While there are many great areas for stargazing within driving distance of L.A., the historic gold rush town of Julian is a class unto itself.
High up in the Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian is California’s most recent International Dark Sky Community, joining an elite group of 37 spots worldwide with exceptional visibility. Julian is famous for its apple pie and charming, old-timey shops, but we know the real action starts at night when meteor showers light up the darkness — specifically the Perseids, considered the best meteor shower of the year, which will happen from July 23 to August 22. At its peak (August 11 to 13), expect to see up to fifty meteors per hour in the predawn darkness.
A sense of history pervades Julian, a town that has long attracted seekers of fortune, and it’s easy to fill up a weekend here. During the daytime, explore the area’s roots at the Julian Mining Co, where panning for gold and gem mining appeal to kids of all ages. The family-owned farm Fort Cross flings open its barn doors on the weekends for candle-dipping, tomahawk tossing, hayrides and other activities. Across the street is Julian Station, a converted apple-packing facility with beer and wine tasting rooms, antiques and an art center. After working up an appetite, head to town for some slow-smoked barbecue on the shaded deck of Julian Beer Co., which happens to be next door to one of the top spots for Julian’s classic apple pie.
But what would a Dark Sky Community be without a few star parties? On August 20, the Julian Natural Wonderfest mixes meteorites with music, art and wildlife encounters at Jess Martin Park. Festivities begin at 4 p.m. and end at the family-friendly hour of 11 p.m., with a free shuttle between the town and the park. On August 26 and 27, the Julian Starfest returns after a two-year, pandemic-induced hiatus. Run by the San Diego Astronomy Association, the lineup includes telescope demos, food, games and behind-the-scenes observatory tours.
As for stargazing, Julian has a number of excellent vantages:
Just off Highway 79 sits Desert View Park, which is actually not a park but a scenic overlook with sweeping sky views (during the day, you can spy the Salton Sea). The paved loop has no designated parking spots or amenities, but the vantage point is unparalleled, says the Julian Chamber of Commerce. You’ll probably hang out by your car here, so pack whatever you need including food, water and a folding chair. If you’re making a weekend out of it, get into the Old West spirit and book a stay at nearby Banner Ranch. This unique campground offers lodging in covered wagons (with mini-fridges and bathrooms!) along with Lucky Lou’s Saloon, where you can wet your whistle.
A 15-minute drive south of downtown Julian, Lake Cuyamaca is jam-packed with gorgeous night sky vistas — this is the spot to bring a high-end camera. Photo ops abound with piers, fishing docks and jetties around the small lake, providing a nice foreground. Adventure-seekers can take off on one of the forested trails that criss-cross the area or hike to a mountain top for a prime viewing spot; trailheads for the Cuyamaca and Stonewall peaks are a four-minute drive away on Highway 79. Summer weather is mercifully moderate, with average highs of 86 degrees, but when the wind picks up at night, temperatures drop, so bundle up and bring an extra jacket.
Located just outside of Julian in the Cleveland National Forest, Mount Laguna is one of the most renowned stargazing spots in San Diego County. After all, the Mount Laguna Observatory has been operating here since 1968. Punctuating the stands of pines and oaks are open meadows and clearings, providing unobstructed views of shooting stars. Though GPS works in the area, cell phone coverage is spotty, so it’s a good idea to grab a map at the visitors center before heading out. Try glamping at Laguna Campground through Alter Experiences, or check out the meadows adjacent to the rustic El Prado campground for prime meteor viewing.
This article was featured in the InsideHook LA newsletter. Sign up now for more from the Southland.