San Diego-based stargazing?
September 30, 2014 11:45 PM   Subscribe

I aim to find me a dark piece of sky and do some stargazing somewhere within a few hours of San Diego. The only complication is that I work nights, so I can't really head out until about 10pm. How best to do this?

Am I over-thinking this? Is the solution as obvious as "drive to Anza Borrego [for example], park the car on the side of the road, and look up"? I guess I'm hesitant because I'm completely unfamiliar with the area, so I worry that I'll get out in the middle of nowhere and not really know where to go. (I'm here for a few weeks on business - originally from NYC where the night sky... eh, not so much.) Is it safe if I'm alone? Will I find gas stations/provisions? What am I missing? How can I maximize my enjoyment and comfort while minimizing the creep factor of being alone in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night?
posted by fingers_of_fire to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Pick a night with a new moon.

Use the Dark Sky Finder to find somewhere with relatively little light pollution. California's kind of ridiculous, so you may have to drive a way. You also want to be out of view of any highways. So that will be easier if it's a little hilly. Elevation is good anyway, because that means there's less air in your way.

I've used this approach in Northern California, and I had pretty good success picking a spot like that on the map and then just driving around and looking for exits and small roads and places that didn't look like a rancher was going to shoot me. I wound up on some dirt road on the side of a hill. It was two levels lighter than the absolute darkest that Dark Sky Finder has, but it was also only 2-3 hours drive from San Francisco, and there was some really really good stars out there.

Check the forecast before you go out - if it's cloudy cancel, but also look at the expected temperature and dress appropriately. If you go inland a ways it can get pretty chilly at night in the autumn.
posted by aubilenon at 11:59 PM on September 30, 2014

It sounds like you don't really care about telescopes or seeing any specific stars.

You don't actually want a dark piece of sky. That would mean there's a lot of cloudcover and you wouldn't be able to see any stars.

For the most dramatic stars, pick a moonless night with clear weather.

Here's a map showing darker areas.

If you are planning on going to a national park of some sort, find out if it will be closed at night.

If you are worried about having gas stations available look online and find where they will be located on your route. Bring a gallon of water with you into the desert, rather than assuming you'll find an open place to buy some. You'll probably have tastier provisions if you plan ahead instead of choosing from whatever a gas station has.

Is it safe if I'm alone?

Well, if you do something dumb or have an accident you won't have anyone else around to help you out. Don't stare up at the sky and walk over a cliff or into a cactus or anything. Wear boots, sturdy pants, and bring some warm clothes. Don't wander away from your car if you have no experience walking around in the desert at night, it's all too easy to loose track of where the car is.

The other potential danger is if you end up not being alone anymore out in the desert. If you are headed to BLM or forest service land, call up the field office for that area during the day and ask about crime rates. You'll have to decide what your own comfort level is here.

minimizing the creep factor of being alone in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night

I have never found being actually alone in this situation to be creepy in any way whatsoever. Not sure what you mean here. If you don't want to be creepy, don't park near other cars, there might be people in them who would like some privacy; if you are concerned about creepy people showing up pick a spot where you can see all the approaches and drive away if anyone creepy shows up.
posted by yohko at 12:31 AM on October 1, 2014

If you do want to use a telescope, the San Diego Astronomy Association holds events where you can do that.
posted by yohko at 12:39 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would head to Anza-Borrego, but I'd call the ranger station first, if possible, to see what advice they have since you can't scout during daylight. This is basically what I do in the Joshua Tree area and it works out fine. Based on the Dark Sky Finder, I'd start with the area near Granite Mountain on CA-78.
posted by feloniousmonk at 1:09 AM on October 1, 2014

Nthing the San Diego Astronomy Association -- they even have a special "dark sky" area for club events.

If you're not a joiner, then you could just look up the closest open-to-the-public location near their club's observatory (which is at 32° 36' 48" N; 116° 19' 55" W) and go there on your own.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:12 AM on October 1, 2014

Is the solution as obvious as "drive to Anza Borrego [for example], park the car on the side of the road, and look up"?

Pretty much.

I guess I'm hesitant because I'm completely unfamiliar with the area, so I worry that I'll get out in the middle of nowhere and not really know where to go. (I'm here for a few weeks on business - originally from NYC where the night sky... eh, not so much.) Is it safe if I'm alone?

There's really not too many paved roads out there, and they're all well-marked with signs at intersections and everything. Just stay on the state and county highways and you'll be fine. I've done pretty much exactly what you're talking about a number of times, and it's not a big deal at all, never seen a person that wasn't in a car just driving by.

Will I find gas stations/provisions?

You'll probably be fine if you fill up in San Diego before heading out, or, maybe even better an eastern suburb before heading into the mountains. On I-8, there should be 24/7 gas and convenience stores at least until Alpine. Out in Borrego, there are gas stations in Ocotillo (just off I-8) and Borrego Springs (on S-22 further north), but I don't know if they'll be open when you're out there. If you're going someplace further north, Ramona or Escondido (maybe even an Indian casino further east than that) will have stuff 24/7. There's also stuff in Julian if you're out that way, but again I can't vouch for them being open late. Anyway, unless you're driving a real gas-guzzler with a small tank you can probably get out there and back with a fill-up at the start of your trip.

If you'd like someplace a little closer to town than Borrego, you might be able to find a good spot in the mountains. I'm thinking Kwaaymi Point, which is located here. On google maps, it's just outside Cleveland National Forest, and if that's true then you don't need to get an Adventure Pass. Easy to get to - just I-8 east to S-1 (AKA Sunrise Highway), and head north. You can also come in from the north side via Julian. Additionally, SDSU has an observatory in the mountains near there and sometimes leads guided walks from the campground (El Prado) to let visitors look through the telescope, but I think that's only on weekend nights earlier than you'll be able to be there.

If you do end up going all the way out to the desert, there are only three roads you really need to think about. S-2 is the main north-south route that basically runs the whole length of the state park, from I-8 at the southern end to S-22 in the north. North of highway 78, it heads slowly up into the mountains. State Highway 78 heads east through about the mid-point of the park after dropping from the mountains in Julian Quite a long ways out, there's a paved road that heads south a ways called Split Mountain Road, and there's a tavern (maybe with a gas station) where it meets 78 in the "town" of Ocotillo Wells. S-22 Drops down into Borrego Springs, which is kind of a resort town, and then heads east out to the Salton Sea. There's also I-8, but you can't really pull off to the side of the road on that one. There's a network of dirt roads running through the desert, most of which are fine for regular passenger cars near where they meet pavement but can get hairy as you go further. There are also a number of informational pullouts or campgrounds where you should be fine along any of those three roads. Just make sure that when you park, you leave room for a vehicle to get by you and you're not parked over vegetation.

One thing about going out to the desert - depending on which way you go, you'll run into border patrol checkpoints, since you can't really leave San Diego county without encountering one. So, there's one in the mountains on I-8 near the Imperial County line, and then another one on S-2 just a bit north of I-8 if you go back north that way. They're usually not a problem at all, but if you plan on any kind of mind expansion when you're stargazing, you might want to avoid those areas.
posted by LionIndex at 5:08 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

LionIndex has it pretty much 100% right. As someone who is a frequent stargazer in San Diego County, I can tell you that there's some great stuff out there and it's mostly in the mountains.

I would add that you can just get out to the 8 and then take that to the 79 (not the 76, nor the 78--though both would eventually get you to mountains). The 79 is a fun drive if you like mountains and there's a number of places to stop (Cuyamaca, Julian, Santa Ysabel, etc.) off the side of the road.

If you pull over, you'll be startled by the hush and blinded by the occasional car or truck with their brights on. Be warned that sometimes people will think you're in distress and politely stop to offer help. Unlike the city, this is rural country and manners follow.

Finally, if you get the chance to get out during daytime you should head to Mt. Palomar, home to the Palomar Observatory. It's really cool--home of the world's largest telescope from 1949 to 1992!--and they offer daytime tours.
posted by librarylis at 4:56 PM on October 4, 2014

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