The Elusive Milky Way – How to Find It!

Last revised: July 5, 2018
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

The Milky Way in Summer from Horizon to Horizon

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

Best Times To Spot the Milky Way

Month Best Time (Local 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. 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. If you live outside the United States, do not despair, you have a good chance of seeing the core of the galaxy from anywhere south of 55 degrees northern latitude. Above that latitude the core of the Milky Way will never rise above the horizon.

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]

Can You Help Me Find the Best Time Where I Live/Work/Travel?

In short, no. Please read through the comments for many such questions and answers. It’s impossible to cover information for everywhere on earth, but our notes here cover all the general concepts. Moreover, the moon phase is different – the moon doesn’t behave like the sun, so even though the Milky Way may be glorious this year on say August 8th, next year the moon may be full and obscure your view. Also, weather conditions may affect your view, so do not neglect that variable!

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]

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

  1. Andy Morris

    You’re doing it all wrong.
    Here’s how I find the Milky Way – “Steven, where’s the milky way?”
    My way is foolproof accurate to within the hour every time and is highly recommended.

  2. Jason

    I’ve been practicing coaxing the ancient light into my camera since I’ve been visiting nj. So far I’m getting decent results and cannot wait to take all ive learned back to the California desert

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  4. Steven Christenson

    I received and answered a question via email (I prefer comments) about using a Planisphere to predict the location and orientation of the Milky Way. Again, most people are referring to the bright cloud like portion of the Milky Way as found adjacent to the “Teapot” and as noted above, this constellation highest in the sky when it is due south. However if you want to get Sagittarius aligned near a specific object on the horizon, you can approximate the direction and then adjust the Planisphere until Sagittarius is near that location. For example, if you have a view to the South East (say 140 degrees), by turning the planisphere until Sagittarius is about 40 degrees east of south you can then read along the outside to know at what date and times the alignment will occur. Remember to subtract one hour from the displayed time when daylight savings time is in effect!

    If using a double sided planisphere, remember to use the southern sky side of the unit!

    Note that not all orientations of the Milky Way are possible!

    1. Shreenivas

      hi steven, can you suggest any free software, like carina skygazer, to be able to view the sky (varied latitudes, time periods)? tks

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  6. John Templeton

    Do you have a recommendation for which Planisphere to buy? gives a zillion choices to buy. Do you know of a store in the East Bay that carries them?

    1. Steven Christenson

      John, all of my “Planisphere” links in the previous article and comments link directly to the one I recommend thru Amazon – HOWEVER remember that the planisphere you buy should be suitable for the latitude you’re going to be using it in. For most of us, that’s where we live.

      Don’t know your latitude? Google maps will tell you. Go to enter your address. Right click on the map and select “What’s Here” your GPS address will show up in the search bar (e.g. this 37.772402,-122.41453 for 11th Street, San Francisco, CA). The first number is your latitude. So the DH Chandler Large Double Sided Planisphere for 30 to 40 degrees North is the right one. Do read the review here, however. The criticism is a good one, but do understand that “Guide to The Stars” which is single sided is HUGE.

      As for an East (San Francisco) Bay Store, no. Don’t know of one.

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  8. Ken

    If I am in the Himalayas in India during June, I’m guessing that it would be similar to the U.S. and that I would still be able to see the Milky Way during pre-dawn hours if I face south? Does that sound right? Thanks!!

    And thanks for the interesting article.

    1. Steven Christenson

      By Mid June the Milky Way rises just after dark and will be visible until sunrise. Near midnight it will be highest in the sky. All of us here will be jealous of the wonderful views you’re going to get!

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      You’re quite right: Star Walk, Star Map, GoSky Chart and many others present very detailed images of the night sky as well as interesting objects like the Andromeda Galaxy and much more. Some apps, like Star Map, even let you select the constellation (e.g. Sagittarius) and the app directs you on screen which way to face using on screen arrows. And all the apps I mention are less than $4! I especially like GoSkyWatch on the iPad – it was a free app through Starbucks when I got it, but at only about $3 it’s a steal. I have been a long time user of Star Map which features the direction to face hints and also data about meteor showers, (some) comets and more. BUT… all those apps aren’t as handy or as fast as a Planisphere.

      No one has yet made an app that allows you to point a device toward an area of the sky and have it tell you when the galactic center (Sagittarius) will be visible there in astronomical darkness WITHOUT a bright moon. Someone using any of the apps I listed won’t be able to know that it’s not possible to see the “good part” of the Milky Way from mid November to mid February except by laboriously changing dates. On a Planisphere you can see in a fraction of a second.

      Finally, some apps have such a poorly recognizable Milky Way that I think will frustrate people who think they’re looking at the galactic center but are really looking a very sparse section of the Milky Way as, for example, in the constellation Canis Major.

      If PhotoPills had a clearer image of the Milky Way it could solve some of the problem… perhaps even a mode where the user can point the iPhone and see the path of the galactic center just like it does for the sun and moon. The Milky Way is a bit more complicated though because it is a line in the sky, not a point.

      1. rustyrae

        There seems to me to be another issue with the use of apps — where I am shooting — near Mt. Rainier and in other wilderness areas there is no signal so the app is somewhat neutered in its effectiveness.

        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          At this time of year (November through February) the spectacular part of the Milky Way is not visible because the sun is in the way. But there are LOTS of clues above about what to look for … Sagittarius, for example, sometimes dumbed down in apps and called “The Archer”. This is an example showing why an “app” is not your friend. See this article for more details.

  9. Raees Uzhunnan

    Steven, I am going to be in Grand Canyon, Page AZ and Zion Utah for this coming thanks giving. From your article November, December and Jan are not good months for shooting Milkyway. But I want to give it a try, at least want to experience the darkness and what I can see. Appreciate your advice on below few
    1. Do you have a favorite spot around this route ?
    [[Not sure what you mean by route and whether you’re referring to night photography in particular. I suggest the book “Photographing the Southwest Vol 2.” by Laurent Martres]]
    2. If I am shooting on ThanksGiving ; what time should I attempt ?
    [[As soon as it’s dark. You might also want to get up really early and look east for Comet Lovejoy]]
    3. I have a canon 10-22mm 3.5f lens. is it going to be good enough ( Canon 7D )
    [[No matter what your gear, it’s always worth a try!]]
    Any other pointers are appreciated


    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Raees: You can determine many of the answers for yourself using a Planisphere, or a planetarium type app such as Stellarium. While you’re in the region, the brightest, densest part of the Milky Way will already have set before it’s fully dark. The very bright Venus (it’ll be the brightest thing in the sky at nightfall) will mark what’s left of the Milky Way in the West-Southwest. Unless you are at the North Rim you will find Venus by facing away from the Grand Canyon. There is a lot to see in the area. Enjoy your trip, and please post a photo from your trip to our Facebook page.

  10. Abishek


    How visible is the milky way from the Southern Hemisphere during January.

    I looked at a site which says Jan 22nd

    I am doing a time lapse vide of the night sky from the Himalayas at a decent elevation and would love to include the milk way if it is visible.

    Let me know your thoughts.

    Regards & Thanks in Advance

    1. Steven Christenson Post author


      A couple of points. 1. The Himalayas – at least the range that includes Mount Everest is in the NORTHERN hemisphere at about 27 degrees, not the southern hemisphere. 2. The visibility of the Milky Way (Sagittarius) will depend on your local horizon because it rises low in the sky to the south east. It will reach about 30 degrees altitude before twilight intervenes. 3. Unfortunately on the day you’re asking about, the moon is half full and rises just before the Milky Way does, so you’ll probably not see the Milky Way due to strong moonlight.

      You can determine all of these things using the free program “Stellarium” (or similar).

      1. Abishek

        Thanks Steven.

        Yes. I meant to say Northern. I will be near another mountain called Annapurna in the Himalayas between 11th to 25th . I will be scourging the sky for other shots ,So will try and capture MW if I get to see it.

        Thanks for the info.


    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      We’re jealous. The Milky Way (Sagittarius) rises about 90 minutes before the sun now so you’ll be able to see it. In fact, since it is now late February, the Milky Way will definitely be high enough in the sky to decently photograph before it’s overwhelmed by sunrise.

        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          Look up, at night 🙂

          Generally the Milky Way (Sagittarius) rises in the SE at Sunset in June and will be highest in the sky near midnight. These general directions apply regardless of your location on earth. Don’t expect to see the Milky Way if there is any significant moonlight or light pollution, or the skies are not at their darkest due to twilight. You also won’t see the Milky Way well (or at all) if your eyes are not dark adapted. Good luck!

  11. Steven Christenson Post author

    Q: I would like to do a timelapse including the Milky Way. I live in Portland, Me. Is the summer a good time of the year or would another time of the year be better? [Robert R]
    A: As noted in the article, it depends a lot on the conditions during the summer. In the Northern latitudes during the summer you only have about 3 hours of total darkness, and about 5 usable hours. But don’t let that stop you.

  12. Epiphany Outlaw

    That first picture is amazing. The way that it’s cropped reminds me of an organic tissue slide. i love when the micro and macro worlds have these kind of similarities. Thanks for the helpful stargazing info. 🙂

  13. Samir

    Hi there, first of all thanks for this wonderful article, it is very informative and concise, I have similar questions like everyone else. I live in NJ (northern part near NYC), we are planning to visit a dark site west to us about an hour away, now I looked every where but I am not getting an answer as to will we be able to see the Milky Way. The time we are planning this visit is near new moon.
    One again thanks for this very informative article.

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Best of luck to you. I’m not sure that it’s possible to get a dark sky site only an hour away from NYC… the eastern seaboard is pretty light polluted. You may have a better chance of seeing the Milky Way in early to Mid April by going to a remote area along the coast and looking south east. See above where I added a chart.

      1. Samir

        Thanks for the information, you are right, now this is a very first time visiting a dark site for me, so maybe I was too optimistic. Regardless lets see how it pans out. Was thinking talking about Milky Way and showing it to kids will make them interested to look up rather than into their phones or iPads etc. will let you know how it goes.

        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          You can search for “Dark Sky Sites” in New York. While Dark Sky sites may be interesting to astronomers, they are often dull places for Landscape Astrophotography because astronomers prefer flat horizons with few obstructions. But for those who have never seen the Milky Way, it’s often quite a shock. Let your kids know that unless they stay away from all light, they will never see “awesome”.

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    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      It’s an interesting question, but I’m not sure there is a way to answer it. E.g. Northern or Southern hemisphere? Is your goal to make a photograph? If so, you don’t really want the dense part too close to the horizon due to atmospheric distortion…

  15. ne1up (@ne1up)

    Just wanted to say this is an awesome article and website and your super helpful/informative.

    Got bit by the astrophotography bug last several months ago and I’m thinking I’m finally ready to go start hunting the milky way by driving to some of the darker parts of Oregon – unfortunately, apparently January is not a good time for that. 🙂 So now I have to practice patience and stay off Amazon, because there’s a Rokinon wideangle lens I’m really itching to buy…

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Yes. The Milky Way is visible all summer. It will be a challenge to include it in a shot from the South Rim, however, because the densest part of the Milky Way is to the south – opposite from the direction of the Canyon.

  16. Julie Barlasov

    Hi, I used your tips to photograph Milky Way in Death Valley and above Crater Lake. It is stunning view and tracking device can help creating stunning pictures (did not have one). Thank you for all the tips. I do need more help. I am traveling to Peru next month and was wondering if you have tips on photographing Mike Way in Southern Hemisphere. I realize it will be almost above me stretching southeast to northeast, however do you have any suggestions? (I will be in Cusco on the way to Machu Picchu April 25 hopefully far from lights)
    Thank you

    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Well, first we are jealous. We’ve always wanted to photograph from the Southern Hemisphere, but never have. Never even been in that half of the globe. Generally the way we approach photos is to find an interesting foreground in the direction we must face to include the Milky Way and then arrange to be there at the appropriate time. Perhaps this photo featured in will inspire you. Note that “the appropriate time” in April will be the wee hours of the morning as the Milky Way (in Sagittarius) is rising. Best of luck.


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