Stargazing Under the Big Sky

Montana’s beauty doesn’t end when the sun goes down.

We hope that while you are here, you will take the time on your grand Montana vacation to look up to the stars at night and experience the wonder of our universe.

The rural and sparsely populated nature of Montana lends itself to incredible night sky viewing. In our little corner of Montana, there is far less light pollution than in many other places in the world.

Pair this with our comfortable nighttime summer temperatures and plethora of the “big skies” we are known for, and you are sure to find ample opportunities to gaze under our night skies as you travel through the state.

We are lucky to have relatively unimpeded views of the night sky from anywhere in Southwest Montana, but if you take the time to travel outside of our three major cities (Helena, Butte or Dillon) on a clear night you are guaranteed to be blown away at the number of stars and celestial objects you can see!

You can expect to see meteors, the moon, thousands of stars and more from nearly every part of our region.

You may even be lucky enough to see the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. While infrequent, when the Aurora is visible, it is a truly spectacular phenomenon to witness. More commonly, you can expect to be treated to phenomenal views of the Milky Way.

Video thumbnail of Ryan Hannahoe from the Montana Learning Center Play Button

Interview with Ryan Hannahoe from the Montana Learning Center

Constellation Illustration - Ursa Minor

Discovering Night Sky Viewing in Southwest Montana

aspen grove campground night sky

Aspen Grove Campground

Canyon Ferry Lake South

Canyon Ferry Lake South

Canyon Ferry Lake

Canyon Ferry Lake

One of the wonderous things about observing nature is that anyone can do it!

There is no special training or education needed to enjoy viewing the night sky. For many, just looking up is enough of a memorable experience that no further reading is required. But for those who like nature viewing with a side of education, we have compiled some basic information that we hope provides a basis for what you may be seeing as you gaze up at the night sky in Southwest Montana.

We Love Our Moon

The Moon!
Dr Kelly Cline presenting at Helena's Lewis and Clark Library

Dr. Kelly Cline presents at Helena’s Lewis and Clark Library for International Observe the Moon Night. October 2023

What is the Milky Way?

View of the Milky Way Galaxy

Graphic view of our Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way is organized into spiral arms of giant stars that illuminate interstellar gas and dust.

A dance with a massive black hole...

Earth is located in the Milky Way Galaxy, a system swirling around a black hole.

At the center of our galaxy is a supermassive black hole and central bar of stars. Stars, gas, and dust spiral around the center, appearing as a spinning pinwheel if you were to look at it from the top down. If you were to look at it from a side, the galaxy would look relatively flat like a frisbee with a bulge in the middle.

The view of the Milky Way from Earth

The view of the Milky Way from Earth, as captured in an All-Sky survey carried out The Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) project.

All about perspective.

Our view from within the Milky Way looks into the galaxy’s relatively flat plane.

You will notice when you see the Milky Way with your own eyes, it looks quite straight in the night sky, but when you see it in photographs, it may look curved or arched. This is due to camera and lens capabilities. Throughout the year, we are able to see different portions of the Milky Way.

The brightest most illuminated portion is the Milky Way core, or as described above, the center portion with the blackhole and central bar of stars that our solar system is rotating around. The Milky Way core is viewable from Southwest Montana during the summer.

Shooting Stars (Meteors)

Make sure to have a wish prepared as it is highly likely you will see a shooting star while you are out stargazing!

We will never push aside the whimsy of wishing, but scientifically speaking you may be interested to know that shooting stars are actually meteors! The shooting star effect, long romanticized in the movies, occurs when meteoroids enter our atmosphere at a high speed and burn up.

This is not to be confused with meteorites, which occur when this fireball makes it all the way through the atmosphere to hit Earth’s crust.

Most Common Constellations

Throughout the year, there are a variety of constellations visible in the night sky. We recommend that you look at star charts that are specific to your vacation dates. Several constellations are known as circumpolar constellations, which can be viewed in Southwest Montana all year.

The following are circumpolar constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. Can you spot them all?

Mobile device with astronomy app

Use an Astronomy App:

App Icon - Stellarium
Stellarium (our top pick)
Google Play Store Apple App Store

Get a Live View from the Montana Learning Center SkyCam:

SkyCam at Montana Learning Center along the banks of Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Helena, MT

Constellation Illustration - Ursa Major

Our Favorite Montana Stargazing Locations

Night sky viewing can be done from virtually everywhere in Southwest Montana and we encourage you to look up at the night sky no matter where the road takes you on your Montana vacation! For those who want to travel for stargazing and night sky viewing in Montana, we have compiled a list of recommended areas based on limited light pollution, overall ease of accessibility by vehicle, and access to pit toilets. The following locations are also near paved and/or maintained roads. This is by no means a complete list, but we hope it offers you a starting point for your night sky viewing adventures!

Natural Areas/Campgrounds:

Stargazing location - Bannack State Park
Bannack, MT

Bannack State Park

Stargazing location - Browns Lake
Ovando, MT

Browns Lake

Stargazing location - Cromwell Dixon Campground
Helena, MT

Cromwell Dixon Campground

Stargazing location - Fourth of July Campground
Wise River, MT

Fourth of July Campground

Stargazing location - Harrison Lake
Harrison, MT

Harrison Lake

Stargazing location - Hellgate Recreation Area
Helena, MT

Hellgate Recreation Area

Stargazing location - Horse Prairie Campground
Dillon, MT

Horse Prairie Campground

Stargazing location - Nilan Reservoir Fishing Access Site
Augusta, MT

Nilan Reservoir Fishing Access Site

Stargazing location - Rambling Moose Campground
Virginia City, MT

Rambling Moose Campground

Stargazing location - Ruby Creek Campground
Cameron, MT

Ruby Creek Campground

Stargazing location - Skidway Campground
Townsend, MT

Skidway Campground

Stargazing location - Stuart Mill Bay Fishing Access Site
Philipsburg, MT

Stuart Mill Bay Fishing Access Site

Stargazing location - The Silos Marina & Campground
Townsend, MT

The Silos Marina & Campground

Stargazing location - White Earth Campground
Townsend, MT

White Earth Campground

Use ctrl + scroll to zoom the map
Use two fingers to move the map

For those wanting to travel farther out to more remote campgrounds, please visit Dark Sky Destinations for additional location ideas.

A large portion of the world’s population lives under light-polluted skies.

Light pollution is a type of human-caused pollution where our use of artificial lighting at night to illuminate our cities, streets, and parks, causes a brightening of the sky at night.

This excessive light inhibits the observation of stars, planets, and other observable features of the night sky, making the night sky features dim or unobservable.

Montana’s rural nature means that there is far less light pollution present here than in many other places in the world. If you travel outside of Southwest Montana’s three major cities (Helena, Butte, and Dillon), you are guaranteed to see stars on clear nights.

Thumbnail - Light Pollution 101 | National Geographic Play Button

Light Pollution 101 | National Geographic

Constellation Illustration - Ursa Minor

Tips for Enjoyable Stargazing

  • Know where you are heading and have a plan.
  • Be mindful you may not have cell service where you are going.
  • Check the forecasted weather.

  • A map of the area you are heading to - Paper maps, a road atlas, or a downloaded digital map that is not reliant on a cell connection are all great additions to your grand Montana road trip due to lack of cell service in some areas.
  • Planisphere or pre-download night sky interpretive app so you can identify what you are looking at in the night sky.
  • Camp chair or picnic blanket.
  • Flashlight - Your eyes will take a while to adjust to the darkness, so you may consider getting a headlamp with a red light setting.
  • Extra water.
  • Warm clothes and/or extra layers - Even hot summer days turn cool once the sun goes down. You will thank yourself for packing a few extra layers.

  • Arrive at your destination while it is still daylight. This will help you get to know your surroundings before it gets dark. Plus as a bonus you will get to see the sunset!
  • Recreate Responsibly
  • Be Bear Aware
  • Be Fire Smart - it is your responsibility to check fire restrictions in the area you are traveling prior to starting a campfire. Please visit the Montana Fire Info website to check current restrictions. Typically, if you are in a campground you must use provided campfire rings for your fire. For tips on how to safely build, maintain, and extinguish a campfire, visit
  • Be mindful of private property and respectful of your neighbors
Mobile Smartphone with Camera Open to the night sky

So, you have made it to your destination and you see the glimmering stars above you. Everyone has their own unique way of enjoying the night sky. Simply admiring in awe is often where people start, but you may also enjoy trying to identify various objects that are outlined above under “Discover.” Looking for the Milky Way, constellations, or observing the phase of the moon can be fun and educational!

Some may try their hand at capturing the beauty of the night sky with their cameras. Many cell phones have a night mode in their camera app that often yields surprising results.

We hope you have a wonderful time under our Big Sky!

Constellation Illustration - Draco

Upcoming Montana Night Sky Events

Event Alt

Jun 28

Fri, June 28 2024 - Sat, June 29 2024

7653 Canyon Ferry Road, Helena, MT

Event Alt

Jul 12

Fri, July 12 2024 - Sat, July 13 2024

7653 Canyon Ferry Road, Helena, MT

Event Alt

Aug 2

Fri, Aug 2 2024 - Sat, Aug 3 2024

7653 Canyon Ferry Road, Helena, MT

Constellation Illustration - Pegasus

Learn and Explore the Night Sky with Others

There are several organizations and astronomical clubs in our region that you may consider connecting with for an enhanced night sky viewing experience.

Two children looking out over a lake during sunset Logo - Montana Learning Center

Montana Learning Center

The Montana Learning Center is the best choice for encouraging children to be lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and action-takers.

Visit Montana Learning Center
Two children looking out over a lake during sunset Logo - Montana Learning Center

Helena Astronomical Society

Helena Montana’s amateur astronomy club is dedicated to offering free, public educational outreach.

Visit Helena Astronomical Society

Montana Night Sky Gallery