This is a site report, not so much an observing report. My main goal was to go to check out the surroundings. On July 30-31 2016, I went to Williams Hill Recreation Area, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to investigate the suitability of the site for purposes of astronomical observing, with the possibility of spending the night. The area is located about 27 road miles, or 17 miles as the crow flies, south of King City.
My plan was to get there earlier in the day on Saturday with my dirt bike, and then tool around to explore and get to know the area, and settling on a location where I could set up my scope. I would then have dinner, and head to that site to set up, and wait for night to fall. Things went very much according to plan.
The ride down 101 was uneventful, though slow going getting out of Santa Clara County due to Gilroy’s annual Garlic Festival. Getting through Prunedale and Salinas was also slow in spots, and much of the afternoon sky was obscured by smoke from the fire near Carmel (prevailing winds were taking the smoke northeast, thankfully away from my destination). It was over a hundred miles on southbound 101, through all the towns we know when we are traveling to dark sky sites: Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield, King City.
The exit to take is called San Ardo, then a right onto Paris Valley Road. After a little less than two miles of paved farm road, you have to make a sharp left turn onto Lockwood San Ardo Road, at which point, it turns to a fairly well maintained dirt road. Once on the dirt, going was slow. I had a trailer so I took it easy, no more than 25, and in some places, 10 or less toward the top. Nearing the camp, the road is cut into the side of the hill, exposing the Monterey shale formations. It’s a very dry, dusty white ride.
I arrived at the campground closer to 4pm, about ninety minutes later than I originally planned. The first order of business was to unhitch the trailer and pull the bike down, getting ready for the first phase, local exploration. The campground is four and a half miles before the end of the road that leads up to the actual Williams Hill, which can also rightly be called Antenna Hill. I made my way to antenna hill via the fairly well maintained dirt road comprised mainly of switchbacks that lead from one hill to the next. At the top of the hill, the antennae live behind a chain link fence, some of the towers more securely enclosed than others, possibly giving away their importance to their owners. At the end of the road, there is a fairly wide area that may be suitable to set up maybe a dozen scopes, but it’s a long way to go past the campground, there are large circles etched into the ground by spinning wheels (ie, donuts), and if anyone were to come up that road at night, you’d be blasted with headlights with little to no cover. Further, the flat area, though wide open at the top of the hill with nice horizons (except for the towers), is not entirely level. Being the top of a hill, it has a mild crown, I thought to myself that this area would do in a pinch, but there very well could be better sites.
I kept exploring and found miles of more trails on this BLM land. North of the campground area, ie, north of Lockwood San Ardo Road, there are plenty of possible observing sites with decent horizons and plenty of space for plenty of astronomers’ vehicles and their gear. Many, most or all of them were littered with spent shotgun shells. It was shameful, how the shooters left such a mess. There weren’t too many targets, and thankfully not much broken glass, though a gallon size fire extinguisher appeared to be on the receiving end of a muzzle. After a good hour and a half of exploring, I concluded that the best overall site for observing is only about half mile from the campground, at 35.984279, -121.011742. It’s an open hill good with horizons nearly all the way around, especially to the east. So much so that you can look down and see headlights on highway 101. After dark, there was just a small light dome to the east, Paso Robles, perhaps. (EDIT: I was informed this light dome is not Paso Robles, which is way more to the south, and there is nothing east; this is most likely skyglow.)
The campground is wooded with pines, though sparsely, and each of the six sites are far enough apart which provides for privacy. The location is on top of a ridge, so the wind was sailing briskly over the ridge top, making tent assembly a bit difficulty. However, it died down rather abruptly after about 7pm.
There is no water at the campground whatsoever, so any campers or other visitors are well advised to bring plenty of their own. There is a single vault toilet that was fairly (relatively) clean and even stocked with adequate amounts of TP. The sites each had a metal picnic table and a canopy as shelter from the sun, or perhaps the rain, and the sites and much of the rest of the campground were roped off to keep offroaders off the vegetation.
There were other campers, including a fairly large group of young men, in about 6 cars. They were not any problem, we didn’t socialize at all, and the smell of clove cigarettes adorned the air on the road leading away from camp. There was also a later arrival, a guy with his girlfriend, out for a romantic camp getaway in the local hills.
As far as observing, I don’t have much to write about. The hilltop location were I set up was mildly rutted by vehicles turning around when the ground was last wet. The ruts made it slightly challenging to find an adequately flat, level spot for the dob base. It wasn’t dusty there, but rather a bit rocky with small scrub growing low. After it got dark, I sampled Saturn, whose tilt is now so great that seeing the Cassini division is easy, and enjoyed the planets wandering through Scorpius. viewed some objects around Ophiucus but mainly I was happy just taking in the dark sky, with the milky way hanging above like fluffy clouds. A few streaks of light appeared during the night, perhaps a pre-game show for the coming Perseid meteor shower. It was very much plenty dark.
I didn’t stay out long since I had to be out of there early. The next morning, I loaded up and took it easy down the hill again, and it was a nicer ride since it wasn’t as hot. Got back to San Jose around 11am.
Would I recommend this place for SJAA members to go observing? Definitely yes. The recommendation would also include that you should plan on staying the night. Though there is no water and no trash service, and it’s a fairly remote location where shooting is allowed, it does have fairly decent cell service, a nice campground, and good horizons at 2200 feet (671 meters).
Sounds intriguing, Rob. I used to work in San Ardo. That light dome you saw was most likely skyglow. There are no lights to the east there, and Paso Robles is due south and pretty distant.
Was thinking, by the time you get to the Lockwood/San Ardo Rd, you’re not that far from Lake San Antonio, nice and dark there too. The county needs to open that park sometime.
This report oughta go onto the TAC list. No chance of a land rush.
Thanks for the info on the skyglow. Yes, there’s nothing to the east. At all. That’s why it was so confounding. I edited the post with that, and then also added the location of where I set up. Looking at it via sat view in gmaps, with the 3D function (use cntl for full 3D viewing), you can see pretty much the same view I had. One other thing is that at night, you can see headlights on 101 making their way through the S curve in San Lucas. But no worries, they don’t blind you. 🙂
Good point on posting to TAC. It’s not recognizing my login, I’ll have to whip up another.
I have gone to Williams Hill almost a dozen times over the last 5 years (since I got a small little-old RV). I now much prefer the Jolon Road route – that comes off 101 at King City. (of course my top speed is 55). The dirt road, back up from Lockwood, is much smoother and about half the (dirt) length as from San Ardo.
I like the ‘first flat area’ which is even before the campground. Very flat and only a tree or two, No trees to the North or West or directly South. This has both, much better seeing (laminar flow) and much less humidity / fog than Lake San Antonio (CalStar).
People dusting me or disturbing has never been a problem. I usually stay 2 or 3 days. If you look at the BLM map, it is near first kink in W1 going toward the campground. If you use the live link to the coordinates in the first message – zoom in, the flat is the shite area to the East of the Google Map PIN
That’s a great suggestion, Steven, coming up the ‘back’ way from Lockwood. Seems it’s still very much doable from 101 out of King City. Thanks for sharing your experiences!
Is it easy to reach these places with a car? I don’t have a truck but would love to check this place out.
Yes, I would say a car can easily make it. It will be dirty once you get home, make no mistake, but there’s nothing that really needs a lot of ground clearance. Take it slow, that’s all.
This is an area primarily used by hunters. Very Poor for Astronomy. If you knew what you were doing you would go to a much higher elevation like 14,000 feet. But it is better than downtown San Jose. If you go tooling around disturbing game be prepared to be reciprocated by local hunters. A great place to take a chance on getting accidentally shot by a novice hunter. Just not a safe place to bring the family. Much nicer places near Gilroy.
I took my Ford C-max up there in Nov 2015 looking for H400 objects in my NP101. Stayed most of night. I just plopped my rig down on the flat area just east of the campground entrance, really good horizons. Campers were quiet and light free.
If I was camping, it seems that getting the most southerly campsite would be ideal.
Since I noticed 2017 CalStar site is booked-up, I will be going to Williams Hill. There is probably room for at least 5 RVs at the flat road-side place (not recommended for tents), and, as Christopher guessed, room for 3 or 4 small groups at the Southern-most campsites (near the circle and the campground entrance). If the circle is used as a communal scope area, the additional campsites, with trees, would at least have shade.
This would be a rather die-hard, compared to a LSA family-friendly place.
I am looking to bring my horse up to Willams Hill this week. My trailer is almost 40′ do you think the switchbacks are too much?
Going up the road from the east (ie, from highway 101), it will be a bit tight but as far as I recall, the road should be wide enough to accommodate a 40 foot fifth wheel trailer. If at all possible, come up from the west side, it’s a much easier ride.