How and Where To View The Milky Way - San Luis Obispo County

March 17, 2017

IMG_9335IMG_9335San Simeon Pier Milky Way Over San Luis Obispo County

(Featured by SLO Tribune)

Until I garnered interest in the night skies, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to photographing them. It wasn’t until I saw wide angle photos of the Milky Way that I began the journey for myself and started exploring night photography. I'm always asking myself where can I shoot the Milky Way next? The answer seems to surprise many.

The truth is, unless you are in a large metropolitan area, seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye is a real possibility. The lights of Pismo, San Luis Obispo, and Morro Bay are bright, but if you head for the hills, the beach, or just a dark spot on the outskirts of town, you can typically observe and photograph the Milky Way as long as the conditions are good. 

Want to learn how to photograph the night sky? This is something we explore in depth during my astrophotography workshops.


How To See The Milky Way

  1. You have to know when to look. From about mid-October through February, it is not possible to see the Milky Way “core,” also referred to as the Great Rift by astronomers, from the Northern Hemisphere. When it does become visible in February, it can only be seen in the wee moments before sunrise, so set your alarms for at least two hours or so before sunrise. Once twilight begins, the stars fade and the sun begins to take over, washing out the Milky Way view. As the year progresses, the Milky Way rises earlier and earlier, until in the summer it is visible not long after sunset.
  2. Knowing where to look in the sky for the Milky Way is equally important. When it's first rising above the horizon, you will look in the Southeast portion of the sky. As it rises higher, your gaze will shift more due South. If you are in a location that doesn't have a clear view of the Southern sky, you might consider switching locations to increase visibility. Download a smartphone app like StarWalk 2 and you can check the Milky Way’s position in the future.  IMG_0475IMG_0475Los Osos/Morro Bay
  3. Check the moon phase, as well as moon rise and set times. If the moon is out and is between First Quarter and Last Quarter phases, its light will overpower the stars and make it difficult or impossible to see or photograph the Milky Way. Tip: even if the moon is bright, you can still get out and see the Milky Way if you plan around the moon rise and set times. Another great way to plan is using an app call PhotoPills. Not only can you get sun/moon rise and set times, but there's a myriad of other photography tools all fit into one great, easy-to-use, app. 
  4. Make the weather app on your smartphone your new best friend, so you always know where to find cloudless skies. I am constantly checking the hourly forecast before I go out shooting to see what regions near me might be best for star gazing. Around the coast it can be foggy and glum, but just a quick 10-minute drive inland can be clear as a bell. Tip: it never hurts to get a second opinion from a secondary app. Storm is a great app I enjoy and trust to plan my excursions. 
  5. Go somewhere dark. Unless all of the street lights in your area are off, take a drive out of your neighborhood. My favorite go-to spots locally are Shell Beach, Santa Margarita, Prefumo Canyon, and Montana de Oro. Move away from any street lights or other bright lights in your immediate vicinity. Driving with the intention of getting lost is always a recipe for discovery and adventure - I highly recommend it!

Where To Look In San Luis Obispo County

This section is obviously a little more tailored to my local friends, and is far from a complete list. If you live elsewhere, share your favorite star-gazing locations in the comments sections. Not sure where to go? Join a local astronomy club or just start driving away from town. 

Lopez Dr - Heading East

During the summer when the Milky Way is easily viewed during reasonable evening hours, we also experience bouts of marine layer clouds - low laying coastal fog that obscures any potential view of the stars. Oftentimes, the solution is to head inland. Head out towards Lake Lopez for clearer skies and drive past the lake, taking Upper Lopez Canyon Rd or Hi Mountain Rd, either of which will offer clearer skies in general. Hi Mountain Rd extends further east, and on particularly foggy nights can be your best bet. 

Windmill ZoomWindmill Zoom Spooky TreeSpooky Tree

Pismo/Shell Beach

The key to finding the stars in the Pismo and Shell Beach area is to head to the beach and navigate away from the bright lights of the hotels and neighborhoods. Between Shell Beach and Avila, there are plenty of great beach areas with public access that are good for star gazing. If you're still reading: Oceano and the dunes area can be excellent as well. Any evening in Pismo with clear skies and no moon should be considered an absolute treat in the Summer - enjoy!

IMG_7095-EditIMG_7095-Edit IMG_2170IMG_2170 IMG_1707IMG_1707

Avila Beach - Pirate’s Cove Parking Area

The parking area at Pirate’s Cove is situated far enough away from the lights of Pismo and Avila to offer great star gazing opportunities on a clear night. Paired with the sound of crashing waves and sweeping vistas, it’s a tough scene to beat. Be careful navigating the dirt parking lot that can be deeply rutted - don’t get stuck! Bring a friend and a flashlight, and don’t forget to lock your car if you venture out. 

My Cave at NightMy Cave at Night


Prefumo Canyon Road

Take this winding road to the top of the ridge and pull into the large dirt parking area for panoramic views of Morro Rock looking North, downtown San Luis Obispo, and the Five Cities area. Beware of strong wind gusts, cows, and party animals on the weekends. 


Montana de Oro, Los Osos

It doesn't get much darker than Montana de Oro, but it is also not permitted to park anywhere after 10 PM inside the park. So, your options are either to park outside of the state park and walk in or be dropped off. Good luck! If you can't figure out the parking situation here, Los Osos is on your way back out and offers plenty of dark sky opportunities - just avoid the neighborhood lights and you'll find plenty of stars. 

Milky Over MDOMilky Over MDO IMG_0475IMG_0475

Highway 46 Overlooking Morro Bay - Dirt Pullout

There are a few different pull outs as you climb 46 driving from Cambria to Paso Robles, and they get more and more scenic up until the point that the highway dips into the hills. If you’re lucky, you will be high enough above the frequent low-laying clouds of summer to get a clear look at the night sky above. 


Morro Bay, Cayucos, Cambria, and San Simeon

All of these coastal communities are just small enough that light pollution is not typically a problem - just walk a stone’s throw from the nearest street lamp. Get out of the town areas and explore the beaches for the darkest skies and great Milky Way views. If you’re as far North as San Simeon, why not venture to Big Sur? This entire stretch is a night photographer’s dream - provided you have a clear sky. Pull over anywhere to take in the night sky, and stay until day break to explore. 

Galactic Morro Rock - Morro Bay Milky WayGalactic Morro Rock - Morro Bay Milky Way

Perseid WindmillPerseid Windmill IMG_9335IMG_9335

Santa Margarita, HWY 58, Carrizo Plain

East of Santa Margarita is dark, and gets darker the farther you drive. In the Summer months when the marine layer clouds have taken over the coast, I often find myself in Santa Margarita or Pozo, looking for lone oaks to photograph. Carrizo Plain National Monument is a bit of a trek, but it’s truly a beautiful area that we are fortunate to have as part of our county. 

Tree FireballTree Fireball

Soda Lake before SunriseSoda Lake before Sunrise

Well, did I forget any great spots? Let me know in the comments. 

When it comes down to it, San Luis Obispo county is a special area. With dark night skies and vast open areas to explore, the possibilities for photography and enjoying the night are boundless. 

If you're interested in learning how to capture images like these, check out my Astrophotography workshops! We go hands-on behind the camera and then in front of the computer screen, so you'll know how to capture and process dynamic night sky photos. See you out there!

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