The Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Milky Way

The Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Milky Way

There is something truly magical about stargazing in the summer. Although the temperatures can be warm and you’ll need to wait longer for nightfall, the sky makes up for it with plenty of celestial wonders, including recognizable constellations, bright nebulae, and star clusters galore, and the famous Perseids meteor shower. But there is another summertime treat that sometimes gets overlooked—the Milky Way!

If you have stargazed from a remote area away from bright city lights on a moonless night, you may have noticed the night sky filled with countless stars and a peculiar band of “clouds” extending across the sky. A distinct grey haze of bright and dark patches of dust that resembles a river of milk stretches from horizon to horizon that, moving with the stars throughout the night. This is our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Would you like to learn more about the Milky Way and find the best time and locations to view it? If so, read on! We’ll cover those topics and offer helpful tips to make your Milky Way viewing experience more enjoyable.


What is the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is a barred-spiral galaxy. It’s estimated to have a visible diameter of 100,000-200,000 light-years, but it is only 1,000 light-years thick. New studies suggest that the Milky Way has four main spiral arms, each containing between 100 and 400 billion stars. The Sun, the Earth, and the rest of our Solar System reside in the Orion Arm.

The Milky Way galaxy is estimated to be one of more than 2 trillion galaxies. Every star visible to the naked eye from Earth resides in the Milky Way, although the Andromeda Galaxy, which is also plainly visible in dark skies, lives outside the Milky Way. Both galaxies belong to a group of 50 closely bound galaxies known as the Local Group.

Milky Way in the Dark Hills

There are two smaller, irregular dwarf galaxies and various other dwarf galaxies in the Local Group that orbit the Milky Way. The two largest of these satellite galaxies are known as the Magellanic Clouds—the Large Magellanic Cloud, with an estimated diameter of 14,000 light-years, and the Small Magellanic Cloud, an estimated diameter of 7,000 light-years. Both companion galaxies are visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere.

Magellanic Clouds

The heart of the Milky Way is located near the teapot of Sagittarius and the tail of Scorpius. Using your imagination, we can picture “steam” emanating from the teapot’s spout. When you look toward this region, you can’t see directly into the core and explore what’s inside since it’s shrouded by cosmic dust and gas. After discovering a powerful source of radio waves, scientists concluded that a supermassive black hole—4 million times our Sun’s mass—exists in the center of the Milky Way. They named this black hole Sagittarius A.

Galactic Center 


When can you see the Milky Way?

The Milky Way is visible from most dark sky locations during the year, but only on clear, moonless nights, so the viewing window is limited. As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, the Milky Way passes through eight notable constellations—Sagittarius, Scorpius, Aquila, Cygnus, Perseus, Cassiopeia, Auriga, and Gemini. You can see its brightest sections and core during the summer months—June through September—as we face the galactic center. On ideal viewing nights early in the summer viewing season, the Milky Way becomes visible as soon as darkness falls, running parallel to the horizon in the east-southeast before transitioning vertically overhead and towards the west-southwest as the night progresses. Look for the Milky Way as it crosses the sky throughout the night. It is an incredible celestial sight to behold!

The winter Milky Way is not as dramatic as its summertime counterpart due to our vantage point looking away from its congested center. However, its fainter structure can be revealed quite easily through long-exposure photography. The point directly opposite the galaxy’s core is the tip of Taurus, the Bull’s horns, one of several popular wintertime constellations.


Where can you go to see the Milky Way?

For the best views of the Milky Way, you’ll want to get as far away from city light pollution as possible. While you may be able to see the Milky Way with some mild skyglow from artificial lighting, your best views will be at remote locations away from civilization— campgrounds, deserts, mountains, most national and state parks, or even at sea. The International Dark-Sky Association keeps an official list of recognized dark sky locations worldwide, which is a valuable resource. Find it here:

In the western half of the U.S., national and state parks are likely the best places to view the Milky Way and stargaze to your heart’s content. The southwestern region, such as the deserts in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas offer dazzling dark skies with clearer weather. But remember, daytime temperatures can be incredibly hot here during the summer months.

In the eastern half of the U.S., it is trickier to find darker skies and clearer weather. Years of land development, growing cities, and increased artificial lighting have all posed challenges. Still, there are places in Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida (to name a few), if you know where to go.


Here are 15 dark sky locations in the U.S. to view the Milky Way in all its glory:

  • Acadia National Park, Maine
  • Badlands National Park, South Dakota
  • Big Bend National Park, Texas
  • Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah
  • Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania
  • Death Valley National Park, California/Nevada (use extreme caution due to the intense heat)
  • Florida Keys, Florida
  • Ft. Davis, Texas
  • Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
  • Great Basin National Park, Nevada
  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
  • Joshua Tree National Park, California
  • Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
  • Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  • Zion National Park, Utah


Tips to make your Milky Way viewing experience more enjoyable

Tip #1: Plan a road trip.

Plan a road trip.

Travel outside city limits or go west. Pristine darker skies are more abundant in the western U.S., and your eyes will be dark-adapted to see fainter stars and the Milky Way in all its glory.

Tip #2: Plan a dark sky trip by the Moon’s phase.

Plan a dark sky trip by the Moon’s phase


The best time is during New Moon when our celestial neighbor is invisible, or during the waxing or waning crescent phase. The Moon will either set early or rise late, allowing you more time to enjoy the night sky. If you have a Celestron telescope, download Celestron’s SkyPortal app to view the Moon’s phase at any date or time.

Tip #3: Check the weather forecast.

Check the weather forecast.

Always check the weather forecast for your viewing location and revise your plans if needed.

Tip #4: Look up.

Look up.

Enjoy the Milky Way with your naked eyes and be amazed at the galaxy we all call home.

Tip #5: Use binoculars or a rich-field telescope.

Use binoculars or a rich-field telescope.

Use an optical instrument to scan the Milky Way. You will see an abundance of individual stars, star clusters, and nebulae. For a list of products we recommend, click here

Tip #6: Observe in comfort.

Observe in comfort.

Use an observing chair or reclining camping chair to avoid straining your neck and observe in comfort. It’s most useful when the Milky Way passes overhead.

Tip #7: Listen to mood music.

Listen to mood music.

Listening to your favorite astronomy tunes can set the tone for your viewing experience. Be mindful of others keep the volume low. We’ve compiled top picks from our employees, fans, and customers around the world in our Spotify playlist and YouTube channel.

Tip #8: Stay hydrated.

Celestron Travel Mug

Drink plenty of liquids because summer nights can be warm. To buy a personalized Celestron travel mug, click here.

Tip #9: Be dark adapted.

Be dark adapted.

Keep your eyes dark adapted while observing. Use a red flashlight if you need to check your surroundings. Celestron offers various models of red flashlights. Some models not only provide red light but also warm your hands and charge your mobile devices. 

Tip #10: Outdoor wear.

Outdoor wear.

Summertime may feel like shorts and t-shirt weather for the most part, but it’s best to keep a light jacket handy just in case the temperature drops at night. Warm summer nights can bring mosquitoes and other four-, six-, and eight-legged creepy crawlers out of the woodwork, so it’s probably a good idea to cover up and apply bug spray, or else your evening of viewing the Milky Way may turn out to be an unpleasant one. Grab your Celestron apparel to stay warm here



Most people will remember the first time they observed the real night sky from a dark location on a moonless night. Seeing countless stars and the Milky Way in all its glory is a humbling experience that you won’t soon forget. We live in a world where dark skies are few and far between, and seeing only the brightest stars is normal, especially for the younger generation growing up in larger cities. The stars are still there, of course, but hidden from view.

It should be on everyone’s bucket list to see the night sky the way our ancestors viewed it when the world was free of bright lights and modern urbanization. If you’re looking to embark on new adventures this summer and head back into nature, gather your family members, significant other, or friends and spend some time observing the grandiosity of the Universe. It just may change your views on life forever. Clear skies and happy stargazing! 


Other articles you might be interested in: 
Ultimate Guide to Observing the Universe
What to Bring for a Night of Stargazing: The Ultimate Guide