The Elusive Milky Way – How to Find It!

Last revised: August 30, 2016
Original Publish Date:  June 26, 2012

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on finding and photographing the Milky Way.  From November through February it is impossible to spot the densest part of the Milky Way because the sun is hovering there. Read on for more information.

What IS the Milky Way?

Path of the Milky Way West-to-East [C_009575-82stitch] We are located in a corner of the heavens of a galaxy we call “The Milky Way.” The Milky Way stretches all the way across the sky and some part of the Milky Way is present every night – indeed EVERY star you see in the sky is located within our Milky Way.   Most people, however, think of the Milky Way as the cloud-like stretch of stars from the constellation Scorpius (aka Scorpio) to the constellation Cygnus – particularly the part nearest to Sagittarius.  I’ll try not to be too poetic, but when you have clearly seen the Milky Way, it is hard to describe how awesome it is without breaking into song. In ideal conditions the diffuse light of the Milky Way can cast a shadow on the ground!  Unfortunately there is little chance that you will ever see that shadow because most accessible places in the world are mildly to HORRIBLY light polluted. Constellations that are found in the Milky Way include:  Perseus (off the bottom), Cassiopeia (near the bottom in the picture above-left), Lacerta, Cygnus (near the center), Aquila, Sagittarius, Ophiuchus and Scorpius (very top).  Those in the Southern Hemisphere will also find Norma, Circinus, Crux, and Carina.  There is a faint portion of the Milky Way visible in Puppis, Canis Major and the bow of Orion. Look carefully at the image above and you’ll see a bright “smudge” in the center of the bottom fourth of the image. That is one of our sister galaxies known as Andromeda. The galaxy gets its name from the constellation in which it is found.  With an unaided eye it is readily possible to spot Andromeda in a dark sky. With binoculars Andromeda is observable even in a suburban area. In the southern hemisphere two additional sister galaxies called the Large and Small Magellanic clouds are easily seen. On a dark clear night it is easy to observe the lack of stars in the broad band of wispiness that forms the Milky Way. But the dark void is not due to the absence of stars. The void is due to immense inky dust lanes that obscure the stars!

When to See the Milky Way

The sun is in the constellation Sagittarius in December so during November, December and January it is impossible to view the richest part of the Milky Way.  October and February are generally impossible, too. The optimum viewing time in the Northern Hemisphere is in the summer when the sun is on the opposite side of the sky. Unfortunately summer in the Northern Hemisphere is also when hot, stormy, cloudy weather is doing its worst and also when the nights are the shortest. Those in the Southern Hemisphere have an advantage – longer and cooler nights during winter mean the air is clearer. Using a simple tool called a planisphere it is easy to predict when and where to look for the dense part of the Milky Way. But what must also be factored in is the location and phase of the moon. The time of year and the direction of the least light pollution also frame the parameters for getting the best view of the Milky Way. Generally the dense part of the Milky Way is best viewed when it is as high as possible in the Southern sky. Facing south during April and May the pre-dawn hours are best. From June to early August the best time is near midnight, though the Milky Way will be visible almost all night. From Mid August through September the best time is soon after the sun has set and the sky has grown dark. Below is an illustration that may help you. It was created for 38 degrees North latitude, but will serve the middle of the United States, Southern Europe, Northern China, Japan, and any location at a similar latitude very closely.  The farther North you go, the lower in the southern sky the Milky Way will be.  If you live above 65 degrees north, you will never see the Milky Way core because it never rises above your local horizon. The circle in the image below indicates the star Alnasl in the constellation Sagittarius. Above Alnasl (the spout of the teapot) is the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.

The Milky Way as seen from Mid-Northern Latitudes

The Milky Way as seen from Mid-Northern Latitudes Facing South. Click for a larger illustration


Month Best Time Moon Phase*
  February Difficult. Before sunrise (late February only) 3Q to New
  March Difficult. Before sunrise New to 1Q
  April 4 AM to Sunrise New to 1Q
  May 3 AM to 6 AM New to 1Q
  June 10 PM to 2 AM New
  July Sunset to Midnight 3Q to New
  August Sunset until 10 PM 3Q to New
  September Sunset until 9 PM 3Q to New
  October Difficult: Sunset (early October only) 3Q to New

*1Q means first quarter moon (half full). In its first quarter the moon rises around noon and sets near midnight. 2Q is a Full moon. Nearly full is called a Gibbous. It is nearly impossible to see the Milky Way when the moon is near full. 3Q is the third quarter (also half full) moon which rises near midnight and sets near noon. New means the moon rises and sets very near the sun. Includes a slender crescent phase, too.

Where to See the Milky Way

Central Nevada, Eastern Utah. Montana. In short, remote areas far from city light pollution afford the best view. But if you know what to look for and when and where to look you can spot the Milky Way from many places throughout the world. Or you can wait for a massive regional blackout. Fog Swallow [5_018911] I have seen the Milky Way very clearly from the top of Mission Peak in Fremont, California – an area with over 8 million people in literally every direction. However that glimpse required that the entire Bay Area be blotted out by low, heavy fog. My perch was above the darkness blanket that the fog provided. Yosemite National Park is still mostly dark despite cities like Fresno that are doing their best to ruin the darkness. As Numerous at the Grains of Sand Anywhere along a remote area of the coast far from cities there is a chance to see the Milky Way. For example, I spotted a washed out Milky Way just 8 miles north of Santa Cruz, California.  A long exposure and some photo editing improved the view.  If you get farther away from civilization the results can be much more spectacular as you see here. Finding somewhere in the country where it is truly dark, like the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, or White Mountain in Central, Eastern California the Milky Way reaches its most inspiring awesomeness.

How do I See the Milky Way

Visor View [C_033780]I know what you’re thinking: don’t I just “look” in the right direction? The answer is no! It takes your eyes 15 to 20 minutes to see their best in the dark.  Any bright light source in the direction you look will diminish the view. Running out of a well-lit house, or jumping out of a car where you’ve spent the last 15 minute driving with the headlights on will make the Milky Way far less awesome.  Avoiding ALL light and shielding your eyes from anything you can’t avoid will help a lot.  Do you see the Milky Way in this photo from the top of Clouds Rest in Yosemite? I promise you it is there. It juts out above the Yosemite Valley near the center of the image. Here is a view from the wilderness in Yosemite.

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706]

How Do I Photograph The Milky Way?

Cameras are getting better all the time, and there are some nifty tricks you can use to make a compelling photograph of the Milky Way even if your camera is not the top heavyweight performer in the gear smack down.  We’ll cover cameras and techniques in installment 2 of this series!

Famous III [C_035478]

81 thoughts on “The Elusive Milky Way – How to Find It!

  1. taz

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I spent a couple of hours last night at Fremont Peak (8pm to around 10:30pm). The night sky was majestic but no luck finding the Milky Way, so I just ate my Milky Way bar 🙁 LOL. Any advice Steven? Thanks again for the very helpful article

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      The problem was your statement “last night”. At this time of year (April) the Milky Way – at least the dense part in Sagittarius – doesn’t rise until the wee hours of the morning.

      1. rusty

        use a program like google earth to determine your latitude and longitude and then use solarium and you can find the specific time the Milky Way will rise. Of course itr also helps to be a place where there is little light pollution.

    2. Isaac Abinante

      The galactic core of the milky way won’t be visible in early/mid april until about 3:00 am and on, when it rises above the horizon. I know this because I’m always chasing the summer milky way as early as possible. So on any night on or after the new moon, wake up just a couple hours before sunrise, and you’ll see the milky way nearing its zenith (highest in the sky) before being washed out by the twilight of dawn. Also, based on the light pollution and elevation, as long as you’re not looking at city lights, you’ll have a very decent chance of seeing the galactic core glowing to the south (first time I saw the galactic core was at Pt. Mugu State park in the Malibu area, which has much more light pollution and atmosphere than Fremont Peak). Hope this helps!

    3. A007

      is it safe to go to the peak after sunset, any risk of wild animals ..?? also is the park open after sunset?

      1. Steven Christenson Post author

        Fremont Peak has parking and camping areas. No reason to fear animals there except perhaps other men. In general, I think fear of “wild things in the dark” is needless fear. In grizzly country, yeah, I’d take precautions and be extra careful – no grizzlies in California anymore, let alone Fremont Peak.

  2. Keith Burke

    I’m located in Southern Maryland, USA and want to get Milky way shots from April through summer months. When would the best time of day be to get a shot of the milky way. I’m assuming early in the am around 3 to 4 am. IS this correct?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      April through summer is a WIDE range. And it really depends what configuration of the Milky Way you are seeking. Please see the chart/animation above for May through August. April is easy to extrapolate… it’s the same as May plus 2 hours. But we are already in late April… so just go with May.

  3. Dorothy Hester

    I first saw the gorgeously clear and dense Milky Way in 1999 while camping in Borrowdale, Cumbria. It would also be the first time I saw the Aurora Borealis some months back in Newcastle. I just laid on the damp field and drank in the wonderful scene and it’s left a profound mark in my soul. I am determined to ensure my children will be able to see and spot the Milky Way. This summer I am hoping we are blessed with good sky up in Brecons. I have been researching for over 3 years trying to find the perfect place and time to spot it, and came across this article which has been the best in terms of explaining things. In 2018 we will be travelling through America and on the list of places to go, Mount Davis is one. We will also be travelling through Utah, Nevada and Arizonia so here’s hoping for a summer of Milky Ways throughout!

  4. Craig Knowles

    Our home is located just east of the geographical center of Colorado at elevation 9000′. To the north and east are the cities of Denver, 75 miles as the crow flies, and Colorado Springs, about half that distance. But to the south and the west there is no significant population center for hundreds of miles. Over the years it’s been clear that we can see many more stars without optical devices than we were able to with them when we lived in suburban Baltimore/Washington. But after reading your article and others, I’m going to be looking for the MW!

  5. Deidre

    this is a fantastic article. I am sharing it with my photo shooting partner and we are going out to try again. We spent a few nights in Montauk Point, Long Island but the clouds always hampered our efforts. So, I am heading out to Moab and Arches National Park next week (Aug. 2, 2015) to see if I can photograph it. Any hints would be greatly appreciated. I have had success in Hawaii and Maine.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Haven’t been to either of those two parks yet, so afraid I can’t help. Do expect it to be (brutally) hot so be sure to carry lots of water to prevent dehydration – even at night.

  6. Rune Bjørnsen

    I am in Northern Norway, at 68*N actually. Up here summer is out, becosue we have midnight sun, so daylight 24/7. But now in August we start to get nights back, which means the Aurora Borealis season is on again soon. But Aurora is a not a very trustworthy lady, and won’t always dance, and then it could be a good break to get some milkyway photos done. So what are my chances up here this far in the north?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Fair question. The farther north you are, the less of the dense center of the Milky Way is visible. Sagittarius lies at -25 degrees declination, so the farthest North you can go and still see the galactic center is about 65 degrees north… and at that point, it will just barely get above the horizon. Practically speaking, 55 degrees north is the farthest I’d expect to be able to both get an image of the Galactic Core, and have more than just a few weeks / times in the year to snap the photo. But, you do have the compensation of having the Aurora Borealis. So far, I have only been able to photograph that out of a plane window!

      On the Wing (and Under it) [C_011575]

  7. George Fergusson

    I spent 5 gorgeous early September star gazing nights on St. George Island on the Gulf in North Florida. It’s three miles off shore and observes black nights to aid sea turtles and astronomers. The Milky Way views are outstanding. There are so many stars you easily lose your bearings. I use my astronomical binoculars with my toes in the gulf and eyes on the heavens.

  8. Crys

    I’m going to the headlands dark sky park in Michigan on September 26th and was wondering if the milky way will be visible and if so when would be the best time to see it

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Please see my answer to Dawne re: a similar latitude in Wisconsin. However, September 26, 2015 is the date of a full moon (rises eclipsed) so there is very little chance on that date. Anything more than a crescent moon will wash out the Milky Way.

  9. Dawne Zaffke

    Hi, I am in Wisconsin and was going to head up to Door County this weekend .to try and catch the Milky Way. I figured the eastern edge of Washington Island is almost totally dark on light pollution maps, and with the new moon, I’d have a good chance. I just don’t know where to look. I think it’s south just as the sun sets, can you tell me if this is right?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      It takes 90 minutes (or more depending on your latitude) after sunset for the sky to become dark enough to see the Milky Way. By mid September the view would be the same as that shown in the diagram above at 8 PM… but of course it’s not likely to be dark then. The sky moves 15 degrees per hour (one Zodiacal constellation’s worth). In other words, Sagittarius will be about where Scorpio is in the diagram having crossed from due south into southwestern sky, and Scorpio will be lower on the horizon (and may have set already). You can find out when it’s “dark enough” using The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

      Here is a screen shot of “Sister Bay”

      I’m guessing you’ll be looking straight down the coastline toward Milwaukee and all the coastal towns. You’d have better luck, I think, had you looked South EAST in the spring.

  10. rodka85

    I’ve been trying to spot the core of the milky way over the last months but although my Stellarium says that it is located in the southern half of the sky and therefore it is not visible now in October (using the terminology applied by the software it would be “under the ground”). However, I’ve taken a couple of shots and submitted them to the Astrometry and it recognized some constellations (like Aquila) that were not supposed to be in visible at that time. I’m really confused.

    [Edited, added image from later post]

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Aquila is in the “Milky Way” but the core (bright, dense area) of the Milky Way is in Sagittarius as we note in the article. Referring to the first photograph again, Aquila is above center in the first image. For our latitude at Star Circle Academy (39 degrees north), Sagittarius sets at about 9:00 PM local time in mid October. But it will BARELY be dark enough to see Sagittarius before it sets. Folks at lower latitudes have a better chance to see it before it sets, including those people south of the equator. BUT, in October the southern hemisphere is leaving spring, headed for summer, so they have less night time.

      By the end of October the sun will be so close to Sagittarius that the core of the Milky Way will not be visible again until early March, and only for those willing to get up before dawn.

      I also notice that you indicated you live in Finland. At the latitude of Helsinki, the HIGHEST that Sagittarius ever rises is 5 degrees above the southern horizon.

  11. Aditya Jagtiani

    Hi! Thank you for this wonderful article. I was fortunate enough to see the Milky Way multiple times over the summer and early fall. However, I’m making a camping trip to Joshua Tree NP during Thanksgiving. Joshua Tree is one of the best places in USA to stargaze, but it’s gonna be close to a full moon on those nights. I thought I can get get decent views for a couple of hours before the moon rises at around 8 PM and get a few decent pictures as well.

    Which brings me to my question, I know you said that November – December are not ideal to see the Milky Way core, but is it not visible at all if the location is good/light pollution is none? Also, would the few hours after sunset be a good time to see it?

      1. Mark

        How does the Sun obscure the MW and could I see it tonight at 6K feet on the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC? Need a reply by at least 6pm when I get off work. I don’t have a personal PC to check later. Thanks, Mark

        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          Mark. What month were you born? Your zodiacal sign is based on which constellation the sun is in at birth. I take no stock in Astrology, but I am trying to make a simple point. As the earth revolves around the sun, the sun appears to be “in” different constellations. Because the sun is so extremely bright, it is impossible to see any stars within about 40 degrees of the sun. With me so far? The core of our Milky Way is in Sagittarius as we describe in the article. Guess where the sun is in December? Yep, Sagittarius.

          As we noted in the article EVERY star you can see with your eyes is in the Milky Way… but what we mean, and most people mean when they say “Milky Way” is the more glowing portion you see in this photo at the right. You can also see quickly how much more luminous the area around Sagittarius is compared to the rest.

          Cathedral Spread [N-171-60958p]

          That portion has the sun in or very near it from late October to Late February.

          By contrast here is another portion of the Milky Way, far less awesome… this is a portion of the Milky Way visible in dark skies near Orion.

          Dog Star [C_065586]

  12. imagemaster2010

    My husband and I are planning to visit the Headlands Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City, MI on June 23 or 23, weather permitting, to try and see the MY. Knowing how long it will take to get dark that time of the year, is being there between midnight and 2 AM good for the best viewing?

  13. Phyllis Ho

    I saw some photos online by a photographer who is known for his night scenary and night sky photos, but there was a couple that made me question whether it was photoshopped. Is it possible to see or capture Milky Way with a fading sunset in the distance? Wouldn’t the sky still be too bright to capture the Milky Way?

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Hard to say without a link to the photo. But yes, it’s quite possible. There is a lot more “latent” light in the sky than you might realize… and usually that “fading sunset” is in fact glow from city lights, not true sunset.

      Here is a shot with full moonlight behind me:

      Hot August Night [C_059788]

      And here is what appears to be a sunrise (though this is facing WEST)
      Visor View [C_033780]

  14. Bob Smith

    Out side of Mountain Grove Missouri it is so clear when you go out of town. The things I miss. I live in town now and the light is so bad.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Sorry, James. We were traveling and could not answer your question. However, we think the article should have done a decent job. Please let us know what point(s) were missing from the explanation. We do know that the moon phase is an important unknown and noticed that our link to a moon phase tool was missing and we added that back. Here is a page we recommend:


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