SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S DARK SKY REGION
Dark skies are not typically associated with California. Mention “star-studded” and people think Hollywood. The light pollution from the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angeles basin and metropolitan San Diego shines like beacons to the planes and satellites high above the earth’s surface. But tucked away in the sparsely populated south part of the state is a pocket of dark skies. Peaceful. Quiet. Shimmering with the lights of the Milky Way.
Joshua Tree National Park, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the historic Sonoran desert town of Borrego Springs and the charming mountain hamlet of Julian have all earned a Dark Sky designation from the International Dark Sky Association. These four distinct environments, all within a 2 1/2 hour drive of each other, provide a delightful sanctuary for stargazing, along with a diversity of other adventures and activities. If you’ve got four nights for a fun and unique journey, follow the stargazing road. And don’t forget binoculars or a telescope.
NIGHT 1 - JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree is an International Dark Sky Park at the Silver Tier Level. Elevated to National Park status in 1994, Joshua Tree encompasses two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado. A fascinating variety of plants, reptiles - including the threatened desert tortoise - birds and animals like the big horn sheep make their homes in this land. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.
The park’s 800,000 acres of pristine desert covered with Dr. Suess-like Joshua trees include 91 miles of paved roads, 106 miles for off-roading and 191 miles of hiking trails. Elevations range from 536 feet to a high of 5,814 feet at Quail Mountain.
The peak season to visit is October through May, but don’t discount a visit during other months. Despite the heat, many visitors prefer the hotter months for better Milky Way viewing and the Perseid meteor shower; both are best seen in August. The annual Dark Sky Festival is typically held in late September. This ticketed event is sponsored by the non-profit organizations Joshua Tree Residential Education Experience (JTREE) and Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center, in partnership with Joshua Tree National Park.
If you’re not a camper, there are plenty of AirBnB’s and other lodging in the towns of Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree and other nearby towns.
NIGHTS 2 & 3 - BORREGO SPRINGS AND ANZA BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK
On your way to the historic town of Borrego Springs, you can pass through Mecca Hills. This colorful area boasts 1.5 billion year old rock formations and incredible geologic sites bent and squeezed by the San Andreas Fault, which runs directly under it. Otherwise, head west on S22. There’s only one road and it takes you straight to Borrego Springs.
Borrego Springs is a fun little town filled with delightful surprises. Many visitors come for the golf and moderate winter temperatures. It is famous for its “spring super bloom” in wet years. The Borrego Art Institute’s “Circle of Art” draws outstanding and well-known plein air artists from around the country. But increasingly, Borrego Springs is evolving into an eco-tourism destination thanks to its wide range of adventure-oriented activities, its dark skies and its effort to become the country’s first Quiet Conservation area.
Borrego Springs was the second town in the nation and the first in California to be designated a Dark Sky Community by the International Dark Sky Association. Since there are more than 300 cloudless nights per year, almost any time of year is good for stargazing. It has become a destination for night sky activities ranging from seeing the planets align, to experiencing the Leonid meteor shower in November, to watching galaxies collide with the help of a deep sky telescope.
The Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association (ABDNA) maintains a list of fun and educational night sky activities. Open to the public, many of these events are limited in the number that can be attend, so be sure to sign up. Their full moon walks through offer unearthly views of shadow and moonlight in deep crevices and wide arroyos. At the turnaround point, the guide requests that all participants stop talking for 10 minutes. Although some people find this hard to do, eventually everyone becomes still and “listens" to the silence. It is an unforgettable experience.
Once a month in the season (October to April), ABDNHA hosts an amateur astronomer who, after a brief lecture that explains what will be on view in the telescopes that evening, takes the group out for a look through two or sometimes more high caliber telescopes. The ABDNHA gift shop is filled with books about star gazing, including some great books for getting kids started on this fascinating journey.
Speaking of books, the beautiful Borrego Springs Library, completed in 2019, is a “must see.” Beginning at the walkway leading up to the entrance doors, the planets Mercury, Venus and Earth are inscribed in the walkway in the precise relative distance that they are from each other. One has to go through the library to reach Mars, and walk way past the library on a beautiful garden path to reach Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (which is included, although it may have lost its “planet” status). It definitely gives a feel for the vastness of our solar system. The Library sponsors a Night Sky Festival in March, where on occasion some extra-terrestrials have been spotted.
Borrego Springs is the gateway to Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the largest park in the California State park system. ABDSP was named a Dark Sky Park in 2018. Over 90% of 700,000+ acres are designated wilderness. Mountain lions, Borrego sheep, fox, coyote and many other mammals roam the vast reaches of these mountains, often at night, so stargazing outside the perimeter of the Palm Canyon campground is not advised. Instead, enjoy the park’s many hiking, mountain biking, and off-roading trails by day, or just find a quiet spot to be still and soak in the austere and ancient majesty of these mountains.
Borrego Springs offers a multitude of AirBnBs plus lodging ranging from mid-century to Spanish to desert oasis-style architecture. The Borrego Springs RV Resort is one of the finest in the country, and has 4 cabins for rent. Dining options in town include Mexican food (with some of the best margaritas this side of the border!), Kesling’s Kitchen, Karlee’s and the Red Ocotillo. Just outside of town there is fine dining at La Casa del Zorro, the Rams Hill Clubhouse (check website for dates and nights of the week), the Coyote Steakhouse.
NIGHT 4 - JULIAN
The change in flora and fauna, temperature and elevation from Borrego Springs to Julian is one of the most rapid and visible in the state. In the short span of 45 minutes, one leaves the desert floor with its cholla and ocotillos, and travels Hwy 79 up over 4,000 feet to arrive in the mountain town of Julian, with its oaks, pines and cool breezes. A gold-mining town dating back to the 1870s, Julian is now better known for its famous apple pies.
After forming the Julian Dark Sky Network in 2015, Julian was awarded its Dark Sky Community accreditation from the International Dark Sky Association in 2021, only the 30th in the country and the second in the state (behind Borrego Springs) to achieve this distinction.
Each year, Julian hosts a stargazing festival. Professional and amateur astronomers guide participants on a star tour using one of the many telescopes set up in the viewing area.
There are also two observatories in close proximity to Julian. Mount Laguna Observatory (MLO) is operated by the San Diego State University Astronomy department. Situated at an elevation of 6,100 ft. on the remote eastern edge in the Laguna Mountains, MLO is well protected from the urban lighting of the San Diego metropolitan area. This remoteness, along with the high percentage of clear nights and excellent viewing, makes Mount Laguna one of the best overall observatory sites in the continental United States. MLO has grown to include four well-equipped telescopes, ranging in size from 21- to 50-inches (0.5- to 1.25-meters), which are used for research by the faculty and students.
The Palomar Observatory is located approximately 45 minutes from Julian. It is a world-class center of astronomical research that is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology. The observatory is home to five telescopes that are nightly used for a wide variety of astronomical research programs. The Observatory is open to the public daily (except December 24 and 25) for daytime visits.
Choose from the many AirBnBs in the Julian area or its charming accommodations like the Julian hotel in the center of town. And be sure to fortify yourself with some apple pie before you head out into the clear, dark night for some awe-inspiring stargazing.
For more information:
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association