Every astronomer knows that the best views of the night sky can be found up high and far from city lights. Fortunately, many of California’s best inns are in rural settings perfectly suited for enjoying the dark skies. Whether from an outdoor hot tub, around a fire roasting s’mores, or at a local event that celebrates the stars, guests of these inns will face no shortage of ways to be awe-struck by the celestial beauty of California's nighttime skies.
At night, the peaceful grounds at Orchard Hill Country Inn transform into the perfect setting for viewing Julian’s dark, clear skies. The inn periodically hosts star parties with telescopes and guidance from amateur astronomers, but during any stay guests have access to binoculars and planispheres for some light stargazing. Half an hour away on the remote eastern edge of the Laguna Mountains is Mount Laguna Observatory (MLO), one of the best sites for stargazing in the continental United States. The Palomar Observatory, 45 minutes from Julian, is a world-class center of astronomical research owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology. The town even hosts Julian StarFest, an annual stargazing festival that culminates with a free Public Star Party in the park.
Conveniently located near two of California’s wildland treasures, The Groveland Hotel is the quintessential home base for some serious stargazing. A mere half an hour away is Yosemite National Park’s northern gate. Known for its striking views and high-elevation lookout points, Yosemite sits under stunning night skies best experienced on one of the Yosemite Conservancy’s naturalist-led trips. For guests who prefer a little adventure with their stargazing, a two-day rafting trip on the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest might be in order. There’s even a verdant tiered patio back at the hotel, perfect for enjoying a drink and a bite under the stars.
The Tallman Hotel sits at the edge of the Mendocino National Forest, the ideal setting for star-studded nights. With the cleanest air in all of California, the nighttime skies in the town of Upper Lake feature expansive views of the heavens lit only by the stars themselves. The Lower Garden rooms at the hotel provide their own astronomical experience in the form of private decks with heated Japanese ofuro soaking tubs. In fact, every room at the Tallman has a veranda or front porch from which guests can take in the night sky. Just steps away, the hotel’s Blue Wing Restaurant has an inviting courtyard surrounded by Sycamore trees.
The Volcano Union Inn is in the small town of Volcano, where the first amateur astronomical observatory in California was founded in 1860. Over 150 years later, the small Gold Country town deep in the Sierra Foothills remains an ideal spot for stargazing. The town is located at an elevation of 2,000 feet and has no street lighting, preferred conditions for quality stargazing. Guests of the historic, four-room inn can watch the night skies from the inn’s upstairs balcony after dinner or take a stroll up to the cemetery overlooking town to find locals charting constellations. During the summer months in Volcano, the stars appear so close it seems as though they’re within arm’s reach.
On the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest near Twain Harte, the night skies at the McCaffrey House Bed & Breakfast get unbelievably dark. At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the charming, three-story mountain lodge is nestled in a quiet forest hollow, offering clear views overhead from its driveway, deck, and guest room balconies. Just up the road from the inn at Bald Mountain Heliport, stargazers sometimes bring blankets to lie on the ground to watch the skies. Another spot to enjoy expansive nighttime views is the parking lot of the nearby Dodge Ridge Ski Resort. Located in one of the least populated areas in California, the McCaffrey House is also close to Columbia State Park, Calaveras Big Trees, Yosemite, Pinecrest, and Stanislaus National Park.
Just outside of Murphys, Courtwood Inn is a grand log lodge that sits on a five-acre hilltop, with commanding views of the Sierra Foothills and unobstructed views of the skies overhead. A 2,500 square-foot deck wraps the entire length of the lodge, offering a perfect perch for watching not only sunsets but also the stars at night. Not far from the inn, Calaveras Big Trees State Park hosts Astronomy Nights from July to October each year. At a scenic overlook inside the park, docents provide telescopes and binoculars for viewing the night skies. A new webcam for one of the telescopes displays real-time images on a 40-inch screen.
Tucked among acres of rolling vineyards deep in the Shenandoah Valley, the four-room Amador Harvest Inn presides over an expansive lawn and a shimmering lake. Once the inn’s wine tasting room has closed for the night, the loudest sound you’ll hear at this charming country inn are a chorus of frogs and the occasional popping of a wine cork. Far from street lights, stars shine brilliantly against dark skies. A favorite pastime for guests is spreading a blanket on the lawn by the edge of the lake and enjoying a glass of Amador County Zinfandel while watching the stars overhead.
Nestled in the woods across from its namesake lake, Donner Lake Inn is ideally situated to offer clear views of the night sky. At the west end of the lake and far from the lights of town, the inn offers prime stargazing from an under-the-stars hammock or hot tub. The clear mountain air combines with the town’s noise and light restrictions to create the best possible conditions for memorable nighttime star gazing. The inn is also a short drive to Northstar’s Dark Skies Cosmoarium, which hosts Tahoe Star Tours every Thursday through Saturday during the summer. Guests can gather there for a celestial mix of science and poetry complete with hot chocolate and s’mores before observing the stars.
Located in a little-known region of the Sierra Foothills between the Middle and South Forks of the American River, The Green Toad Bed & Breakfast is surrounded by nature in every direction. The inn sits on 40 acres of private forested land, is surrounded by 80 acres of protected government land, and is adjacent to 90 acres of the privately-owned North Star Tree Farm. The remoteness of the inn ensures dark night skies, and the inn’s 3,000 square feet of multi-tiered decking provides an ideal perch for stargazing. On chilly nights, guests can even stay warm by taking in the night skies from the deck’s hot tub.
At 7,000 feet, Hope Valley’s 165-acre Sorensen’s Resort south of Lake Tahoe is the ultimate destination for stargazing. Each year, the resort hosts an evening with San Francisco State University Physics and Astronomy Professors Adrienne Cool and Ron Marzke, where guests can learn about recent discoveries in astronomy and search the night skies for constellations. All ages are invited to peer through telescopes and binoculars at the moons of Jupiter, rings of Saturn, the Milky Way, and beyond. The evening includes cookies and hot cocoa, and proceeds (matched by the resort) benefit Alpine County school science programs. The resort is near Grover Hot Springs State Park, and provides easy access to the beauty of Lake Tahoe.