How to find our galaxy and eight great Dark Sky destinations for astrophotography in North America

By Jamie Carter
July 24, 2019
Courtesy of The National Park Service

The “River of Heaven”, the “Ganges of the Sky”, the “Vía Láctea.” All are names for what we call our home galaxy, the Milky Way. In summer, it’s some sight under dark skies, and now is the very best time of the year to see it arch across the night sky.

Why Is Now a Good Time to See the Milky Way?

Firstly, from about July 25 (a week before New Moon) through Aug. 3 there’s no significant moonlight in the night sky. That’s critical — you will not see much of the Milky Way if there is any kind of strong moonlight. Secondly, during summer the Earth at night is tilted towards the Milky Way’s bright core, the Galactic Center. That’s behind the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius, which are visible high in the sky from April through November, but at their highest just after dark in August and September. The same moonless “Milky Way window” opens up again between Aug. 23 - Sept. 2 and Sept. 21 - Oct. 1.

The Best Places in North America to See Our Galaxy This Summer:

1. Joshua Tree National Park, California

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If you can avoid stumbling into cacti, this national park (and a certified International Dark Sky Park) straddling the Mojave Desert and lower Colorado Desert is an iconic place to view the Milky Way for anyone living in the Greater Los Angeles area. Cottonwood Campground has the darkest skies.

2. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

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It might be the Old Faithful geyser field and the colorful Grand Prismatic Spring that gets visitors to Yellowstone, but it’s often sparkling views of the Milky Way that make them return. Just north of those two popular sights is Madison Campground; the nearby Madison River is the perfect place to wait for galaxy-rise.

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Jamie Carter

Although not officially designated for its dark skies, Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has been holding astronomy talks and hosting gatherings of amateur astronomers at its Visitors Center for decades. Its Astronomy & Night Sky Programs, and especially its Astronomy Rangers, are as legendary as its hoodoos.

4. Great Basin National Park, Nevada

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Astrophotography is all about composition, and what better foreground for a Milky Way image that the Bristlecone pine groves of Nevada’s remote Great Basin National Park? It’s designated as an International Dark Sky Park, with key stargazing locations including the Baker Archaeological Site, Ranch Interpretive Site and Mather Overlook on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive. 


5. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Grand Canyon Conservancy (GCC) recently spent $1 million converting all light fixtures to be dark sky-friendly, which should give Grand Canyon’s five million annual visitors a great view. It’s now officially an International Dark Sky Park. Although it’s the South Rim’s populated area that’s been made dark sky-friendly, for really great views head to the remote Desert View or Lipan Point.

6. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

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Where the Great Plains meets the Badlands meets the Milky Way. More than 30 miles from the nearest large city, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s northern section in particular is very dark. The Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival is held from Aug. 30 through Sept. 1, 2019 for an even better experience.

7. Acadia National Park, Maine

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Welcome to Mount Desert Island on the Atlantic coast, home to Cadillac Mountain. The highest point on the east coast of the U.S., it’s the best place to see the Milky Way, though there are plenty of other spots in amateur astronomers’ favorite Acadia National Park.

8. Arches National Park, Utah

Courtesy of The National Park Service

Book yourself into the Devils Garden Campground in Arches and you can take a starlit stroll down the Devil's Garden Trailhead, surely one of the most iconic spots for Milky Way astrophotography. From Landscape Arch to Double O Arch, incredible compositions are all around.

How to take photographs of the Milky Way

You need a manual camera. Maybe that’s a DSLR, a mirrorless camera, or a compact camera, but it needs to have manual settings. Don’t use any zoom, and if you have a choice of lenses, go for as wide-angle as possible. With your camera on a tripod, set the focus to infinity (auto-focus on a distant object during the day to find out where that point is on your lens), the ISO to 800, then open the shutter for 20-25 seconds. Experiment with other settings, such as ISO 1600 or higher, but more than 25 seconds and the stars will badly blur — Earth is rotating faster than you think!

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