When and Where to Find it!
J O S H U A T R E E V I S I T O R S G U I D E
Your Ultimate Guide To All Things Joshua Tree
local tips for Visiting JT
The Milky Way is visible in the Summer Months
During the “New Moon” Phase (~10 Nights) each Month
This Guide will Help You Plan Your Next Trip
for Optimal Viewing of the Milky Way!
Joshua Tree Has Dark Skies at Night
Joshua Tree National Park is one of the best places to stargaze in the US—maybe in the world! The reason it’s so dark is because the park is located in the High Desert—3000-6000 feet above sea level—far from any major cities, which create light pollution.
The east side of the park is best for stargazing. There is very little light pollution there, since the closest major city to the east—Phoenix, Arizona—is about 300 miles away. Unfortunately, the south/west areas of the park get light pollution from nearby Palm Springs.
For the best chance to see the Milky Way, you'll need to do a little pre-trip planning, which this guide will help you with. The trick is to visit when the moon is not high in the night sky. Many people like to camp when the moon is full, but that’s the worst time for stargazing. Since you're probably not a werewolf—a creature who lives by the light of the moon and therefore knows its cycles—you’ll need to consult a moon phase calendar (below) before you head to the park.
Why is the Moon Important?
Well, if your goal is to stargaze, you'll want to come during the "new moon” phase. This phase occurs every month and lasts for about eight days. The new moon is exactly two weeks after the full moon. After reaching fullness, the moon then wanes down to a tiny sliver and seems to disappear for a few days. That’s when the night sky is completely dark and the elusive Milky Way is yours!
Check the moon calendar below to see if the moon will be visible when you are planning to visit. Remember, you will see the most stars when the moon is not visible! (The calendar is based on Los Angeles, California—which is the closest major city to Joshua Tree National Park.)
Locating the North Star (Polaris)
When stargazing, it’s important to orient yourself to the night sky. To do this, you need to locate The North Star (Polaris). It’s super easy to do; we’ll tell you how.
NOTE: Polaris—aka the North Star—is not the brightest star in the night sky. Many make that mistake!
The North Star has been used for centuries to assist navigators traveling the world because it "appears" stationary—that is, it stays in one place in the sky for the entire night—and day—while all other stars and constellations revolve around it,counter-clockwise.
To locate the North Star, you'll first need to locate the Big Dipper. The end of the Big Dipper "points" to the North Star (see diagram). For extra credit, stay out all night and watch the Big Dipper travel (revolve)around the North Star (while always pointing at it!). You can also tell what season it is based upon the position of the Big Dipper in relation to Polaris (Google it!It's wild!)
When and Where Can I See the Milky Way?
June/July “Horizontal” Milky Way with “CORE” Visible (Looking east). In the shot above, the Milky Way is rising (in June at about 10pm) and the arch is lit by the setting moon. The “Core” is clearly visible.
The Milky Way appears as a band of stars that extend across the sky. The “Core” of the Milky Way is the Galactic Center of our Galaxy. The “Core” is visible March through September.
The position and strength of the Milky Way changes throughout the night/year. The Milky Way is visible when the Moon is not in the sky. (Come back during different seasons to see how the Milky Way travels through the night sky and changes in brightness and orientation.)
The Milky Way is only visible eight to ten days each month (March through September) when the moon is not in the sky (during the new moon). The viewing time is different each month.
Finding the Milky Way Requires Some Preparation!
Here Are the Steps—and Apps—We Use to Find the Milky Way
1) Find A “Dark Sky” Location
In order to find dark skies, you need to get away from major cities. Cities have bright lights which cause “light pollution.” Fortunately for us, Joshua Tree National Park has dark skies. There is some light pollution from Palms Springs (south of the park). But, the further east you go in the park, the darker it gets.
LPM (Light Pollution Map) is an app that shows maps of light pollution around the world. Use this app to see where the closest dark skies are for you.
2) Visit March - September (June/July is Best)
When Can I see the Milky Way “Core”? The Milky Way is visible on any dark night, but the “Core” is only visible March through September.
Horizontal Milky Way. Shot in July. The Milky Way Appears Horizontal in the Sky From March - July.
March - April - May
June - July
(The Best Months)
The Milky Way is horizontal and the “Core” is visible starting at about 10pm. The Milky Way will now be in the southeast. These months are great because you can see the Milky Way right after it gets dark. The Milky Way is horizontal.
August - September
The Milky Way ”Core” is visible all night long in the southeast. The Milky Way is more vertical at this time.
October - February
(All Night, But No “Core”)
The Milky way “Core” is not visible because it is below the horizon. You can still see a band of stars across the night sky. The Milky Way is vertical.
Go Sky Watch - This app shows all of the objects in the Night Sky—including the Milky Way. Just point it at the night sky and it will tell you the name of the object!
Photo Pills - Use this app to determine the location of the Milky Way “now” or in the future.
The Milky Way is horizontal in the east. The “Core” is visible midnight to sunrise. This is an amazing time to see/photograph the Milky Way. You have to get up early (or stay up all night!) but that means no one else will be there!
3) Check For a Dark Night With No Moon
(No Moon and No Clouds!)
The last part of planning is to make sure the sky will be clear.
No Moon—The “new moon” is when the moon is not in the sky. This is the best time of month to see the Milky Way.
Moon Deluxe is a great app for showing the phases of the moon. The moon is amazingly complex!
Clear Night—No clouds. Summer months are generally clear at night. In the summer, temperatures in the high-desert are perfect (70-85F) at night! There is very little humidity in the high-desert. There are (usually) no mosquitoes. And there are no (well, few) bears in the desert!
Clear Outside checks all of the factors to determine if the skies will be dark the night in question. It can only forecast 7 days in the future, but it is good for checking before you head out.
Get our Photo Guide for instructions on
Milky Way Photography
milky way photography guide
2023 Will Be an Amazing Year for the Perseids Meter Shower!
There is No Moon That Night, and the Milky Way “Core” Will Be Visible!
The Perseids Meteor Shower
Night of August 12, 2023
On the night of August 12th (into the morning of August 13th) 2023, the Perseid meteor shower happens. The moon is not out that night, but the Milky Way will be! This is the best night of the year for viewing the night sky in Joshua Tree National Park.
Learn Dark Sky/Milky Way Photography in the Park
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A Few More Resources
more iphone apps for dark sky viewing