Dark Skies: The Best Places For Carolina Star Gazing

carolina star gazing

My fascination with dark skies began in central Australia. The allure only grew with my first visit to the Grand Canyon. There, staring into the vast darkness I saw more stars than I had ever seen. In the mountains of North Carolina I was spoiled by the absence of light. From the front porch of my home in rural Todd I could witness a bounty of early morning constellations. But living here in Charlotte has given me a true appreciation for the stars. The reason is simple. The lights from our city, although beautiful in their own way, make seeing lots of stars very difficult, and frankly, I miss them. However, the Queen City’s central location makes it the perfect base camp for a stargazer or night photographer. In just a couple hours drive from Charlotte, dependent upon which way you go, one can be in the Blue Ridge or on a serene beach enjoying the Milky Way. Not many cities can boast such great proximity to excellent and diverse stargazing destinations. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best places in the Carolinas to see the stars, many of which are just a stones throw from our great city.

 

Graveyard Fields, NC

Thirty minutes west of Brevard deep in the southern Blue Ridge mountains lies Graveyard Fields, an area known for its amazing hiking trails and two astounding waterfalls. Although the natural offerings of Graveyard Fields are abundant during the day, its best features can be seen at night. Far from the lights of Asheville and Hendersonville, Graveyard Fields, is one of the very best places to see the Milky Way in Western, North Carolina year round.

How To Get There: Follow I-85 S, US-74 W and I-26 W to NC-146 W and then to the Blue Ridge Parkway

Travel Time: 2 hours 50 minutes

Darkness Rating: 8 out of 10

 

Ocracoke Island, NC

One of the very darkest places in the entire southeast, if not the country, Ocracoke, located on the Outer Banks south of Buxton has amazing beaches on the ocean side and marshland on the Pamlico Sound. With nearly no light pollution on the entire OBX views of the Milky Way are available frequently. The neighboring island of Portsmouth, accessible only by boat, may offer, if possible, even darker skies and more stars. (View Craig Dane Roberts photo of Ocracoke to see the mind-blowing views of the Milky Way.)

How To Get There: NC-24 E/NC-27 E to US-1 N to US-64 E

Travel Time: 7 hours 50 minutes

Darkness Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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Oak Island, NC

One of the more accessible of the beach stargazing locales in North Carolina, Oak Island, a barrier island just southwest of Southport has over 65 miles of sandy beaches to explore. Because of its expansive beaches, there are plenty of areas to find a near total dark sky. Nick Noble, nature and night photographer, shows in many of his photos the absolute epic qualities of the Milky Way in this area. It is the place to visit for those looking for their shot at seeing the distant galaxy as well as all of their favorite constellations.

How To Get There: US-74 E to NC-211 S

Travel Time: 3 hours 30 minutes

Darkness Rating: 9 out of 10

 

Hominy Valley, NC

Near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Asheville, NC, Hominy Valley is one of the better western North Carolina stargazing destinations. The area has a little bit of light pollution from the small mountain towns nestled in the surrounding valleys but it still offers a fairly dark sky. The hills here are illuminated by the lights of the nearby towns yet the sky is dark enough to see quite a bit of stars. A great combination for night photographers like Jeannine Doran, local stargazer.

How To Get There: I-85 S to US-74 W  to I-26 W to US-19 S

Travel Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Darkness Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Deep Gap, NC

Home to Appalachian State University’s Dark Sky Observatory, Deep Gap is the perfect place for viewing all the stars. Located just minutes from the Blue Ridge Parkway and all of its serenity, Deep Gap is in a shallow valley amongst rolling mountains that block the light pollution of its neighbor, Boone, and frame the night sky. You can see the Milky Way on many clear nights throughout the year excluding full moon periods.

How To Get There: I-77 N to US-421 N to Old US-421 S

Travel Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

Darkness Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Linville Gorge, NC

The gorge is one of the east coast’s last great wilderness areas. Adventurers leave the pavement roads behind and drive down ten miles of gravel and dirt to arrive. Famed areas of Pisgah like Hawksbill, Table Rock, and the Chimneys await. Each one of these offer great sites to view the stars and other strange lights (google Brown Mountain Lights) above. Camping on the top of the Chimneys or at the bottom of the gorge and right beside the Linville River offer the best places in the gorge to see the most stars.

How To Get There: I-85 S to US-321 N to I-40 W to 181 N to 183 N

Travel Time: 2 hours 25 minutes

Darkness Rating: 8 out of 10

 

Spruce Pine, NC

Six miles west of the Spruce Pine city limits is the Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park, a Mayland Community College sponsored project. Here, their main goal is lighting conservation. At the Star Park you will find only the faint hint of far off light pollution and can take in all of your favorite constellations. For night photographers that love to capture the beauty of the dark skies, there are amazing silhouettes from the surrounding Pisgah mountains and forests that can enhance the final image.

How To Get There: I-85 S to US-321 N to I-40 W to to NC – 221 N to NC-226 N

Travel Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Darkness Rating: 8 out of 10

 

Capers Island, SC

One of the hideaways of the Charleston area, Capers Island is just three miles off the coast of the mainland, north of Isle of Palms and Dewees Island and just south of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. To get to Capers you do need a boat or kayak, but once you are there you will not regret it. The island is beautiful, serene, and quiet with lots of flora and fauna to enjoy. At night, the skies above light up with stars. This is one of the very best places to see the Milky Way in the entire east coast because of its near total darkness. If you want to see the stars as they were seen hundreds and hundreds of years ago, before all of the light pollution of cities and towns, there arenít many places better.

How To Get There: I-77 S to I-26 E to 17N to the Gadsdenville Boat Ramp (where you board your kayak or boat)

Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes

Darkness Rating: 9.5 out of 10

 

Kings Mountain, SC

Long distance, panoramic views of the city during the day are matched evenly by the wonderful stargazing opportunities at King’s Mountain, the closest stargazing destination to the Queen City. Light pollution can still be seen, however, it still gets fairly dark, which is all you need to see the best constellations in the skies above. Your chance of seeing the Milky Way is slim but you donít have to see the entire galaxy to enjoy the many other stars up there.

How To Get There: I-85 S to US-74 W

Travel Time: 45 minutes

Darkness Rating: 6 out of 10

 

Edisto Beach State Park, SC

50 miles south of Charleston, Edisto Beach State Park is one of the few oceanfront parks in all of South Carolina. Guests to the park can camp between the shore and salt marsh and explore the many wonderful natural aspects to their heartís content. At night, this park gets very dark, affording visitors the opportunity to see many of the famous constellations and occasionally the Milky Way. For night photographers, the silhouettes of beautiful Palmettos against the dark sky and bright stars make for an epic image.

How To Get There: I-77 S to I-26 E to I-95 to SC-61 E

Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes

Darkness Rating: 7 out of 10

 

Lake Murray, SC

Just outside of Columbia and only an hour and forty five minutes from Charlotte, Lake Murray offers the boating and watersport enthusiast a variety of fun activities. Although, close in proximity to a very populous area the lake is surprisingly dark and lights up with bright stars, especially early morn. While near Columbia, stargazers should also visit the Melton Memorial Observatory on the University of South Carolinaís campus. Public sessions are offered to those ready to explore the celestial above.

How To Get There:  I-77 S to I-26 W

Travel Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Darkness Rating: 6 out of 10

 

Duck Beach

The quaint little town of Duck is located on the Outer Banks close to the Albemarle Sound and near famed Kitty Hawk. Voted as one of the top beaches in the country year in and year out Duck offers pristine beaches,  an abundance of water activities, and lots and lots of peace and quiet. Duckís location  is ideal for the stargazer. Its position in the northeastern part of the state on a barrier island with two gigantic bodies of water on both sides plays a major role on its infinitesimal amount of light pollution. Because of this thousands and thousands of stars, all of the well known constellations, and the Milky Way can be seen virtually year round, excluding days when the moon is high in the sky. It truly is one of the best places on the east coast to visit and photograph the dark skies above.

How To Get There:  I-77 N to I-85 N to I-40 E to US-64 E

Travel Time: 6 hours

Darkness Rating: 9 out of 10