From early January to late December, Southern California is filled with star-studded shows — in the sky!
We've got a great view of the multiple meteor showers that are visible throughout the year, dazzling our dark skies with colorful streaks of white, yellow, red, blue and even green.
They're bright and fast — and while at times they appear merely as "shooting stars," sometimes they explode into distant fireballs.
And just like clockwork, they appear year after year.
But don't let their regular schedule diminish the sense of urgency to try to spot them.
Fortunately, you don't have to be an astrophysicist or even an amateur astronomer or sometimes-stargazer to witness these stunning "sky shows." You just need a healthy sense of curiosity and a few helpful tips to point you in the right direction.
No matter the season, here are six suggestions for experiencing these "star showers" in Southern California's night skies.
1. Know Your Dates and Times
The Perseids in August aren't your only chance to witness the celestial spectacle known as a meteor shower. In Southern California, we also get reliable views of the Lyrids in late April, the Leonids in mid-November and the Geminids (the strongest of them all) in mid-December.
And sometimes you might even catch two meteor showers at the same time. In fact, the timing of the Delta Aquariid meteor shower overlaps with the Perseids peak — but in Southern California, these meteors may appear closer to the horizon and may be coming from the south. They may even cross each other's paths!
Since observing a meteor shower usually takes a little bit of planning ahead, check calendars and guides from the American Meteor Society, Griffith Observatory, EarthSky and the trusty Old Farmer's Almanac to help choose the best dates and times that work for you.
But, as Griffith Observatory advises, sometimes the peak occurs at a time when the shower is not visible from southern California.
So, take note of when the peak activity will occur (as measured by the "sky rate," or number of meteors per hour) as well as when conditions will favor the best viewability — like the phase of the moon.
You'll want to avoid the full moon (especially any super-bright "supermoons") and instead schedule your viewing for the "new moon" or sometime in the moon's first quarter. You can keep track of lunar phases with the help of calendars from Space.com and The Old Farmer's Almanac.
The time the moon "sets" can also influence the amount of distracting light pollution it gives off — because even when it's in a later phase, it might not actually be viewable in the night sky when you're looking for meteors. (Yes, there are "daytime moons.")
Finally, check the most recent weather report — because you won't be able to see meteors through cloud cover. And you probably won't want to sit outside during a monsoon, anyway.
Light and smoke from wildfires — even ones that don't seem very close by — can also detract from your experience. Check with CalFire to see where the active fires of interest currently are — and be prepared to high-tail it out of the wilderness if a brushfire sparks nearby.
2. Get Your Supplies
You don't necessarily need a telescope or set of binoculars to see meteor showers — especially not the more spectacular ones at their peak. Your own eyes should be enough. But if you typically need glasses or contact lenses for distance vision, be sure to wear them!
The only other supplies you really need for your meteor shower experience are about maintaining comfort in the outdoors. Think along the lines of a warm blanket and thermos of your favorite hot beverage; a reclining chair or hammock; and whatever you'd normally bring when spending the night outside (especially if you plan on sleeping at a campground and setting your alarm for the wee hours).
You may want to bring a compass or GPS device so you know which way you're facing (see #4 below). And a physical night sky map or "star finder" (a.k.a. planisphere) could go a long way as well. You can usually purchase them at most parks gift shops, outdoor outfitters and online — as well as a red flashlight to view it with.
If you're trying to photograph the meteor shower, don't forget to bring extra batteries (fully charged), spare memory cards or film and a tripod.
And even if it feels like you're relatively close to civilization, always bring more water than you think you'll need — and follow the other principles of not getting stuck out there.
3. Pick Your Spot
The most important guiding principle behind scouting a location for your meteor shower viewing is to find the darkest sky you can. In Southern California, that typically means the desert or a mountaintop — or at least somewhere at a higher elevation. Both of these options tend to be far away from urban glow and other light pollution, clear of clouds and air pollution, and wide-open enough to not block your view with tall buildings or trees.
You'll want to research a suitable spot ahead of time — like our guide of where to watch the Perseids meteor shower in August — especially since land management agencies like the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, California State Parks or Bureau of Land Management may require permits, advance reservations, and/or fees for access (especially if you're camping overnight).
If you're being spontaneous, just make sure you scout your location during the daylight and not in the dark.
4. Look In the Right Direction
Once you're settled in to your viewing spot, it's important to know where in the sky to look — because even if you've got an unobstructed view and you're lying flat on your back, you may not be able to see the entire sky all at once.
For the best view of the Leonids, for example, you should face east. But for the Perseids, you should face northeast.
Generally, you'll want to look slightly away from the star constellation that the meteor is named after — so for Geminids, slightly away from Gemini. That generally means lying down with your feet facing south.
If you're in a group of people, you can strategically look in different directions and work together to figure out the best spot to keep your eyes on.
5. Keep It Dark
Darkness isn't just about the geographic location you choose. You've also got to give your eyes about 30 minutes to adapt to the absence of light — which means eliminating all light sources from your car (headlights, parking lots, interior lights) and tech gadgets (cellphone screens and camera screens).
Even campfires can be too bright for ideal meteor shower viewing. That's why folks like to venture out for the summer showers, when it's warmer at night.
Since you may be in a relatively wild area, you may need to see something as you carefully step around the site. If you don't already have or can't get a red flashlight (see #2 above), there are hiking flashlights that come in a variety of other colors (including blue and green). However, our eyes perceive red light as darker than other colors — which is why it's the preferred color among astronomers.
Or, you can DIY your own "night vision" flashlight by taping or rubber-banding a red filter (either cellophane or a piece of red paper) to the end where the bulb is.
If your schedule doesn't allow for your viewing to occur during a darker moon phase, EarthSky recommends situating yourself so a large object (like a barn or even a mountain peak) blocks its light, essentially putting you in the moon's "shadow."
6. Take Your Time
Keep in mind that meteors come in spurts — sometimes with long lulls in between. It can take quite a bit of patience. That's why it's ideal to give yourself all night to see the best show possible!
But if you can't stay up all night, observe the sky for at least an hour — after spending that half-hour letting your eyes adjust.
There are plenty of other celestial objects you might see while you wait — including planets, constellations, the "Summer Triangle," the Milky Way (most easily viewed from SoCal in July and August), and even the International Space Station (the second-brightest object in the night sky). Sit back and enjoy them all!
And if your meteor shower session isn't as spectacular as you were hoping for, you've got more chances to try again — as each meteor shower occurs during a window of time across several days or even weeks.
Besides, there's always the next meteor shower. Or even next year!