Every Milky Way photographer has a favorite location – that particular spot that has just the right view, topography, or feel that inspires their Milky Way photos. We at MilkyWayPhotographers.com are no different. So we thought we’d share some of our favorite Milky Way photography locations.

In the past decades, landscape photographers have often been reluctant to share their favorite spots. The rise of social media has not helped change that sentiment. We don’t want any of these places to become Mesa Arch.

So we’re not including any fragile or sensitive locations that are going to decimated by an increase in visitors. We’re only including places that are our favorite Milky Way photography locations that will be able to withstand any potential onslaught of Milky Way photographers.

So, here we go!

Our Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations:

Marybeth Kiczenski

Upper Peninsula of Michigan

As a midwest native, I am surrounded by light pollution. Tons of light pollution. But fear not fellow East of the Mississippi-ans, there is hope! That hope is in the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This magical North Woods oasis offers little to no cell service, few crowds outside of July and August, and dark skies galore!

A good portion of the peninsula is in a Bortle 2 dark sky, with parts of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore falling on a Bortle 1. So if you dislike people, social media, and love solitude, the Upper Peninsula is for you!

Dark Skies and comfortable temperatures make for some awesome nights out! Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in particular also offers great hiking and camping.

Things You Need To Know

Bugs –

Oh Lawd, there are bugs galore in “da Yoop.” From May until September, you’ll encounter bloodsuckers of all sorts. Most are just annoying, but a few are concerning. Those are ticks and mosquitoes. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, and mosquitoes, as we all know, are vectors for a whole host of diseases. For the North Woods, West Nile is the concern. As far I as I know, the Zika virus hasn’t made its way this far north.

You don't have to go to the Arctic to witness the Northern Lights!  The Upper Peninsula offers many locations with easy access to the northern-facing Lake Superior shoreline. Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
You don’t have to go to the Arctic to witness the Northern Lights! The Upper Peninsula offers many locations with easy access to the northern-facing Lake Superior shoreline.

Weather –

Summers are generally quite pleasant in the Upper Peninsula. Fall is magical with the colors, as well. Lately, I’ve taken a liking to Winter. Ice formations and the crisp, cold air make for some breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, not to mention astro conditions. However, winters can be absolutely brutal this far north. so you must exercise caution. A good portion of Pictured Rocks is not accessible in winter unless you have a snowmobile, as they don’t clear those roads. If a severe snowstorm hits, some of the main roads and highways, like M-28 will be shut down. The rewards of braving this harsh season are quite incredible, though. The Ice Caves, in particular, are fantastic.

Kitch-iti-kipi, i.e. "the big spring" is a large spring that offers some of the most incredible views.  It's like looking into an aquarium! Photo by MaryBeth Kiczenski.
Kitch-itikipi, i.e., “the big spring” is a large spring that offers some of the most incredible views. It’s like looking into an aquarium!

Stanley Harper

Trona Pinnacles, CA

If the name Trona rings a bell, it should. Trona, California recently got rattled by two massive earthquakes. As the crow flies, it is 100 miles from my house to Trona and that quakes shook things up around here pretty good.

The landscape at Trona Pinnacles offers some exciting compositions. Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photo by Stanley Harper.
The landscape at Trona Pinnacles offers some exciting compositions.

Located right outside the small town of Trona, California, south the road to nearby Ridgecrest, is Trona Pinnacles. The pinnacles are more than 500 tufa spires that rise out of the Searles Dry Lakebed.

I made my first official “Chase The Milky Way” trip to Trona. I figured it would be a suitable icebreaker to start the Chase. Even though Ridgecrest and Trona are right down the road, the Pinnacles’ sky sports a Bortle Class 2 rating. I think the light pollution from the nearby towns though it helps more than hurts. Since Trona is north and Ridgecrest is off to the west, the ambient light from them adds a little illumination to the landscape.

Things you need to know

Weather –

Trona Pinnacles is located in the Mojave Desert so you may want to plan on a spring trip. Temps run well north of 100° in the summer.

Land Use –

The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. There is boondocking camping available for no charge, but there are no hookups. When I went to Trona back in the spring, even though it was a weekday, I was not alone. Trona Pinnacles is a destination location for Milky Way photographers. I talked to one RV’er from Texas who was there just for the night photography. While I was shooting, there was someone else doing the same thing. Not a real big deal, but I am sure there were some ruined shots due to vehicle headlights.

Even with light pollution from nearby Ridgecrest, Trona Pinnacles is a popular place to get your night photography game on. Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photography by Stanley Harper.
Even with light pollution from nearby Ridgecrest, Trona Pinnacles is a popular place to get your night photography game on.

Road Conditions –

The road into the Trona Pinnacles is 2WD friendly, but is dirt/rock and will eat tires. Also, if it has rained recently, the road out to the Pinnacles might be closed.

Accommodations and Services –

If you need lodging accommodations, your best bet is to hit up a motel in Ridgecrest. Since California is infamous for outlandish gas prices, feel free to hit up a station in Ridgecrest if need be. Gas prices in town are not bad compared to other parts of the California desert.

Western Slope of the Central Sierra, CA

Although I have just started out exploring California’s Sierra Nevada range with my camera, I have fallen in love with the lakes east of Fresno.

As of this writing, I have visited three of these lakes – Edison, Hume, and Wishon. I have also written about two of these lakes in my “Chase The Milky Way” series. There are several others in the area that I have not visited yet – Courtright, Shaver, and Huntington. There are more in the area, but I mention these due to the ability to get to them by vehicle.

The Sierra Nevada range offers photographers numerous opportunities for not only night skies, but sunset images. Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photography by Stanley Harper.
The Sierra Nevada range offers photographers numerous opportunities for not only night skies, but sunset images.

These lakes range in elevation from 5200′ at Shaver to over 8000′ at Courtright. All of the lakes sport campgrounds, and in some cases, motels are nearby. Shaver Lake sits in Bortle Class 2 and 3 skies, while the rest of the lakes have Class 2 skies.

THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

Temperature –

The first thing is that not all these lakes are open year-round. The lakes at higher elevations are closed for about half the year due to snow. Since all of the lakes are in the mountains, always pack at least a sweatshirt or light jacket. Make sure you also have some bug repellant.

The obnoxious light-polluted skies of California's Central Valley give way to beautiful night skies in the Central Sierra Nevada. Photo by Stanley Harper.
The obnoxious light-polluted skies of California’s Central Valley give way to beautiful night skies in the Central Sierra Nevada.

Fuel Prices –

Unlike Ridgecrest, the gas prices at the few gas stations near the lakes are high. I have seen prices around $1 more than what I pay on the valley floor.

Fee Areas –

Be prepared to pay use fees at some locations. To access Hume Lake, one has to go through the entrances of Kings Canyon or Sequoia National Park.

Road Conditions –

Lastly, the roads to these lakes are mountain roads that rise above the valley floor. The roadways are in excellent condition for the most part, and the views are AMAZING, they are windy, and there are plenty of spots to launch off the side of the mountain.

Aaron Martinez

City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico

I have been visiting the City of Rocks State Park in southern New Mexico for over 20 years – I started going as a toddler with my parents. I distinctly remember one camping trip when I was young. Specifically, I remember not wanting to get out of the RV because it was so dark.

Composite image shot by Aaron Martinez at City of Rocks State Park in April, 2019. Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photography by Aaron Martinez.
Composite image shot by Aaron Martinez at City of Rocks State Park in April, 2019.

I didn’t know that less than 15 years later, I’d be walking the park at the darkest possible times in hopes of capturing glimpses of the Milky Way.

THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

Best Time of Year –

The best times to shoot are early in the season. South of the park is the city of Deming, New Mexico. When the Milky Way rises in the east, early in Milky Way Season, is when it is best. Later in the year when the Milky Way is completely vertical to the south, Deming’s city lights can be an issue if the air conditions are dusty or hazy.

Weather –

It’s hot.

The temperature is well above 90 degrees most days during the summer. However, we don’t shoot the Milky Way at noon, so many will be delighted to hear that it isn’t uncommon for summer temperatures to drop into the 50s at night.

Park Hours –

The gates close early. The gate hours as I’m writing this say the park gates close from 9:00 pm to 7:00 am (MT). That means you have to be on-site before nightfall and likely stay until morning if you are going to shoot the Milky Way.

Camping –

There are several campsites that are under trees and surrounded by rocks, so there is a possibility that you can get a site that is shaded at all times of the day. Only electric sites can be reserved. The non-electric sites in the park are first-come, first served.

Kirk Keyes

Cannon Beach, Oregon

One of my favorite Milky Way photography locations is at Cannon Beach, a tourist destination on the northern Oregon Coast. More than three miles of the sandy beach lies between the ocean and the towns of Cannon Beach and Tolovana Park to the south. It’s a 90-minute drive from Oregon’s most populated city, Portland, to Cannon Beach, which makes it a popular weekend destination.

A setting crescent Moon sets behind Haystack Rock as the Milky Way looms overhead. This image was taken mid-October after the Milky Way core has set. Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photography by Kirk D. Keyes.
A five-day-old crescent Moon sets behind Haystack Rock as the Milky Way looms overhead. This image was photographed with an ultra-wide 14-mm lens and was taken mid-October more than 30 minutes after the Milky Way core set. Photo by Kirk Keyes.

Cannon Beach is renown for Haystack Rock, a 235-foot sea stack. There are other “haystack rock” features on the Oregon coast, most notably the 327-foot Chief Kiwanda Rock at Pacific City, and the 92-foot Haystack Rock at Bandon.

What sets Cannon Beach’s Haystack Rock apart from the other two is that it is adjacent to the beach, and not at a distance offshore. That means it can appear prominently in your photos. You can walk right up to the base of it, or shoot it from a couple of miles away.

One outstanding feature of the beach at Haystack Rock is the flat, sandy beach. At low tide, large swaths of the sand remain wet allowing Haystack Rock and even the stars to reflect on its near-mirror surface. Large areas of the sand are swept by the incoming waves, removing any footprints from passing nighttime beach walkers, leaving the smoothest of reflections.

Things You Need to Know

Best Time of Year –

Because Haystack Rock is predominantly off the shoreline, even at low tide, the early-season Milky Way rises significantly to the east of the rock. This somewhat limits compositions to those with the Milky Way placed over the shoreline to the left of Haystack Rock. You can bring them closer together by moving northwards up the beach. Think about including the townscape into your image.

It’s late summer and fall that Cannon Beach shines for Milky Way photography, especially during September and October. While it’s sometimes hard to find a pleasing foreground subject for the vertical, late-season Milky Way, Haystack Rock is perfect for it. Numerous compositions present themselves between Haystack Rock, the tidepools, and the beach. Two rock spires, known as “the Needles” rise from the sea just south of Haystack Rock, make an excellent bracketing feature for the base of the Milky Way.

Light Pollution –

One issue with shooting at Cannon Beach is the light pollution. It’s a curse and a benefit. You may want to remove the yellow color from the city lights that illuminate Haystack Rock. But then it also adds lighting to it, so you will get a well-exposed foreground.

Access –

There are several ways to get to Haystack Rock. If you have a room along the beach-front, there is probably access from there. There are public parking lots dotted around Cannon Beach. While there is parking in downtown Cannon Beach, the closest lot to the north of Haystack Rock is the Midtown Parking Area at S. Hemlock and Gower. About a mile south is the Tolovana Beach State Recreation Site. If you look closely on S. Hemlock directly east of Haystack Rock, there are several pullouts where you can park and then get to the beach via a public staircase. Keep in mind there is no overnight public parking in Cannon Beach. And please do not cut through private property.

Favorite Milky Way Photography Locations Photography by Kirk D. Keyes.
Cannon Beach is long and sandy. It’s great for reflections of Haystack Rock in the pools or even the wet sand.

Wildlife –

Haystack Rock is an excellent location for photographing wildlife. You can climb around the sea-life filled tide-pools at the foot of Haystack Rock, which is one of Oregon’s seven Marine Gardens. You can find starfish, hermit crabs, anemone, mussels, limpets, and nudibranchs. Above the high-tide line, it’s part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which protects a wide range of seabirds. The most accessible colony of Tufted Puffins in Oregon lives on the rock. Signs mark the boundary of the refuge. Please respect the wildlife by not climbing on the rock or removing any animals.

Weather –

The Oregon Coast has a temperate oceanic climate featuring cool summers and wet winters and springs. While it is often overcast, breaks in the clouds can often form along the beach. Average low temperatures range from the upper 30s in the spring to low 50s in the summer with average highs ranging from low 50s to about 70 over the same period. The ocean is not especially warm here, with springtime lows of about 50 reaching a scorching average of 58 during the summer months!

The Ocean –

Keep in mind the ocean and the hazards associated with the beach environment. That means know when low and high tides are and if it is going out or coming in. Be aware of the possibility of sneaker waves. Cannon Beach is not known for these types of waves, but they can appear anywhere along the coast. Do not climb on driftwood that may be present as it can roll or shift.

If you place your camera bag on the beach, pay attention to the tide. It’s easy to get wrapped up in shooting and not realize the tide is soaking your bag. It can even soak it just from the wet sand without any waves hitting it.

Wet Feet –

Since it’s almost guaranteed your feet will get soaked shooting here, I recommend wearing something like the NRS Boundary water sock and a pair of secure sandals like those made by Keen. The Boundary socks are made of 3mm neoprene, like that used in diving suits. They have an elastic cuff that grips your leg below the knee, keeping water from getting into them. A sandal or shoe is needed with the Boundary sock to protect the neoprene. You can shoot for hours around the surf with this combination and not get cold feet.

Bugs –

The great thing about the Oregon Coast is there are no bugs! I suspect the onshore winds blow all the little buggers inland and the beaches are thus bug-free. There are Pale Beach Hoppers, often called “sand fleas” here, but they are not actual fleas. They are a tiny amphipod crustacean, but they just hop around on the beach and ignore people.

Lodging –

There are many high-quality hotels, resorts, and bed-and-breakfasts in the area. Even during peak season in August and holidays, accommodations should not be an issue in the area. But I do recommend planning before you get there.

Amenities –

Like most tourist destinations, there are numerous restaurants around Cannon Beach. One of my favorites is Mo’s Seafood and Chowder right next to the Tolovana Beach State Recreation Site, an Oregon Coast favorite, offering beach favorites. Be sure to check out the Northwest-style clam chowder. It’s thick and filling, not like the wimpy chowder from New England. And don’t get me started on Manhattan clam chowder!

Your Favorite Locations?

Do you have some favorite Milky Way photography locations that you want to share? Let us know in the comments section below. And remember, don’t share any places that are going to be adversely affected by an increase in visitation.

More Discussion on Location Sharing

While we’re talking about sharing our favorite Milky Way photography locations, Utah Public Radio recently examined the issue of social media and its effect on public lands. Check out the article here. Kirk Keyes was at Mesa Arch when some of the people quoted were interviewed. They used a photo he took that morning to illustrate the issue.

The 'Instagram Effect' Is Shaking Up Public Lands And National Parks. Copyright 2019 Kirk D. Keyes.
Listen to the Utah Public Radio examination into the ‘Instagram Effect.’ Is it Shaking Up Public Lands And National Parks? Photo Copyright 2019 Kirk D. Keyes.

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