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Stargazing in California

July 2, 2020

With its vast open spaces and a uniquely diverse landscape, California’s night skies provide an ideal backdrop for staring into the heavens. Whether taking a quick getaway from the city or venturing into the state’s untamed wilderness, visitors will find endless opportunities for stargazing in the Golden State.

Surrounded by the 600,000-acre Anza Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs is the only International Dark Sky Community in California. About 11 years ago, Borrego Springs residents united and formed the Borrego Springs Dark Sky Coalition and today, visitors come from around the world to experience the desert’s nightly star show. Another great stargazing location in California’s desert is Death Valley National Park - one of only eight designated "gold tier" International Dark Sky Parks in the United States where stargazers can actually see the Milky Way with the naked eye. It is also designated the largest Dark Sky National Park in the country by the International Dark Sky Association. The Oasis at Death Valley is a great home base for night sky enthusiasts, offering visitors clear night skies, open land for exploring and intentionally dim exterior lights.

California’s Central Coast features myriad ways to enjoy the night sky. The isolated location of Channel Islands National Park makes it one of the least visited National Parks, and home to some of the lowest levels of light pollution compared to all other national parks. With camping available year-round on all five islands, this national park offers up a spectacular setting for stargazing. Northern SLO CAL's enchanting wine regions - Templeton, San Miguel and Paso Robles - are also ideal for stargazing, as is Morro Bay beach further south on the coast. Visitors are encouraged to bring a flashlight, pack a blanket and check the tides for a night of natural wonder set against the silhouette of the iconic Morro Rock. Finally, in Conejo Valley, Sandstone Peak Trailhead is perfectly nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains and the extra dark skies are popular amongst serious stargazers.

With no city light to blur the stars, in California’s High Sierra the night sky lights up with millions of stars. During the summer in Yosemite National Park, visitors can join rangers for nightly four-hour Starry Skies tours to Glacier Point for a one-of-a-kind astronomy lesson. In nearby Tuolumne County, the secluded cabins at Kennedy Meadows Resort offer an ideal home base for stargazing enthusiasts, with stars lighting up the night sky and reflecting in the river. For wine-lovers, a sunset cruise aboard Tahoe Tastings is a great way to do a little stargazing. At certain points throughout the summer when there's less clouds and the moon isn't full, guests are treated to an incredible amount of stars while in the middle or the lake.

Located just a short drive from Visalia, the nationally recognized night sky of Sequoia National Park and the adjacent National Forest beckons astronomy and outdoor fans to explore the stars. The darkness of the night sky not only adds to the beauty of its natural landscapes but also contributes to the health of wildlife. Looking for truly private getaway? Staying on a houseboat on one of the many lakes in the Yuba Sutter area is another great way to enjoy the night sky. Englebright Reservoir - also known as the Narrows Recreation Area - is especially ideal for stargazers, as the campgrounds are only accessible by boat and visitors can observe the stars surrounded by the peacefulness of the mountains.

In addition to claiming the vibrant city of San Francisco and world-renowned wine country, the Bay Area is also home to excellent opportunities for stargazing. In Sonoma Valley, the Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is usually open for monthly star parties where docents present on a variety of astronomical topics and open up the three main telescopes for viewing. Meanwhile, south of San Francisco in Alameda County, Lake Del Valle features virtually zero light pollution, enabling visitors to spot star clusters, nebulae and even Venus! Visitors are invited to camp out for the night and gaze at constellations by the water, or sign up for a complimentary spring or summer stargazing meet-up hosted by the Tri-Valley Stargazers in partnership with the East Bay Regional Park District to view the stars through professional-grade telescopes.

California’s Shasta Cascade region, located in the northeast corner of the state, provides endless opportunities for stargazing. Lava Beds National Monument is a great option for astronomy enthusiasts, since this Dark Sky Preserve protects the nighttime skies via a monitoring program and lighting protocols, while offering fun activities like the ranger-led Annual Star Party Event. A few hours west, the iconic Mount Shasta is another great spot to visit. Rising more than 14,000 feet and drivable up to about 8,000 feet, summer in Mount Shasta is ideal for stargazing, telescope viewing or taking a nighttime walk. Local outfitters in the area (Shasta Vortex Adventures, Mt. Shasta Fun Guides and Mount Shasta Retreat) offer nighttime guided stargazing and spiritual hikes, while in winter, many of those same outfitters will do custom moonlit snowshoe adventures. 

For the past 32 years Taylor Observatory, located in Kelseyville, has served as Lake County’s home for astronomy. Visitors can enjoy viewing over 140,000 celestial objects using the research-grade telescope, along with a dazzling multi-media experience under the 20-foot dome of the facility’s planetarium. With its Stargazing Family Fun Package, Little River Inn on the Mendocino Coast is a great home base for amateur astronomers. In addition to accommodations, the package features a stargazing kit complete with special binoculars, a star map, a star guide and more.

Note: As communities re-open after COVID-19-related closures, some parks, businesses and attractions may still be closed or have new protocols in place. Please verify local guidelines and regulations for all destinations and hours and availability of individual businesses before publishing. Check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub for guidance on how visitors can travel within California safely.