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Stargazing Hotspot Guide

Where Stars Shine, Not Street Lamps – Stargazing Guide To Bishop

Did you know that 80% of humanity can’t see the Milky Way? Fortunately, Bishop and its big backyard are home to some of the best stargazing spots in the country and gives you the opportunity to see this and much more! Spend the day exploring the area via an auto tour then enjoy the nights taking in the iconic constellations like the Big Dipper, Aquarius, and Leo. Follow the stars on the map to see the locations of these great stargazing places.

When To Go

Bishop and the Sierra are one of the rare places on Earth where everything aligns to create a dramatic scene for taking in the stars. Despite the state of California being the most populous in the nation, the rugged range provides a natural barrier from the light pollution of the cities. As such, night sky viewing isn’t a single seasonal activity but can be enjoyed year-round in the Owens Valley. Even so, it should be coordinated with moon phases, timing of astronomical events (such as Perseid Meteor Shower), the weather, and seasons.

Why Winter Is A Great Time To Gaze

Due to the Owens Valley high desert, there might be less moisture in the air, but winter nights are truly crystal clear. This is because cold air holds less moisture. And since days are shorter and nights longer, the skies get fully dark long before the kids’ bedtime. This then allows your entire family to enjoy the night sky together.

Alabama Hills

A few miles west of Lone Pine is the Alabama Hills recreation area. Catch a view of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the contiguous USA where you can see it through a natural rock arch named the Mobius Arch. A glittering night sky with the sinuous path of the Milky Way as the backdrop is a sight to behold on a moonless night. During a full moon in winter, the skyline of the Sierra Nevada and Mt Whitney will be starkly white in an azure sky with a sprinkling of twinkling stars. If you’re considering camping in the area, be sure to read our camping guide ahead of time.

Papoose Flat

Papoose Flat is known for its unique landscape of randomly isolated granite spires that dot the flat. And for the marvelous views of the Sierra Nevada crest and Owens Valley below. It’s situated almost directly above Tinemaha Reservoir, at the crest of the Inyo Mountains, which separate Saline Valley from the Owens Valley. This high desert flat is a circular, tree-less expanse of scrub desert dominated by these tall granite spires rising out of the ground at irregular intervals. It has a sense of being ‘otherworldly’. A place where you can keep your feet grounded yet have an extraterrestrial experience looking up at the night sky. Be aware that to access one of our favorite spring campgrounds, you’ll need a high-clearance 4X4 vehicle for the final ascent.

Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO)

In addition to taking in the night sky, the Owens Valley gives you the opportunity to tour an actual radio telescope array. And it’s still being used today for scientific study – The Owens Valley Radio Observatory. Reservations are required. Here is a link to a quick guide to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory on our blog page. Directions to OVRO can be found here.

Buttermilk Country

Close to Bishop and presenting a magnificent view of Mt. Tom and Wheeler Ridge is Buttermilk Country. Take a 10-minute drive west from town on W. Line St. – SR 168 to Buttermilk Road and turn right. Head out into Buttermilk Country as far you can (after about 10 miles on this road you may need 4×4 and high clearance) and find a turnout or clearing to spread a blanket or pitch a tent. A late spring or fall night out here is a great place for a romantic date or a late-night picnic with kids under a canopy of sparkling stars. Bring ALL your gear including your binoculars because Buttermilk Country features everything from wildlife viewing to awe-inspiring trail running. Watch out for danger noodles, aka rattlesnakes during warm months.

Bishop Creek Canyon Lakes

A 20-minute drive west out of Bishop on W. Line St. – SR 168 will take you up to the high Sierra lakes in Bishop Creek Canyon. The lakes are accessible by car during the warmer, but only accessible on skis or snowshoes during winter. Lake Sabrina or South Lake are picture postcard perfect almost any time of day, any time of year. Plan it just right and you could have a perfect photo op trip.  New moon. Early fall. From late afternoon into the darkness of night. You could be rewarded with the first turning of the leaves when the sun is just setting and then the Milky Way arching overhead after the sun has set. Bring plenty of layers, snacks, water, and comfy camp chairs. Then relax and spend a couple of hours in one of the most spectacular settings on the planet. Really! Or better yet make it a long weekend with a Bishop Creek Camping trip

Coyote Flat

This is a warm weather destination high above Bishop. The glow of the town below will do little to impede the sparkle of stars above. The view over the valley, across the tablelands, and up to the White Mountains beyond is an awesome sight to behold on any night. A starry night just adds the glitter to the golden glow of lights below. Access to lookout points along the crest is along a low standard, rough Forest Service Road – route designation 07S10. It is a steady climb that is best done with a 4-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle. This is a great experience to combine a daytime and nighttime adventure and camp up on this remote ridge.

Volcanic Tablelands

This volcanic plateau rises about 300 feet vertically just a few miles north of Bishop. It’s an expansive landscape with incredible views any way you look – including up! In fact, it’s one of the most expansive views of the sky in the area. The tablelands were formed about 760,000 years ago when a massive volcanic eruption emptied the magma chamber below the area that is now the Long Valley Caldera, about 22 miles northwest as the crow flies. It released very hot ash that subsequently cooled and became the soft rock we now call Bishop Tuff that makes up this escarpment.

You’ll also find on the southern edge the Happy & Sad Boulders which will delight and challenge climbers of all levels. Follow US Highway 6 north out of Bishop for 2 miles and turn left onto 5 Bridges Rd. Follow the paved road for 2 miles. Then where the pavement ends, continue straight onto the dirt road, Casa Diablo Rd, that ascends the escarpment. Drive for a few miles and pick a turnout where you can stop and stare skyward for a few hours. If you spend some time here and identify the North Star, pick out a constellation. Then you can watch how it looks to move across the sky.

Pinyon Pine Forest

Further up the volcanic tablelands, the landscape becomes more treed. This is due to the higher elevation here that receives more snow in winter. The snowmelt seeps into the ground to provide more water for plant growth. The area can be accessed by driving across the escarpment on Casa Diablo Rd or from the Owens Gorge Rd opposite Tom’s Place. The latter will cross the dam at Crowley Lake and wind through the pinyon forest until you reach the Benton Crossing Rd which is part of one of the five most scenic drives in the High Sierra.

There are numerous turnoffs and turnouts along the Owens Gorge Rd that go to lookout spots above Long Valley that look north and west toward Crowley Lake and Mammoth Lakes. There is a vast network of Forest Service roads in the pinyon forest with excellent dispersed camping sites. It’s a wonderful place to teach kids about our natural world. From the rocks on the ground, to the trees that grow and animals that live in the forest to the stars in the sky above. This is definitely a summer destination.

Benton Hot Springs

The delightful Inn at Benton Hot Springs might be the luxury version for a stargazing weekend in the Eastern Sierra. This beautiful and tranquil resort is located in the historic town of Benton, just 38 miles north of Bishop on Highway 6. It also happens to be one of the oldest existing towns in Mono County. The resort is open year-round and offers rustic elegance in each of the seven rooms in the historic house, all with access to private and semi-private hot tubs. Spend a night under the stars in one of the 10 campsites, each with its own private hot tub. It’s secluded, quiet, and very, very dark on a moonless night. Are your stars aligned for a romantic night out?

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

High above Bishop is the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. These trees, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, are the oldest living non-clonal organisms on earth. And if trees could speak, they might tell us of a slightly different sky than the one we see now. The oldest tree, Prometheus, is a little over 5,000 years old and was just a sapling when the star Thuban was the pole star at the time when the Egyptian pyramids were being built.

From Bishop, head south toward Big Pine for 15 miles, turn left onto CA168 East. In 13 miles, turn left onto White Mountain Rd. About 8 miles along is the Sierra View Overlook and about 3 miles further you’ll reach the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. This is a beautiful drive of about an hour (38 miles) on a paved, winding, mountain road with elevation gains of almost 6,000 feet. The interpretive center is open annually from approximately mid-May to November, weather permitting. It has a large patio with picnic tables and boardwalks around the center from which many of the old trees can be seen. A late summer night up here offers a spectacular view. Not just to the valley below and the stars above, but a window to our past and our future.

Mono Lake

Near the junction of US Highway 395 and Highway 120 west, the Tioga pass road into Yosemite National Park holds a most magnificent lake – Mono Lake. (Pronounced Moh-No.) This lake is a large, shallow, saline soda lake that lies in a closed basin. The ‘tufa towers’, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs are the unique feature of this lake, are a protected California State Park. A nighttime visit here has an eerie, alien look from the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial.

The Mono Basin Scenic Visitor Center is located near Lee Vining, 65 miles north of Bishop on US Highway 395. A half mile beyond Lee Vining, turn right onto Visitor Center Dr. The center is closed during the winter months. Nearby, a self-guided nature trail is open 24/7.