By Rachel Puryear
Around the fall-back time change, many people express chagrin over the earlier sunsets. With or without manipulating our clocks, shorter days and longer nights are an inevitable part of winter months.
Instead of mourning the shorter days, however, we can embrace and celebrate the longer nights! As much fun as daytime activities are, the nighttime also offers plenty of fun – including night sky watching.
Accordingly, here are a few of the awesome places in California where you can take advantage of long nights and enjoy skywatching, where it won’t be too cold outdoors during the winter.
Death Valley National Park and Joshua Tree National Park:
With frequently clear skies and relatively remote locations, this pair of desert parks offers amazing views of the night sky – including the Milky Way Galaxy. Each park has plenty of places where you can pull up in a car or a camper for a while, turn the lights down low, and watch the stars.
Death Valley offers hauntingly beautiful views of its colorful, parched, windswept, salty landscape. Joshua Tree is home to the unique, small trees which are its namesake, and also offers many gorgeous and dramatic views.
Both parks are located in the Mojave Desert region of southeastern California. The Mojave area is known for blazing hot summers, but it also features mild winters.
Death Valley high/low temperatures average 65°/39° F (18°/4° C) in December and 67°/40° F (19°/4° C) in January. Joshua Tree high/low temperatures average 61°/35° F (16°/2° C) in December and 62°/36° F (17°/2° C) in January. With a jacket and warm clothing, you can enjoy these nights reasonably comfortably.
Harbin Hot Springs and Calistoga in the Napa Valley
If you’re in the mood for soaking in warm mineral water, check out the town of Calistoga, or Harbin Hot Springs; both of which are in the Napa Valley region of northern California. Harbin and Calistoga are only about 20 miles apart, so you could easily do a combination trip to both.
People travel from all over the world to soak in the mineral pools of this region, as many believe that the water there has healing properties. The evidence for this is, of course, anecdotal – but nonetheless, you can enjoy a relaxing and refreshing time here. Your skin and hair will feel great after soaking in the water, and you will likely sleep quite well later in the night.
Harbin Hot Springs is a clothing-optional resort, with a counterculture vibe, in Lake County. It features several mineral pools of varying temperatures – including hot, cold, cool, and warm. It’s still rebuilding after a wildfire burned it down several years ago, so the experience is likely to be a rustic one – they have RV’s you can stay in overnight, or you can camp. The pools are open around the clock. Day use is also available, with reservations. Most people who go there prefer peace and quiet in the pools, so there is minimal rowdiness.
As Harbin is located in Middletown in Lake County, it’s relatively remote and is surrounded by lots of rural areas. Therefore, even though it’s just a couple hours from the inner Bay Area; the nights there are pitch-black, and the sky packed with brilliant stars on a clear night.
Be sure to bring flashlights, and towels for the pool. Bring blankets and shoes or slippers for walking between the pool and your campsite/RV/car. You might want to also bring in your own non-perishable food, as they prohibit fires (remember, the place burned down before). Some food available to purchase – while it’s good quality, it’s limited and expensive. Their communal kitchen was also not yet rebuilt, last time I was there. Bring in what you will need, as amenities are limited in the area.
Calistoga is not as remote as Harbin, but is still a small town miles from any large city, and it feels that way. The town offers a variety of resorts from basic to very luxurious, and the resorts normally offer mineral soaking pools as well as other spa services – like mud baths, massages, and more. The town has plenty of amenities including stores, shops, hotels, and restaurants – so you should be able to get what you need here. On clear nights, the night sky can be quite starry, especially if you drive a bit to the outskirts of town.
Middletown/Harbin high/low temperatures average 41°/26° F (5°/-3°) in December and 37°/21° F (3°/-6°) in January. (One of my favorite trips to Harbin was a New Years trip, soaking in the warm water with light rain and a cool day – and no sunburn!) Calistoga high/low temperatures average 59°/36° F (15°/2° C) in December and 60°/37° F (16°/3°) in January.
Pinnacles National Park
About 75 miles south of San Jose is Pinnacles National Park. Situated in a relatively remote area near the southernmost part of the Silicon Valley region, this park offers wonderful views of the night sky on clear nights. The park offers plenty of hiking in the daytime through its many mountains and rock formations – just enjoy the scenic vistas before the sun goes down! Camping is popular in the park, and in the cooler months, you are likely to encounter fewer crowds compared with the warmer seasons.
The Pinnacles’ high/low temperatures average 60°/30° F (16°/-1° C) in December and 60°/31° (16°/-1° C) in January.
Guerneville and Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is about 15 miles east of Santa Rosa, while the town of Guerneville is about 23 miles west of Santa Rosa. Each is far enough away from the city lights to offer beautiful night sky views on a clear night.
Guerneville is also home to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, a gorgeous and peaceful park full of redwoods, and absolutely worth visiting and hiking in when you get a chance – however, it’s unfortunately temporarily closed right now, due to wildfires a few years back. Keep that in mind for future trips to the area, though.
Sugarloaf is home to the Robert Ferguson Observatory, and offers events open to the public. For more info on the upcoming events at the observatory which are open to the public, check out their website here.
Guerneville’s high/low temperatures average 58°/35° F (14°/2° C) in December and 58°/36° F (14°/2° C) in January. Sugarloaf’s high/low temperatures average 54°/34° F (12°/1° C) in December and 54°/34° F (12°/1° C) in January.
A Few Tips for Night Sky Watching
- Use a headlamp to help you navigate the dark (and find the bathroom) hands-free. Use one with a red-light setting, to see while keeping your eyes adjusted to the dark. I recommend this headlamp: https://amzn.to/3c8s4g4
- Use an app like Sky Guide (it’s free to download) to help you identify stars, constellations, planets, and other celestial bodies!
- Before you go camping, grab some cardboard boxes out of your recycling. At your campsite, lay the cardboard flat underneath your bedding, then set up your bedding (mattress, covers) over it. A lot of the cold comes from the ground, so this will help keep the cold out and the warmth in. Bring warm layers and plenty of blankets – you can never have too many on a cool night!
Thank you, dear readers, for reading, following, and sharing. Here’s to enjoying gorgeous night skies, with long nights to do so, and without freezing your butt off.
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