Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco along Route 101, San Luis Obispo County sits in a dark spot between the two. Get away from the chain of small cities along the highway between Nipomo and Paso Robles, and you'll have a great chance of finding good stargazing almost anywhere.
Here are seven SLO stargazing spots with amenities ranging from fine to nonexistent, but all of which should give you a pretty good look at the Central Coast's share of outer space.
1. Santa Margarita Lake KOA
This spot might be the only stargazing site we've heard of with a nine-hole disc golf course. A quarter mile from a quiet reservoir northeast of San Luis Obispo, this private campground is where the Central Coast Astronomical Society holds its regular star parties. You can sign up for emailed alerts of the CCAS's events schedule here.If you prefer a slightly more rustic scene, the nearby Santa Margarita Lake County Park offers primitive camping without the outdoor movie theater and party yurt.
2. Cholame Valley Road, Temblor Range
Best known for being the one road into Parkfield, the Earthquake Capital of California, Cholame Valley Road also offers nice dark skies within easy striking distance of Routes 46 and 41 east of Paso Robles. Cholame Valley Road heads north of the highway just a few hundred feet west of where 46 and 41 meet east of Shandon. After just under five miles the road crosses into Monterey County, but until then there are a few places where with a bit of care, you can pull safely off the road to enjoy the view. Some of the shoulder gets pretty swampy after a rain, and in the dry season hot exhaust pipes can ignite the dry roadside grasses, so choose your sites carefully. There's a promising spot at the wide spot at McMillan Canyon Road. Be sure not to block driveways or farm access roads.
3. Red Hill Road, La Panza Mountains
Highway 58 heading east of Santa Margarita curves past the north end of La Panza Mountains, then heads south. In the process, it heads into country that mountains shield from Highway 101's glow. About 25 miles along 50 east of Santa Margarita, the road meets unpaved Red Hill Road as it heads south into Los Padres National Forest. Turn onto Red Hill and find a convenient wide spot away from the occasional headlights on 58. There are absolutely no amenities here excepting what you bring with you. But once the sun sets, you probably won't mind. One thing to be mindful of: this part of the national forest shows a fair bit of wear from four wheelers, and depending on the time of year you may have a lot of company. If that proves to be the case and you'd rather keep the dust out of your optics, the next site isn't far.
4. Shell Creek Road, La Panza Mountains
About five miles west of Red Hill Road on Route 58, this almost-two-lane road runs mainly arrow-straight toward Shandon for its first 3.5 miles or so. There's lots of unfenced private ranchland in this stretch, so be alert to locals' privacy concerns: as long as the neighborhood hasn't been rained on in a while (which makes the shoulders muddy), you should be able to find a spot in the first few miles to pull just off the road and drink in the night skies.
5. Montana de Oro State Park
With 8,000 acres and change of wildlife habitat, open space, and beaches to play on, the stargazing possibilities of Montana de Oro seem almost like an afterthought. And truth be told, skies aren't quite as dark here as they are in lots of other places in SLO County: the lights of San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay are just a little bit too close for that. But as long as fogs aren't obscuring everything from view, you should be able to see the Milky Way overhead. If you've been in the city too long, that might be all you need.
6. Santa Rosa Creek Road, Santa Lucia Mountains
For darker skies along the coast it's hard to beat the Santa Lucia Range, which in their Monterey County portion offer night skies to rival anywhere in the California desert. The San Luis Obispo County section of the Santa Lucias is a little brighter, but not by much. Santa Rosa Creek Road, which parallels Route 46 between Paso Robles and Cambria, offers one particularly promising spot. Take Route 46 10.4 miles west from Route 101, then turn right onto Santa Rosa Creek Road. This is one of those 1.5-lane, unstriped paved roads that abound in SLO County, and it winds through the foothills, so drive carefully as you go. Just a hair less than five miles from Route 46, the road takes a very tight leftward hairpin turn to descend into a canyon. Before you get to the turn, pull into a left-hand pullout that runs sharply uphill. The footing may be muddy, so try to pick a time to visit when it hasn't rained for a week or so. Weather permitting, you'll have a near 360-degree view, with the land sloping down toward Cambria and the Pacific Ocean about 10 miles west. No amenities.
7. Soda Lake, Carrizo Plain National Monument
This is as close as you'll get to a desert on the Central Coast, in terms of both habitat and deep dark sky. Part of the Carrizo Plain National Monument, this lake is an important stopover for wildlife when there's water in it, and it's also comfortably remote from the lights of civilization. There's abundant parking at a roadside trailhead and a nearby, somewhat elevated observation area, the latter of which has a pit toilet as its sole amenity. Bring water. For all its remoteness, Soda Lake is only about an hour east of Santa Margarita. If that seems like too long a drive back after a long restful evening full of stars, the National Monument, managed by the BLM, also offers some first-come first-served campgrounds not far from the lake, as well as open camping in designated areas.