Help me see stars!
January 24, 2017 10:54 AM   Subscribe

My birthday is coming up and I want to take a trip to see some night sky dusty with stars. I waited too long to make a plan and need help figuring out if what I want to do is even possible. Details within.

Trip dates: Wednesday, February 22 - Sunday, February 26 (non-negotiable)
Starting Location: San Francisco, CA
Lodging: RV

I researched a bunch of dark sky parks and came up the original plan, which was to rent an RV and drive to/RV camp at Death Valley. The prospect of sitting outside in lawn chairs at a peaceful spot, cocktails in hand, gazing up at the sky was my vision; unfortunately, I waited too long to make a campground reservation and there are none left except for at a concession-run park/resort, the “campground” of which is basically a gravel parking lot - which I’m not into at all.

Other spots considered:

Joshua Tree: no availability.
Lassen Volcanic National Park: campgrounds closed due to snow/winter.
Grand Canyon South Rim: still maybe a possibility but it’s a 12-hour drive from San Francisco and I’d been hoping for more of a ~8-hour jaunt.
Sheephole Valley Wilderness: no ability to make reservations and that’s not gonna fly with my s.o. (If we had weeks to meander around it would be fine but with only four days we don’t want to risk it.)
Mojave Desert: no ability to make reservations, see above.
Yosemite: RV campgrounds closed due to snow/winter.
Black Rock Desert: too f’ing cold to be in an RV.

I’ve also thought about and rejected the idea of driving to Death Valley and staying in the Furnace Creek Resort but it’s incredibly overpriced for what it is and I’m on a budget. This is also why I rejected the idea of flying someplace relatively dark in Baja and staying in a hotel - would end up being more than I want to spend.

I know there are plenty of places to drive north (or south) and either rent a house or stay at a lodge (have been to Sea Ranch and Jenner this year already) but I’d like to exhaust all the RV possibilities before we do that. We also run the risk of coastal fog in those spots and that would defeat the purpose of the trip! RV camping spots up north all seem like they'd be too cold as well, but maybe I'm off base on that since I've never done it.

I’m stuck. Anybody have any ideas how I can make this happen *including the RV component*??? TIA!

Note: have consulted the map, various NPS sites/maps, the International Dark-Sky Association finder and previous AskMes in researching the above. The AskMes were very helpful but did not specifically address the RV camping in winter aspect so here I am.
posted by hapax_legomenon to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Joshua Tree has a ton of first-come, first-serve camping. Most of the park is not reservable, actually. If you're getting there on a Wednesday, you'll have no problem finding a spot. I go there all the time midweek. Go for it.
posted by mykescipark at 10:57 AM on January 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Stars at Bryce Canyon are incredible.
posted by leafwoman at 11:03 AM on January 24, 2017

mykescipark: Even during a holiday week? (Monday 2/20 is Presidents' Day and it seems like a lot of places are filled up the week I want to go due to that.)
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:04 AM on January 24, 2017

If you're willing to rough it and do a good amount of preparation, Death Valley allows "dispersed back-country roadside camping." Basically, you find a dirt road, drive two miles down it, and then park wherever you like. The NPS has published a map of the backcountry roads and descriptions thereof (PDF). Most RVs are presumably "high clearance", though not 4WD, so that will limit your choices a bit — but it appears that there might still be some good options.
posted by Johnny Assay at 11:20 AM on January 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

How about Great Basin? That is a pretty dark park - like literally one of the darkest places in the US. There's almost always camping spots available because it's so remote. Most of their spots are on a first-come, first-served basis.

It's about a 12-hour drive from SF but it's a pretty spectacular sky.
posted by GuyZero at 11:20 AM on January 24, 2017

Stars at Bryce Canyon are incredible.

Yes, sort of? The parking areas are kind of close to Bryce Canyon Village, which has noticeable light pollution. They set up their night sky program behind the visitor center, and the light pollution along the horizon as well as from car traffic along the main park road was really distracting. The better star viewing at Bryce Canyon is along the rim, but you won't be in your RV, and you'll be at something like 8800 feet, so it will be incredibly cold (it was already very, very cold at night when we were there in September).

Bryce Canyon was our least favorite of the three full night sky programs we did on our trip, simply because of the location for the program itself. If you can get to either Great Basin (better) or Capitol Reef (best) you might be better off than at Bryce Canyon. Great Basin has a daily access campground near the Wheeler Peak trailhead, and we were told it does not fill up when it's cold. But the scenic drive itself might be closed because of winter conditions, so I don't know if that's actually helpful. Capitol Reef has small daily access campgrounds that do fill up, so it may not work for your trip anyway.
posted by fedward at 11:21 AM on January 24, 2017

Also, if anyone has any advice/suggestions about the ins/outs re: renting a small RV in San Francisco, as well as what/how to prepare in the case of no water/electric hookups, I'll take 'em.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:47 AM on January 24, 2017

If you could get to Tahoe, the stars there bring me to tears.
Lake Tahoe’s Best Places to Stargaze Top 20 places to stargaze at Lake Tahoe
posted by Room 641-A at 11:51 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think BLM land or a National Forest is probably going to be your best bet. Nearly all NF or BLM land is open to "Dispersed Camping" (unless clearly signed as restricted and no camping allowed). This means that you drive along any NF or BLM road until you find a place you want to camp, then you pull over and set-up camp. Usually, you must be at least ¼ mile from the nearest *paved* road or campground/other facility. As well as a fair distance from an water source (same as in backcountry camping, 300 feet is the guideline).

Check out these articles:
posted by amaire at 11:53 AM on January 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

I should add, that's not even going looking for a good spot, just at a friend's cabin.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:53 AM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Even during a holiday week?

I just checked Black Rock and Indian Cove, and while they are booked for the following weekend, there are enough spots open on Wednesday and Thursday to make me think it's still feasible. When in doubt, though, call the rangers and ask. They're super-helpful for things like this.
posted by mykescipark at 12:01 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Red Rock Canyon, California State Park (not the Nevada one!) is near Death Valley and thats a no reservation site, always empty. It is the darkest spot near LA.

Email if you want to know about some spots you can just pull over and hang in DV. Oops! I see amaire already covered this!

Red Rock Canyon info HERE.
posted by jbenben at 12:03 PM on January 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

For an RV you could call California Campers and see if they have availability.

As for no water or electricity, that's just normal camping. Bring water containers (you don't have to buy them at Amazon, you can get them at REI or surplus places or wherever), a gas stove and a really warm sleeping bag for this time of year. Most parks will have water somewhere if not at every camp site. Just fill up on your way in.
posted by GuyZero at 12:14 PM on January 24, 2017

Thanks everyone for your answers - I'm sold on the notion of boondocking so that's what we're gonna do! Can't wait.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 6:38 PM on January 24, 2017

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