As a night sky photographer, when I’m looking for locations to photograph, I pay close attention to the amount of light pollution in the skies. The stray light from building and roads in nearby urban areas can easily wash out the stars and make it hard to get clean images of the Milky Way.
For example, look at the following two pictures taken with the exact same lens and camera:
On the left is a picture taken from within the San Diego city limits at the coast. Even though the camera is facing west away from the city, there is so much light pollution bouncing around in the sky that the Milky Way core is barely visible (usually I cannot see it with the naked eye but it will show up with a long exposure). On the right is shot from Jacumba, a very dark area, and the core just pops out. Both shots use the exact same settings (ISO 3200, 25mm, f/2.5, 15s) and there was no processing beyond the defaults in Lightroom.
In my photography, I’m generally concentrating on subjects that have meaning to me and hence are local. I’ve done a bit of exploring and here are a few choice areas to photograph the Milky way (or star gaze) close to San Diego.
Within 1 Hour Drive
Lake Cuyamaca and Cuyamaca Rancho SP (along 79)
Lake Cuyamaca is probably the easiest good spot to access for Milky Way photography in San Diego county. The lake provides a nice foreground and there are multiple piers that can be used as subjects. There is also camping right on the lake, although the campsites are not great quality (definitely a step below what you might find at a national park).
Cuyamaca Rancho state park has many hikes with trails going through either forested areas or up to mountain tops. There are even a few waterfalls although you may have to wait for rain to get the best flow. The main problem with this area is it’s hard to find parking close to a trailhead that is open at night. Your best bet is to reserve a spot at one of the many campgrounds and then hike to your location.
Mt Laguna, Sunrise Highway & Cleveland National Forest
The Mt Laguna area is another favorite of mine. This is mostly Cleveland National Forest and there are many trails that take you through wooded areas and by small lakes and meadows. Due to the altitude you can get snow anywhere from November to June and wildflowers bloom in the spring and summer months.
Sunrise highway has multiple turnouts to park but get an Adventure Pass ($5/day or $30/year). The pass is not required at all trailheads but it’s easier to get one than to figure out which locations require it.
Julian is a small mountain town which is probably best known for it’s apple pie. But it has a community dedicated to preserving the dark skies in the area. There are frequent star watching parties and other events. The main problem for photographers is finding appropriate foreground scenes – although the whole area is photogenic with rustic barns, mountain trails, and open space preserves, many of the best spots are either on private property or closed after sunset.
Campo is south of the I-8 and is right beside the border with Mexico. The motor transport museum has night sky events a few times during the year where you can photograph a variety of old and derelict vehicles. There are also a number of railroad museums but I’m unsure if they hold night photography events.
Within 2 Hour Drive
Mt Palomar is home to the Palomar Observatory (run by Caltech) so sky viewing conditions are obviously good. I’ve always wanted to shoot the Milky Way over the observatory dome but ironically the grounds are only open to visitors during the day so it’s not possible without special access.
Besides the observatory there are a few areas to photograph including various hiking trails and Palomar Mountain state park. However access to the park is closed at night but if you camp there (e.g. Doane valley campground) you will be able to photograph.
Borrego Springs & Anza Borrego SP
Borrego Springs is an official dark sky community and the whole area (town and the state park) provide lots of opportunities for night photography:
- The town has over 100 statues by Ricardo Breceda which are popular foreground subjects. These include a serpent, giant scorpian, dinosaurs, etc.
- The area is desert and has many cacti and ocotillos, which can be a foreground subject all year round.
- During the spring (feb-april) there is often a good bloom of wildflowers.
- There many unique landscape features such as the borrego badlands, mud caves, washes, dry lakes, and slot canyons.
In Anza Borrego there is free open camping everywhere. You can often drive up a dirt road and just camp right beside where you want to photograph. This is convenient especially when the Milky Way is rising later at night. There are also many places to park an RV for free.
If you are photographing to the south-east, there is considerable light pollution from El Centro on the horizon. So you may want to hide it beneath a ridgeline or wait until the core is more to the south
Many locations such as Font’s Point require driving up sandy washes and 4WD is reccommended (it’s possible to hike if you are willing). Locations such as the Pumpkin Patch require a serious off-road vehicle and making a mistake means you roll your vehicle. Definitely not for the inexperienced.
The statues, especially the more popular ones like the serpent, can be very crowded during spring and summer weekends for Milky Way photography. Personally, I avoid these locations unless I’m with friends who want to photograph them.
Jacumba is the darkest spot I’ve photographed in Southern California. The whole area feels similar to Jumbo Rocks area in Joshua Tree but better in my opinion as it’s less crowded. There are a variety of hiking and 4WD trails in these areas. There are also some abandoned trains and mines although I have not photographed or visited these personally.
The border patrol is active in this area and you may encounter them but they’ve never given me any problems. You can also find evidence of migrants passing through.
Within 3 Hour Drive
Joshua Tree NP
Joshua Tree is an excellent spot for night sky photography. I won’t go into much detail as it’s very well known and there are many extensive guides available. I will caution though that some locations within the park can get extremely crowded and will be hard to photograph. For example, arch rock will often attract many photographers but the actual shooting area is tiny with space for maybe only one or two people to get a prime spot.
I’ve only made one trip to the Algodones Dunes and I was photographing the full moon rising instead of the Milky Way. However from other photos I’ve seen, this area is dark enough to get good pictures of the core. The dune field is split with the area north of the 78 being off-limits to vehicles (North Algodones Dunes Wilderness Area). The section south of the 78 is a popular off-road recreational area and will be covered in tracks during the cooler months. In either case, park at the Hugh Osborne overlook.
There’s lot of light pollution from small towns around the sea so the conditions are not great in my opinion. But there are some unique landscape forms, boarded up homes, abandoned vehicles, and of course the sea itself. However, many of the areas with abandoned subjects (e.g. Bombay Beach) have been cleaned up and if you’ve seen pictures of pilings in the water, be aware that the water levels have decreased and they may now be far away from the water line.
Within the City
Within the city viewing conditions are terrible and it’s going to be very hard to photograph the Milky Way. The core will likely not be visible at all to the naked eye, although you might be able to detect it in a long exposure. However, when the weather conditions are right and if you are willing to put in some major post-processing effort, you can make some unique images.
The best opportunities are along the coast with your camera facing west away from the city. Any beach with cliffs blocking house and city lights can work. Some of my favorite darker spots include places like Torrey Pines and Swami’s. It’s also possible to photograph at locations like Windansea, La Jolla potholes, or Sunset Cliffs but it will be harder to bring out the core.
The core will appear most distinct when the Santa Ana winds are blowing and there is less humidity in the air. Even so, you will also need to heavily process the images.
A Few Words of Caution
The forested areas especially around Julian, Cuyamaca, and Sunrise Highway have mountain lions. I personally know a few other photographers that have encountered them so take appropriate precautions and never go alone. Mountain lions are also found in some parts of Anza Borrego where they feed on big horn sheep.
The other danger is rattlesnakes which can be found everywhere. During warmer weather conditions I’m very careful about sticking to well used trails, avoiding crevices around rocks and logs, and especially not wandering off into grassy areas.