely be able to make it to the Wiley Well Campground, not a bad night sky spot itself despite the brightly lit Chuckwalla Valley Prison a few miles north.) At the Black Hills, find a likely-looking side road off the Bradshaw Trail and then find a likely looking campsite. (The BLM allows dispersed camping throughout the area, but it's best for the desert if you pick a spot that's been used before.) Then sit back and wait for some of the darkest skies and brightest stars you can find in Southern California.

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