Best Places to Go Stargazing in San Diego
Vincent Van Gogh once said, “I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
If there’s anything good that’s come out of the recent time of isolation, it’s that we experienced a much deeper appreciation of the natural world around us. And for me, that includes the universe.
Stargazing is an amazing experience and we are quite lucky to have some fantastic dark sky areas near San Diego. So if you want to explore the universe from below, take a look at our recommendations for the best spots to go stargazing in San Diego.
Did you know that there are approximately 200 trillion stars in the universe? Some we can see with the naked eye, some with a telescope, and some with even more powerful astronomy equipment. But there they are, in all their twinkling glory for those of us who want to wish upon a star, or just marvel at the vastness of the cosmos.
I attended two unforgettable stargazing events in Palm Springs, CA, and Flagstaff, AZ in the past few months. These experiences reminded me not only of the immense expanse of our universe, but the magical experience that gazing at the dark night sky and seeing the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies provide.
The great news for San Diegans is that we too have some incredible places for stargazing ranging from a coastal reserve to the mountains and deserts of San Diego County. Obviously, the further one goes outside the San Diego core, the better the viewing due to lessening light pollution.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
One of the absolute best places in Southern California to view the night skies, Anza-Borrego is a recognized Dark Sky Park. It is close to Borrego Springs, Southern California’s first designated International Dark Sky Community. The Park is about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown San Diego, but so worth the visit.
Here the locals take stargazing very seriously. The vast desert landscape provides nights so clear, that onlookers can easily view colorful stars, stellar clusters, planets, star-forming nebulae, constellations, Earth-orbiting satellites, and more.
Seasoned stargazers claim the isolated Little Blair Valley on the western edge of the park the top spot for stargazing. It is the ideal place to ooh and aah over the magnificent beauty of the glorious night sky. Serious star watchers can even schedule an evening with astronomer Dennis Mammana of Borrego Night Sky Tours for an unforgettable educational and awe-inspiring experience. And from November through April, the state park offers monthly stargazing and moon-watching programs.
We know all about the town of Julian’s apple orchards, mouthwatering apple pies, historic gold mine, and wineries, but this charming mountain town was also recently rewarded the recognition as a dark-sky community.
Julian StarFest, an amateur astronomer event sponsored by SDAA will resume at the Menghini Winery in Julian in August, 2022. In the meantime, if you’re visiting Julian on a clear night, there are several places to do some solo stargazing including William Heise County Park. And here’s the best news of all…the Julian community is part of the 1% of the U.S. that can clearly see the entire Milky Way.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Sometimes the night sky just begs to be explored. And when that whim happens and you don’t want to travel very far to see a clear view of the stars, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is the place to be.
Though you’re not likely to find as many visible stars here as in more remote locations, the Reserve does offer dark skies despite its urban La Jolla proximity. On a clear night, the park delivers spectacular views that are actually quite impressive.
The Reserve parking lot gate closes at sunset so you won’t want to park there. Luckily, there’s always open parking on the ocean side of the road. Just grab a warm blanket, a cup of hot cocoa, and head down to the beach! Just remember to pay attention to the waves and high tides. And honestly, doesn’t the ocean surf and a stunning starlit sky make for quite a romantic evening?
Friends have also suggested that the Torrey Pines Gliderport. It is another fabulous spot for stargazing high above the La Jolla bluffs.
For other impromptu constellation chasers, you can head to Mission Trails Regional Park’s Cowles Mountain in East County. San Diego’s highest point at 1,593-feet elevation offers decreased minimal pollution and a well-traveled, well-marked trail. Even at night, it’s a safe bet especially when visitors bring good flashlights along on the trek.
To get the best panoramic view possible, you’ll need to hike up the mountain. The climb is worth it for an amazing sparkling nighttime spectacle.
Mt. Helix Park
Another East County location, Mt. Helix is a small stargazing spot located in La Mesa, but much-loved by the local community. It’s a mere 20 to 25-minute drive from downtown San Diego. That makes it far enough from the city lights to give amateur astronomers some clear and marvelous views of the cosmos.
And be sure to check the Mt. Helix website for their astronomy nights and special events like “An Evening Under the Stars.”
Tierra Del Sol
This small rural East County community, a 75-minute drive from San Diego just happens to be one of the best stargazing spots in San Diego. First, it’s a destination way out in the country with wide-open skies and virtually no light pollution.
It’s such a prime location that the San Diego Astronomical Society holds some of their special stargazing and astronomical events (like meteor shower shows) here. These public star parties include the use of the association’s reflector and refractor telescopes during these hosted events.
An area well-known for its lovely campground, East County’s Mount Laguna is another impressive location to gaze into the heavens.
First, it’s located in the picturesque Cleveland National Forest at a clean-air, 6,000-foot elevation with absolutely no city lights to interfere with the inky-sky stargazing experience. The observatory is operated by the SDSU Department of Astronomy to support its research, training, and educational programs.
Located about an hour-and-a-half drive from San Diego, Palomar Mountain is the perfect base for a weekend of clear-sky star watching or meteor showers. Caltech’s Palomar Observatory is located here; a center of astronomical research and home to three active high-tech telescopes. This includes the renowned Hale Telescope, considered one of the largest and most powerful reflecting telescopes in the world.
The observatory is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic. Visitors should continue to check the website for information about the observatory’s online programs and plans for reopening. And when it does, we can’t wait to attend one of its “Explore the Stars” parties celebrating San Diego Astronomy!
Balboa Park-Stars in the Park
San Diego’s Fleet Science Museum located in Balboa Park is home to a planetarium with regularly-scheduled talks and shows. But the best part happens at dusk on the first Wednesday of each month following the “Sky Tonight” planetarium show in the Ruben H. Fleet Space Theater. Members of the SDAA (San Diego Astronomers Association) set up telescopes on the west side of the Prado for free public telescope sky viewing.
Though this event has been closed due to the pandemic, there are plans to resume soon. Stargazers can find alternate sites for stargazing by checking the SDAA website calendar for additional sky news.
Stargazing Vacation Rentals in San Diego
For those choosing to travel a bit further out from San Diego proper, the good news is that there are wonderful vacation rentals close enough to the San Diego stargazing venues where you can slip into peaceful slumber after an evening of dreamy night-sky watching. These are perfect for couples or groups of friends planning a weekend under the stars.
- San Diego – View from The Lookout: A Restorative Getaway in the San Diego Back/WineCountry
- Borrego Springs– 2 bedroom, 2 bath home in Rams Hill community.
- Borrego Springs– Secluded Mountain Cabin on 40 acres with Amazing Views
- Anza Borrego – Quiet Desert Serenity Escape Anza Borrego Springs
- Palomar Mountain– 5 bedroom, 2 ½ bath luxury home.
- Palomar Mountain – Spectacular view over San Diego County to Mt. Laguna, downtown, Catalina Island
- Alpine (Cleveland National Forest)-1 bedroom, 1 bath private “casita”
- Julian– Tucker Peak Lodge- Studio, private bath
There’s still something magical about lying on your back and looking up at the stars. It reminds us of the innocence of childhood and Peter Pan charting a course “second star to the right and straight on till morning.”
However, if you plan to go stargazing in San Diego and experience the profound magnificence of the cosmos, make sure to get in touch with that inner child. Guaranteed, you will enjoy going to “infinity and beyond!”
Stargazing in San Diego was written by Noreen Kompanik for San Diego Explorer.
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Last Updated on November 7, 2021 by Maria Haase