I read late summer is the best time. True? And that I need to go far away from city lights. Wilderness area is best but there is not one near me. How far from city lights do I need to be? 30 miles ? 60?
60 miles should be far enough to see it well, depending on how many lights there are between. You can see it much closer in but it just won’t be as spectacular. You’ll definitely want altitude, where’s the closest mountain pass in your area? The less air you have to look through the better, plus mountain passes tend to be far away from city lights AND you can drive there.
Actually, early summer is the best in the northern hemisphere.
This is when the galactic center is highest in the sky.
Pick a night with NO MOON - this is critical!
I use the awesome (and free!) Stellarium to pick my nights.
Beowulff has given a really good answer, and for the OP, probably a better one than mine would be (even if it is true):
wait until night, walk outside, look up
There’s the tale of that first night after the Northridge earthquake … 911 lines got clogged with people reporting a strange and unmoving cloud in the sky.
Yeah, it’s really not hard. It’s best if you’re five hundred miles from anywhere on a moonless night, but I’ve seen it from the heart of a town of 30,000 with a quarter moon.
Also read that it doesn’t look like most pictures you see, those are long exposures. It’s a lot more faint.
I’m not doubting this, but I would like to read more about it. Might you have a cite?
I would think LA area with all its light would make it hard to see.
Which would make sense that after an earthquake, with power off, it would be visible to millions who never knew it was there.
Back to the OP: It also depends on how clear the air is where you are.
On the outskirts of some city in the hazy Midwest or Mid-Atlantic area you won’t see a damn thing.
On the outskirts of Las Vegas or Phoenix with super clear air (unless the wind is blowing) you’ll see something.
Another vote that it doesn’t look anything like the pictures. From the ground at least in the northern hemisphere it’s at most a vague glow.
Ten miles should be more than enough, if you’re above the city.
I’ve used dark sky maps like this one to find a decent place to watch meteor showers and the like. Off the top of my head, you won’t be able to see the Milky Way at all in the red areas of the map. In the yellow areas, you’ll be able to see it but it won’t be very remarkable. You have to get somewhere in the green or darker regions to get anything approaching spectacular.
Also, allow your eyes to fully adapt. Takes a half hour or more. And while it’s easy to see from dark sites, it’s never going to look like some of the photos.
There are a number of websites that have radiance maps, but here is one that is appropriately named: http://www.youcanseethemilkyway.com/light-pollution/
You can see the Milky Way clearly anytime ambient radiance is less than 3x10[SUP]-14[/SUP] W/m[SUP]2[/SUP] x sr; about the same as being able to see a star with an apparent magnitude of about 5.
And if Chonos saw it in a town of 30k people, I’m going to guess it was eastern Oregon/Washington, Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming. Walla Walla, Twin Falls, or Bozeman?
Yup, Bozeman, in an orange-close-to-red zone on that map (though I don’t know how precise their locations are). It helped that I was on a rooftop, with a lightproof fence covering the horizon.
EDIT: Oh, and I’ve also seen the five-hundred-miles-from-anywhere, too. Lewis and Clark National Forest, in one of North America’s few completely black spots on that map.
And ten miles straight down won’t help . . . though it’ll certainly be dark enough.
I saw it in September just off the Trans-Canadian Highway near Borden, PEI.
At our 7 to 8 miles up there’s still a big difference between being over the open west versus over the northeast. Especially if it’s cloudy below and the city is lighting up what we call an undercast. There’s also still room for haze & dust above us, though not too much.
The big thing I notice as I get older is that my night light-gathering isn’t nearly as good as it was in my 20s, and the time it takes to dark-adapt fully is also much longer. Even if we turn all our lights down for several minutes at altitude on a clear night over the US the Milky Way is still just a diffuse glow. It’s a brighter glow than it is from the ground, but (unsurprisingly) it still looks nothing like the spectacular 10 minute time exposures taken from a wilderness area on the ground.
Oh, one other point about those dark-sky maps: Take a look at Flagstaff, AZ. Even though it’s twice the population of Bozeman, and the metro area is four times the size, it has a smaller light pollution footprint. The city decided to do something about light pollution, and they did so, and it worked.