California's High Desert is a great place for stargazing: the cities tend to be small and far apart, and there are plenty of places where a casual sky watcher can just pull over to the side of the road and look up at amazingly dark skies.
So for the High Desert, which we're defining here as the arid parts of Kern, San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono counties, it would be easy to list all kinds of casual stops and turnouts. Instead, we've whittled this list down to the best of the best. Here are nine great places for watching those heavenly bodies, including one site that's the darkest we've ever mentioned.
Red Rock Canyon State Park, Kern County
We listed this spot in our Kern County night sky listicle as well, and for good reason: it's an easy jaunt from Southern California's crowded urban core, and it's easy to get a little ways off from the campground's gas lanterns and take in some reasonably dark sky. The park's day use area, across Route 14 from the campground, closes at sunset, but campsites (with nearby pit toilets and potable water) run $25 a night at this writing. Get here before the entire southern horizon fills up with wind turbine warning lights.
Afton Canyon, San Bernardino County
A secluded BLM campground near one of the few stretches of the Mojave River that has year-round water, Afton Canyon made our list of "Places You Need To See in the California Desert" a year ago. Turns out it's also a good place in the California desert from which to see faraway stars. On weekends this campsite about 40 miles from downtown Barstow (four of those miles on good dirt road) can get a little busy, as it's along the popular ORV route, the Mojave Road. But on school nights, you may well find yourself here alone, with just the stars and the bighorn sheep and the frequent freight trains to keep you company.
Amboy Crater, San Bernardino County
A great spot with almost no amenities whatsoever, this BLM scenic area off old Route 66 has a few things to recommend it nonetheless. It's got a parking lot where larger scopes can be set up securely -- though keep in mind the occasional ferocious winds. It's got a pit toilet. It's about equally difficult to get there from Barstow, Joshua Tree, and Needles. There's no camping here, so overnighters will have to either find dispersed sites on the BLM's eight frillion acres of surrounding land, or grab a room 80 miles west in Barstow. Some supplies and a hot meal are available halfway to Barstow in Ludlow, and extremely limited supplies might be had around the corner in Amboy.
Hole In The Wall, Mojave National Preserve, San Bernardino County
This is the Mojave National Preserve's most popular campground, which admittedly isn't much of a contest seeing as there's only one other campground in the 1.6 million-acre preserve (it also made our best desert winter camping list). Even with the presence of other campers and the light from a nearby visitor center, this part of the preserve gets pretty dark. The New York Mountains to the north cut out a lot of the light from Las Vegas, and smaller mountain ranges to the east likewise block light domes from the smaller cities along the Colorado river. It's no accident that the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy holds regular star parties in the adjacent Black Canyon group campground. Camping is $12 (though if you go to one of the Conservancy's star parties, there's no charge to camp in the group area) and water and pit toilets are available. As are coyotes, hiking trails, and some of the best wide-open country in the Mojave.
Grandview Campground, Inyo County
It's not easy to find a higher spot in the high desert than this favorite among Southern California astronomers, at 8,500 feet in the pinyon juniper forested slopes of the White Mountains, well into the Inyo National Forest. Just 20 miles of paved road from the thriving metropolis of Big Pine gets you out of much of the pesky atmosphere and away from the night lighting in the Owens Valley. Because it's so popular with the stargazing set, the Forest Service asks campers to keep their ambient lighting to a minimum. The result? A nearly unimpeded view of the night sky, with the High Sierra's peaks less than 20 miles across the valley below. The Forest Service asks for a $5 donation per night of camping. (We've paid five times that much for less-inspiring places to sleep.) Sites are first come, first served, and keep in mind two very important details: 1) you'll have to bring water, because the campground doesn't have any, and 2) this spot is at 8,500 feet and well to the north of much of the desert, so count on winter storms closing it.
Bridgeport, Mono County
Mono County has an embarrassment of places to lay back and watch the stars wheel overhead, with literally thousands of places to camp or park for hours with no one going past. The Forest Service has a good guide to some dispersed camping spots here. So rather than choose among the many spectacular primitive camping sites the county offers, we're listing two that offer some comfort. Bridgeport, the Mono County seat, is a must-visit. Despite being the spot where the county courthouse and offices shoulder up to busy Route 395, this small town has so little light that it barely edges out of the black in this authoritative dark sky mapping tool. Even standing downtown, you should be able to see the Milky Way running from one horizon to the other. And at least one local lodge yours truly has stayed in lets you walk out the back door of your room, find a spot on the lawn with the Walker River flowing past, and gaze at that dark sky for hours.
Benton Hot Springs, Mono County
If Mono County's political hub is dark at night, you can imagine how great the night skies are in a small hamlet 40 miles off route 395. Benton Hot Springs is solidly into the sagebrush belt of the California desert, and despite being a few miles off all-weather, transcontinental Route 6, it's really quiet. The area doesn't have much in the way of amenities other than a market on the main highway and a Western-themed inn at the hot springs, so you'll probably want to stock up on food in Bishop. But something about the prospect of stargazing while sitting in hot water stirs something primal in us. The Inn at Benton Hot Springs even has campsites with their own hot tubs for those of you who will be understandably reluctant to go indoors at all. Try to resist the temptation to take your telescope into the tub with you.
Emigrant Campground, Death Valley National Park, Inyo County
Now we're talking. This campground nine miles west of Stovepipe Wells is not precisely "no-frills": it's got piped in water and flush toilets. It's also tent-only, and it's free to whichever ten parties show up first. The concessionaire at Stovepipe Wells makes a big deal of keeping the lights low so that their customers can enjoy serious dark skies, and aside from the traffic on Route 190, there should be no other visible source of light. The northern section of Death Valley National Park is the darkest spot in all of Southern California, and Emigrant Campground sits on the edge of that area, ever so slightly too close to Las Vegas to enjoy the theoretically darkest possible skies. But unless you've just been to the next site on our list, you''ll hardly notice: the Milky Way will provide enough light for you to cast a shadow, and deep-sky objects like the Triangulum Galaxy will be visible with the naked eye.
Mesquite Springs Campground Death Valley National Park, Inyo County
If Emigrant Campground's skies aren't quite dark enough for you, an even darker place lies just 50 miles up the road. Of all the spots we've featured in all our stargazing guides so far, this easily accessible campground in the northern reaches of Death Valley has the darkest skies. It's far enough from the more populated parts of the park that you can often find nice campsites here when places like Furnace Creek are full to overflowing. 30 sites, 12 bucks a night, water and flush toilets, and if you snag a space atop the low cliffs above the wash that runs along the west edge of the campground, it's easy to duck down into the wash to block out the light of your neighbors' campfires and RV television sets. And how dark are the skies at Mesquite Springs? Dark enough that around midnight, you might well see the strange phenomenon known as "gegenschein," a brightening of the sky exactly opposite the Sun caused by interplanetary dust reflecting sunlight. Planets and the Milky Way will seem annoyingly bright. And the usual concerts from local coyotes don't hurt. An absolute bucket list place for stargazers.