rancho mirage observatory

Best Way to See the Stars (Without a Fuss)

We recommend the best place to pitch your tent under the stars in the desert, and where is the best place to view bighorn sheep.

Steven Biller Attractions, Best Of, Current PSL

rancho mirage observatory

Do your desert star gazing at the Rancho Mirage Library and Observatory.

Astronomers and astrologers love the wide-open desert for its dark night skies, but you need not drive deep into the Mojave or spend thousands of dollars on gear to explore the cosmos. The Rancho Mirage Library & Observatory offers five free-to-the-public, astronomer-led stargazing parties every month.

The state-of-the-art observatory unfolds as a two-dome structure, one containing a 27.5-inch, research-grade PlaneWave CDK700 telescope, with an outdoor viewing deck with four telescope pads. The metallic dome over the CDK700 revolves and retracts with the touch of a button, revealing the portion of the night sky where resident astronomer Eric McLaughlin trains the telescope.

In addition to running the controls, McLaughlin eagerly and adeptly explains everything from the technology at his fingertips to the far-out views that appear through the telescopes. A teaching and learning facility, the observatory is open daily for tours and even lends portable, user-friendly telescopes to patrons through its Library Telescope Program.

Heads up: The monthly stargazing parties limit capacity to 40 participants and book up quickly. Visit ranchomiragelibrary.org for dates.

Best Camping Spot

First, unless you’re in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll need to eyeball a spot to pull off Box Canyon Road where the sand is well packed, or at least not too deep. You’ll already be driving slowly, because the views here are absolutely stunning and you won’t want to rush.

Located 15 miles southeast of Indio, Box Canyon is the non-wilderness corridor along the northern border of the Mecca Hills Wilderness, accessed from either Interstate 10 to the northeast or 66th Avenue to the southwest. Once in the canyon, you can pull off the road almost anywhere and find an idyllic spot for RV or tent camping amid the nooks and crannies of the canyon’s steep, rocky walls. The geologic formations, shaped by the shaky San Andreas Fault, are glorious in any light — and campers see the entire spectrum.

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Mecca Hills Wilderness welcomes adventurers to reconnect with nature and indulge in peaceful solitude. There’s great hiking in the area, especially the Ladder Canyon Trail at Big Painted Canyon. (Head clockwise to go up the ladders along the trail.) You can also camp off the graded dirt Painted Canyon Road.

Wherever you pitch your tent or park your RV, make sure you have plenty of water and remember to leave no trace so that other visitors can enjoy this sweet spot for generations to come.


The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.

Best Place to See Bighorn Sheep

Hikers love to boast about their bighorn sheep sightings all along the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument — from the South Lykken Trail (where I’ve spotted a couple over the years) on the west end of the Coachella Valley to the Boo Hoff Trail to the east. But the one place any casual observer can spend quality time observing these endangered animals is at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens in Palm Desert.

From a viewing nook, visitors can marvel at the extraordinary strength and agility of the rams and ewes as they use their cloven hooves to gracefully climb up and down the rocky mountain terrain in search of food (desert plants, such as mesquite and catsclaw) and water. In the conservation-focused environment of The Living Desert, the stocky sheep are safe from their greatest threats: predators such as mountain lions, habitat loss, and degradation caused by human activity, including development.

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