The first time you find yourself under a truly dark night sky is amazing to see how bright the stars shine. And yet some of us have never seen its potential, even if we've gone outside at night and it's been so-called dark. The darkest skies in the world are increasingly rare and often difficult to get to because of their remote nature. But you don't need to go to the most remote corners of the world to see sensational night skies.
What better place to see the stars than from the Great Smoky Mountains of Bryson City, North Carolina. Our destination's remote location, high elevations, and with minimal public light, make this area ideal for amazing nighttime star gazing.
The sensation of looking up into a sky dotted with stars fills us with an incredible sense of wonder. Bryson City and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the perfect places to get obstruction-free views of our breathtaking galaxy at night.
Here are some tips for optimum night sky visibility in the Smokies
Venture out in the days during a new moon, and before and after. Also take note of the moon and its position in the night sky. The moon at its peak is ten times brighter here than the stars are. A full moon on top of the mountain is a spectacular sight to behold but if you are planning on looking at stars, a full moon can cause light pollution. A new moon is the perfect time for maximum star gazing.
Stay away from city lights, which can impede the best views of the celestial skies.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Even the best-laid plans can be impeded if storms or fog will be rolling through.
·For Milky Way viewing, the months of March through September are the ideal time to view the densest part of the Milky Way. Facing south during March - 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. Learn more about finding and photographing the Milky Way
Our favorite stargazing spots in the Smoky Mountains:
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is one of the most breathtaking spots to see the stars. And the best part is you don’t even have to leave the parking lot. Bring some lawn chairs or sit on your tailgate. Or take the half mile walk to the top of the Dome tower where you will have a 360 view of the sky and five states. At night you can see multiple constellations and meteor showers. This is also the perfect place to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, as well as any astrological events. Make sure to dress warm at this location because temperatures can be 15-20 degrees colder than the valleys below. The road to Clingmans Dome is closed in the winter due to the potential of ice and snow.
The Newfound Gap Trailhead is also located in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At this overlook’s parking area, go to the furthest end of the parking lot, and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. You will slowly start to see some eye-popping sights in the night sky. This location is 6,000 feet above sea level so bring along a jacket or warm clothing. There is no hiking required at this overlook.
Waterrock Knob is an one of the best overlooks for star gazing along the Blue Ridge Parkway. At mile marker 451.2, almost 6,000 feet above sea level and away from any city lights, this pristine overlook is perfect to star gaze with or without a telescope. You'll experience less light pollution. Arrive early in the evening and enjoy the peacefulness as the sky transitions into night. Make sure to wear warm clothing as this location is higher in elevation.
Max Patch is another obstruction-fee star gazing zone. It's one of the most spectacular settings you'll experience in the Smokies. You have the world at your fingertips with more stars than you can imagine hanging seemingly just out of reach. If you plan your trip around the dark of the moon, the Milky Way will be almost bright enough to read by. Experience a 360-degree view to see the stars and 300 acres of field to sit and enjoy them in. Max Patch requires a 1.7 mile round trip hike.
Fontana Dam is the largest dam in the eastern United States. There are several places to star gaze from the dam itself or from the parking lot. Be sure to look up and find the constellations such as the North Star, the Big Dipper, and Sirius. No hiking required, and there is plenty of parking.
Love being out on the water? Fontana Lake is a pristine and remote location, with surrounding Smoky Mountain views. The local astronomy club often visits Fontana Lake as one of their rotating meet-up locations. Having access to a boat, kayak, or canoe is most beneficial.
There are 4 marinas (Almond Boat Park, Alarka Marina, Fontana Village Marina, and Prince Boat Dock) that may have boat rentals available (call ahead to check on nighttime and/or 24-hour availability), along with 2 sunset cruise operators (Fontana Guides and Sunny Day Adventures)
The night skies of the Great Smoky Mountains and the high elevation overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway are beautiful from almost any vantage point. Visitors to Bryson City often tell us they are just as comfortable to sit on the deck of their cabin rental, or around a campfire for a magnificent view of the Carolina night skies…without ever leaving their cabin.
Venture to Bryson City for your stargazing vacation - after all there is a whole universe out there to explore!