Milky Way at Vogel State Park in Blairsville, Georgia. Photo by Prashant Naik
Chasing Milky Way in Georgia
10 great places to see stars in Georgia and tips for capturing photographs of the night sky
Capturing the glorious arch of our Milky Way galaxy has always been my favorite journey. They say you have to walk through the darkness of the world to be able to see even the sliver of the light. And that is true in the realm of astro-photography. I have wandered more often at night than during the day in search of the light, in quest of that perfect landscape entwined with the dazzling beauty of the Milky Way. I have put together some of the places in Georgia, away from the light pollution of bright city lights, where you can gaze up on the stars and swing with the dazzling hues of celestial lights.
Life never goes according to the plan
Firstly, it is important to be aware of the weather conditions before heading out. And if you are planning on photographing the Milky Way, please pay attention to the sky cover, as it’s not worth trying when the sky cover is more than 30%. I recommend checking the hourly forecasts on weather.gov.
I do most of the location planning on photopills, which tells me the direction and the visibility of the Milky Way galactic core. And of course, my Google Calendar is synced up with lunar phases and astronomical events throughout the year, which allows me to plan for the shoot much in advance. You don’t necessarily have to pick a new moon day. Moonlight is sometimes almost as detrimental to a shoot as city light pollution, but it depends on the time it rises and sets. And sometimes moonlight can also be a great source of ambient light for your landscape. But definitely avoid shooting on full moon day!
Dark site finder
The Darksitefinder light pollution map tells you how far the light spreads and how far you have to get to be able to experience the beauty of night sky. But in reality, the Milky Way is not visible to one-third of humanity, including 60% of Europeans and 80% of North Americans. At least that’s what this global atlas of light pollution study shows. We certainly have to make efforts to limit light pollution and preserve the natural night skies. This will not only help nocturnal animals but also sustain our ecosystem.
International Dark Sky Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting light pollution and preserve night sky in the areas around the planet called IDA International Dark Sky Reserve. Check out darksky.org to see how you can contribute.
10 Great Places to Stargaze in Georgia
Brasstown Bald is the highest point in Georgia surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. The sheer beauty of the night sky views here are just incredible. At 4,783 feet above sea level, you are standing almost closer to the stars. Brasstown Bald is a very popular spot for stargazing in North Georgia, and the observatory’s location on top of the mountain exemplifies it as one of the best night sky views in the Southeastern United States. The hike up to the observatory tower is steep but not difficult. On a moonless night, with clear dark skies, there is no better place to be on Earth than Brasstown Bald, where you can lie down on the wooden deck watching stars and constellations.
Moccasin Creek State Park
I captured this graceful arch of the Milky Way Galaxy at Moccasin Creek State Park. Early March, the heart of the Milky Way reflects on Lake Burton, turning the night into heavenly wonders. The park is closed after 10 p.m., but you could stand on one of the public boat ramps facing the lake next to the parking lot. It’s a two-hour drive up north from Atlanta, and you still see a bit of light pollution.
Vogel State Park
Vogel State Park is located at the base of Blood Mountain in Chattahoochee National Forest. The serene lake, as black as night, reflecting thousands of glittering stars ensures magic happens by the lake when the Milky Way comes swinging by. I wouldn’t recommend this place for deep sky astro-photography, but if you want to get creative, there’s a spot opposite to the visitor center on Lake Trahlyta Dam close to Falls bottom trail head where you can get great views of the Milky Way.
Fort Mountain State Park
Fort Mountain State Park is one of the most scenic places in Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. Driving up north on the serpentine mountain roads at dark is always thrilling. Stand on the edge of the road and enjoy the most spectacular views of our galaxy with trees shuddering in the crisp mountain winds, and the sky blazing with billions of stars. Fort Mountain is located between Chatsworth and Ellijay. The overlook is on Highway 52 in Murray County just before the Fort Mountain Park road.
The look-see at Popcorn Overlook offers great views of the north and is also considered one of the best spots for stargazing in North Georgia. The view of the Milky Way galactic core is obscured as it is facing north, but it also means this place is free from any light pollution (if any) from Atlanta. A perfect setting for deep sky astro-photography. I witnessed the Great Geminid Meteor Shower also called the “King of Meteor Showers” from this overlook. A faint band of the Milky Way was seen hanging in the northern sky as the debris from Phaethon started to lit up the sky. I was entranced! The night I will always remember was one where the sky was full of falling stars.
I am not sure about the views of the Milky Way from Nottely Dam on Lake Nottely, but I am pretty sure that it is a dark site with incredible views of the night sky in Union County, Georgia. I shot my first ever photograph of the M42-Orion Nebula from here. Located in Chattahoochee National Forest, Nottely is the southeastern edge of the Tennessee River. There is a small parking lot, actually not a parking lot, but just a fine spot on the side of Nottely Dam road. It is facing southeast, and I bet it would be a great spot for Milky Way, as well.
Tybee Island near Savannah is a popular place to watch the sunrise in coastal Georgia, and it is also famous for incredible views of the night sky near the oceanfront. A near infinite expanse of water, the vast endless universe with a trillion stars and a bright shining Milky Way lane at the end of the ocean is something to experience once in a lifetime. This is Georgia's shoreline facing the Atlantic Ocean. Apart from the lights coming from the distant ships and Tybee Island Pier, the light pollution is very low. The southern part of the island facing the little Tybee Island is incredibly dark on a moonless night.
St. Simons Island
There are plenty of dark sites along the stretch of the East Beach from St. Simons Lighthouse Museum to the far east access 41, which I believe is the last public access point. The west side of the beach is facing Jekyll Island, and the light from the Lighthouse Museum will blow out any chances of seeing the Milky Way on the southeast direction. Any access point along the oceanside of the East Beach with little or no street light, is an excellent standing point for photographing the Milky Way as it serenades across the night sky with rolling waves and twinkling stars.
Boyle Murder Lake
Hmm…a name that’s scary, right? But the views here are to kill for! With the gorgeous views of the night sky, under the thousand stars, it is just a heavenly place on Earth. This is an hour’s drive south of Atlanta toward Augusta. It is such a surreal feeling to sit by the lake at night counting stars. I don’t know why this lake is called Boyle Murder Lake, but it certainly is prettier than its name. Located on the south side of the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Jasper County, it has a parking lot before the dam with incredible views of the night sky from the boat ramp or the wooden deck next to it.
My numerous attempts at finding the perfect spot to capture the Milky Way – with its reflection on the lake – have not been successful yet. I still wander and may discover something new in the coming season. Nevertheless, I did come across the boat ramp near Carters Lake Marina & Resort where the sight of the Milky Way is not to be missed.
I hope to explore more in the coming Milky Way season. I am obsessed with the celestial wonders and the beauty of the night sky, which makes me believe that Heaven is a place somewhere on Earth.