Contemplate infinity under a canopy of sparkling stars on this trek that begins in San Diego, crosses a mountain range, and ends in the desert.
Start: San Diego
End: Twentynine Palms
Duration: 2–4 Days, 8 Stops, 230 Miles
San Diego is one of California’s sunniest destinations. This waterfront city is overflowing with exceptional dining and craft beer experiences, outdoor adventures, family fun, and great shopping. Explore diverse neighborhoods like Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter, the East Village, North Park, and Old Town, head to Balboa Park for a museum-filled day or a trip to see the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo. Enjoy a day at the water at one of the city’s many beaches, such as Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, or Pacific Beach. You can rent stand-up paddleboards or kayaks at sparkling Mission Bay.
The Gold Rush town of Julian in eastern San Diego County is beloved by apple-pie fans for its overflowing orchards and buttery crusts. Dig into a slice at Julian Pie Company, Mom’s Pie House, or Apple Alley Bakery, but leave a little room to sample apple fritters, apple donuts, and apple cider. Since you can eat only so much, go for a tour inside Julian’s Eagle and High Peak Mine, where you’ll learn about the town’s 1870s gold rush. Stop in at the Pioneer Museum, its display cases jam-packed with frontier ephemera. Visit Julian Station, a converted apple-packing facility that houses tasting rooms for Golden Coast Mead and Julian Hard Cider.
Head to Observer’s Inn in Julian, an astronomy-themed bed-and-breakfast boasting three research-grade telescopes. Every evening, innkeeper Michael Leigh offers one-hour guided “sky tours” in his rooftop observatory.
Borrego Springs’ broad skies and pitch-black nights earned it the honor of being California’s first designated International Dark Sky Community. Surrounded by mountains and located in the midst of 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the small town is uniquely sheltered from the glare of urban lights, making it an ideal spot for ogling the star-studded night sky. Daylight also offers plenty of charms. Take a driving tour to see Borrego Springs’ Sky Art Sculptures, a series of fantastic metal animals by Ricardo Breceda, including ancient camels and a saber-toothed cat. Walk to the palm oasis in Borrego Palm Canyon or hike through The Slot, a narrow siltstone canyon sculpted by water and time. Book a spot with Borrego Night Sky Tours and join astronomer Dennis Mammana on a two-hour excursion. If you’d rather stargaze solo, there’s no bad site in the park, but astronomy clubs flock to Little Blair Valley for its clear skies. Other top spots are Culp Valley and Mountain PalmSprings Campground, but depending on current conditions, you might need four-wheel drive.
Free stargazing events are offered on select weekends. Or book a spot with Borrego Night Sky Tours for a private excursion.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is small enough to drive through in a half-day, but you’ll want much more time than that to enjoy this land of cactus gardens, spiky yuccas, and photogenic boulder piles. Not-to-be-missed highlights include the Cholla Cactus Garden, where hundreds of teddybear cholla fade into a backdrop of purple hills. On the park’s north side, where elevations are higher, you’ll marvel at spindly, cartoon-like Joshua trees (they’re actually a yucca, not a tree). At White Tank Campground, stroll to Arch Rock, a graceful span of ivory-hued granite. Wander the path around Skull Rockto see its alcoves and miniature caves, carved out over eons of time, or hike to the summit of 5,457-foot Ryan Mountain for panoramic views of the Wonderland of Rocks and Southern California’s highest peaks.No matter how you spend your day, make sure it stretches long into the evening—you don’t want to miss this desert’s astounding star show. When evening falls, pick a spot to lay out a blanket near Cap Rock’s quirky rock formations.
Sky’s The Limit Observatory
Every Saturday night when the moon isn’t full, an impromptu “star party” takes place at Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Center, located just outside Joshua Tree National Park’s northeast entrance in the town of Twentynine Palms. Bring a lawn chair and a pair of binoculars and join the throng of amateur astronomers who set up their telescopes and gaze at the desert’s stellar spectacle. When the full moon obscures the stars, the center hosts cultural programs with music and sky stories by Native Americans and desert historians. This nonprofit organization keeps its campus open around the clock, inspiring stargazers and astro-photographers of all levels to cherish the sanctity of the desert’s night skies. Special events include telescope clinics, wildflower walks, and an annual autumn night sky festival.
You might know the desert city of Twentynine Palms as the place to pick up the Roadrunner shuttle bus into Joshua Tree National Park. Or maybe you know it as the home of Sky’s the Limit Observatory and Nature Centeror the world’s largest Marine Corps training base. But in recent years, the town has attracted a diverse community of artists who make their homes among the sprawling Mojave Desert. The 29 Palms Art Gallery is housed in a rustic adobe at the Oasis of Mara. It showcases the work of the local artists’ guild, hosts exhibitions, and sells desert-themed artwork. The 29 Palms Creative Center offers classes and studio time in pottery-making and painting for artists of all levels. The town’s most unusual art center is the Glass Outhouse Gallery, which hosts monthly art receptions and yes, has a real glass outhouse. To see a different kind of visual art, head to Smith’s Ranch Drive-in, one of the last original drive-in movie theaters, showing films to popcorn-eating car passengers since 1954.