Stargazing is one of those activities that people have indulged in and loved since the beginning of time. The thrill of gazing up at an ink-black sky studded with the diamonds of stars makes one sparkling way to spend an evening. Deserts, mountains, and coastal areas are all prime spots for viewing nighttime wonders where there is little light pollution. What could be better? Well, perhaps some delightful culinary experiences along with your sky watching.
Let’s start in the Southern California Anza-Borrego desert, where Casa Del Zorro, an elegant resort with a surfeit of swimming pools – 26 – creates a blissful spot to stargaze. Spacious rooms and terrific landscaping across 42 desert acres make for a spectacular and tranquil retreat. One of the room packages includes a telescope for stargazing. Along a quiet pebbled path by the main pool, a simple wooden sign points “Look Up.” It’s good advice: the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park which surrounds the resort, and the small town of Borrego Springs itself, is a designated Dark Sky Community. This means no bright lights to mar the clear desert skies. The resort’s elegant classic dining room, the Butterfield Room, includes their wonderful signature Kit Fox Salad: Boston Bibb lettuce with avocado, grapefruit, strawberries, raspberries, dates, scallions, and pecans in a lovely citrus dressing. As a main course, the vegetarian Portobello Wellington is rich and earthy; the vegetarian lasagna is another delicious choice.
Not far away in the small town of Julian, known for its apple orchards, there’s a very special bed and breakfast, the cozy Observer’s Inn. Here, the innkeepers provide a private observatory with research grade telescopes and a retractable roof. In winter months, knowledgeable co-owner and “star tours” guide Mike Leigh provides blankets for guests. Any time of year, there’s something wonderful to be viewed during the hour-plus gazing adventure, which changes nightly. It’s an awe-inspiring evening for a limited number of guests and area visitors. Naturally, one dining experience not-to-be-missed here is the apple pie – we like the sugar-free, apple cider sweetened slices from Julian Pie Company. The locavore cuisine at the lovely Jeremy’s on the Hill includes quinoa salad bowls, and their vegan/gluten-free tempeh ‘Meatloaf’ with sweet potato purée, braised red cabbage, house quinoa, and apple slaw.
A short drive away is the Palomar Observatory, Caltech’s center of astronomical research, and the home of 200-inch Hale Telescope. Daytime spring through fall tours of the research facility offer a wide range of information about astronomy, as well as the history and the engineering of the facility.
Death Valley is another dark sky well-worth stargazing. As a Dark Sky National Park, the Valley offers ranger-led night sky tours in spring and fall, as well as personal favorites for solo stargazing like the Mesquite Flat sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells. Another prime spot is the remote Ubehebe Crater area, where viewers can look up at the sky and feel as if they are on the edge of a crater on the moon. The newly renamed Oasis at Death Valley, formerly Furnace Creek, offers a stay at the inn or the comfortable, family-friendly ranch. Both have warm, spring-fed swimming pools. At the Inn, enjoy an afternoon tea before stargazing, or a Southwest influenced dinner menu that changes seasonally. Dine out on the veranda for a commanding view of the desert and stargazing while you sip a classic cocktail. The more casual Wrangler, across the road at the Ranch, offers a range of salads and a terrific veggie burger.
Closer to Los Angeles, Joshua Tree campgrounds are considered a stellar spot to see the Milky Way, particularly at the park’s eastern end, furthest from the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley. The park remains open at night, so even if you prefer to stay in town, you can spend some time stargazing among the monolithic rocks. In November, Veteran’s Day weekend is the date for the third annual Night Sky Festival, when astronomers, scientists, and community members join the National Park Service in a free three-day program. Park fees are waived, too. Telescope viewing, astronomy talks, and daytime solar viewing are all part of the fest, centered near the park’s Twentynine Palms entrance. The elegantly old-school Twentynine Palms Inn makes a gracious and relaxing headquarters for the weekend, and their dining room serves up a delicious house-made sourdough bread, craft cocktails, and a seasonal menu that includes veg options such as roasted butternut squash hummus. Produce is grown in the resort’s own organic garden, Faultline Farm.
Moving toward the coast, Carlsbad State Beach has little lighting to mar the view when looking up. The area gets less coastal fog than many seaside locations, and the cliffs that lead from the sand to the campgrounds above protect the coastline from the lights in Carlsbad Village. If camping isn’t for you, West Inn and Suites, just three blocks from the beach, is a sleek yet family-friendly hotel with a great restaurant, Bistro West. The restaurant sources many of its ingredients from the inn’s own farm. Stylishly appointed with beautiful Italian hand-blown glass lamps, yet the epitome of family-friendly, here you’ll find a beautiful warm roasted beet salad, hearty “Mount Palomar” nachos – an appropriate name for your stargazing, and the stellar Bistro veggie and herbed focaccia sandwich made with grilled zucchini, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and sundried tomato truffle aioli.
Heading north and a short distance inland from the coast, Lake Casitas also affords dark skies away from city lights. The recreation area has its own NASA-accredited astronomer and a large viewing telescope. Camping at the lake is one option for an overnight stay. In nearby Ojai, The Oaks at Ojai provides a tranquil casual spa experience with meals included in an environment that is especially friendly for women and couples. Dining is health-conscious and delicious – and included in the spa stay. There are vegetarian and vegan options at all meals, such as a mushroom and barley burger, or whole wheat rotini; freshly made organic juice and veggie and fruit bowl snacks are available throughout the day to fortify you for that nighttime stargazing.
Moving farther north, Tenaya Lodge in Fish Camp, CA, may be the ultimate stargazing destination. Less than an hour from Yosemite Valley and located near the park’s south entrance, this gorgeous lodge is surrounded by towering pines and cedars. And of course, there are deeply dark skies filled with stars. The southern Sierra location is relatively cloud-free, leaving clear viewing. Personal experience has marked this as a great spot for meteor gazing; the lodge has a state-of-the-art telescope and offers an annual Perseid meteor watching package.
The lodge has five restaurants under the direction of executive chef Fred Clabaugh: the main dining room, the Sierra, offers the vegan jackfruit & butternut squash curry cilantro rice, made with coconut milk; or head to the casual Jackalope Bar and Grill for a tofu stir fry with spicy red curry. For a romantic repast, Embers offers a stunning mushroom goulash featuring mushrooms such as king trumpet, maitake, and shitake mushrooms with roasted cauliflower puree.
For more information on dark sky viewing throughout the region and around the world, visit the International Dark Sky Foundation at http://www.darksky.org/idsp/.
Where to Stay and Dine:
Anza Borrego State Park
Casa del Zorro
3845 Yaqui Pass Rd, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Phone: (760) 767-0100
Julian/Palomar Observatory area
3845 Yaqui Pass Rd, Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Phone: (760) 767-0100
Twentynine Palms Inn
73950 Inn Ave, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277
Phone: (760) 367-3505
Night Sky Festival Information 2017
The Oasis at Furnace Creek
California 190, Death Valley, CA 92328
Phone: (800) 236-7916
Carlsbad State Beach
West Inn and Suites
4970 Avenida Encinas, Carlsbad, CA 92008
Phone: (760) 448-4500
Lake Recreation Area and Campgrounds
11311 Santa Ana Rd, Ventura, CA 93001
Phone: (805) 649-1122
The Oaks at Ojai
122 E Ojai Ave, Ojai, CA 93023
Phone: (805) 646-5573
1122 Highway 41
Fish Camp, CA 93623
Phone: (559) 683-6565
This article is a part of the Oct - Nov 2017 issue of Whole Life Times.