Almost any night is the perfect time to gaze up at the moon and stars in the Golden State. California is home to two International Dark Sky communities, ideal for stargazing, and features plenty of other areas, away from big cities, with their own dazzling after-dark action. Here are seven great spots to enjoy nature's nighttime marvels.
1. Siskiyou County
For the best night-sky viewing, you have to go where it's really dark, i.e. miles away from the glare of city lights. In California's quiet Siskiyou County, the far-flung town of Somes Bar fits the bill. A stay at Marble Mountain Ranch is your ticket to nighttime spectacles, plus daylight hours filled with horseback riding, fly-fishing, and rafting or kayaking on the Klamath River. Book your own private cottage at the all-inclusive ranch, and you can watch the celestial action from your front porch.
On California's romantic North Coast, Mendocino is just remote enough to provide good chances of spotting super-bright planets, sparkling stars, and nebula clusters on clear summer nights. Book the Little River Inn's Stargazing Family Package and enjoy a two-night stay in an ocean-view room, plus a handy stargazing kit: night-sky binoculars, star map, star guide, flashlight, blanket, and hot cocoa.
3. Death Valley National Park
There's plenty of dark sky in eastern California, too. Death Valley might not come to mind for a summer vacation (you've seen visitors' selfies shot beside the thermometer registering 115 degrees). But you can sleep during hot afternoons—or immerse yourself in the pool—and come out to stargaze when the temperature drops at night. Death Valley is America's largest International Dark Sky Park and one of only eight that has achieved "Gold Tier" status. Known worldwide for its black-velvet canvas of twinkling stars, it's a place where you can look up and see the Milky Way with just your naked eyes. Reserve a room at the historic Inn at Death Valley or the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley.
4. Lake Tahoe
Maybe you're more of a mountain gal or guy. What Lake Tahoe lacks in terms of big-city action, it makes up for in elevation—6,200 feet at the lakeshore. That altitude means jet-black nights and clear skies for primo stargazing. You can lay out a blanket almost anywhere and enjoy the night sky, but for an only-in-Tahoe experience, join a stargazing paddle tour in a clear-shelled kayak (yup, you can see right through it). Clearly Tahoe’s beginner-friendly tours guide you out on the lake at night, your route illuminated by the sparkling heavens above and colorful LED lights beneath your transparent boat.
5. Alcatraz Island
Home to the notorious prison and some of the most stunning waterfront real estate anywhere, San Francisco Bay's island of Alcatraz is scheduled to reopen on Aug. 15 after a long COVID-19 closure. Even the most jaded Bay Area locals are looking forward to seeing the spectacular evening vistas from the Alcatraz Night Tour. On the ferry ride to the national historic site and long-abandoned prison, you can easily fill up your Instagram account with sundown shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. Take a riveting audio tour of the prison building and hear its inmates' stories, then as you depart the island, see how the night sky paints Alcatraz in an eerily gorgeous glow. If the fog rolls out, you might catch a star show, too.
6. San Diego County: Julian and Borrego Springs
You probably didn't know that San Diego County's apple-pie town of Julian is one of the best places in Southern California for nightlife. No, not hipster hotspots or ultra-lounges, but rather star clusters, nebulae, and maybe even Venus or Mars. In 2021, the town was recognized as an International Dark Sky community—but that was no surprise to Michael Leigh, who owns the Observer’s Inn, an astronomy-themed bed-and-breakfast boasting three research-grade telescopes. The inn's rooms are closed during summer, but Leigh still offers one-hour guided “sky tours” in his rooftop observatory. Group size is limited, so call ahead to reserve your spot.
7. Paso Robles
Only the universe can make the stars, but artists can create a pretty amazing representation. Take a trip to Paso Robles and have your mind blown by Field of Light at Sensorio, a 15-acre art installation by Bruce Munro. This colorful light show illuminates Paso Robles' gently rolling grasslands with more than 100,000 stemmed globes. There's live music every night, plus food and wine from local vendors. Book your tickets before arriving.