On a Starry Winter Night – The 5 Best Places to Stargaze in North Georgia

Written By: Mark Oleg Ozboyd

Photographed by Mark Oleg Ozboyd

Most of us have heard about the world-class stargazing found in the vast wildlands of the American West. But did you know that you could spot Orion or the Milky Way with the naked eye here in Georgia? As night falls upon the landscape, our gorgeous forests slip into the cloak of darkness. Yet a whole different type of beauty takes their place amid the darkening night sky: the warm twinkle of hundreds of thousands of distant stars. It’s a window into a faraway universe totally removed from the buzz of everyday life. To witness for yourself, leave the dazzling lights of the city and head to the North Georgia mountains for a unique midnight adventure. You can’t go wrong to see starry skies at any of the following locales.  

1.Brasstown Bald
What better place to stargaze than from the tallest mountain in Georgia? State Route 180-Spur leads almost to the summit of Brasstown Bald, located near the towns of Hiawassee and Blairsville. Bring a headlamp for the moderate walk up the paved 0.6-mile trail to the top. The summit observation tower provides a spectacular 360-degree view with the beauty of the night sky stretching out in all directions. 

2.Hogpen Gap Overlook
Take a drive up the Richard B Russell Scenic Highway just outside the tourist town of Helen to this excellent north-facing overlook, where you can stargaze merely a few feet from your car. A pair of welcoming picnic tables adorns the roadside vista. If you packed a headlamp and feel especially adventurous, keep driving another mile northward to Tesnatee Gap, where the trailhead for Cowrock Mountain lies. It’s a moderate 0.8-mile uphill hike along the renowned Appalachian Trail to the rocky summit with its wide-open views of the night sky and surrounding mountains. 

3.Cohutta Wilderness
A vast 36,977-acre expanse of undeveloped land in the northwest part of Georgia, the Cohutta Wilderness features some of the state’s darkest skies. Remote dirt roads encircling the wilderness perimeter pass roadside vistas such as the southwest-facing Bear Creek Overlook along Forest Road 68 (Potato Patch Road), the southeast-facing Mountaintown Overlook along Forest Road 64 (Three Forks Road), or the west-facing Mill Creek Overlook along Forest Road 17 (West Cowpen Road). Be advised that the latter two roads are closed seasonally from January to mid-March. These forest roads are generally well-maintained, but a high-clearance vehicle will make the ride easier. Consider camping at Lake Conasauga Campground to stargaze along the shadowy shoreline of Georgia’s highest lake. Seasoned backpackers might even like an overnight trip deep into the wilderness to Jacks River Falls, which lies beneath a vast open sky.  

4.Bell Mountain
An extraordinarily steep drive by the name of Shake Rag Road climbs directly to the summit of Bell Mountain, an acclaimed landmark with a sad history just east of Hiawassee. The mountain was once the site of a quartzite mine, and searches for the mineral caused the summit to be blasted. Nonetheless, the exposed summit spotlights one of the area’s most breathtaking views, overlooking the many fingers and islands of Lake Chatuge. The 360-degree panorama of the night sky at the parking area is tough to beat.   

5.Chattooga Wild and Scenic River
One of the state’s premier whitewater rivers, the Chattooga River flows beneath a vast region of dark skies along the Georgia-South Carolina border for nearly 50 miles. Numerous roadside access points to the Chattooga River include Woodall Shoals, Bull Sluice, Sandy Ford, Russell Bridge, and Burrells Ford. The river provides many relaxing stargazing opportunities under the unique background sound of cascading mountain water. Stretching 100 to 200 feet from bank to bank, the river’s width allows for a consistently clear sky overhead.  

Sidebar: Stargazing Travel Tips 

The tips below will help you to optimize your stargazing adventure. 

1.Plan your trip near the new moon. 
When the moon has risen, it casts strong ambient light diffusing the starry sky. Thus, stargazing is ideal during a new moon, which occurs once every 29 days. Skies are also dark in the preceding 10 days and for a few days afterwards, when the moon is in a crescent or gibbous phase. 

2.Go on a clear winter night. 
Nobody wants their stargazing experience interrupted by pesky cloud cover! Moreover, the lack of humidity on cold winter nights means especially sharp stars. In contrast, night skies are much hazier from the warm, moisture-laden air in summer. 

3.Travel far from development. 
Only a few bright stars are visible in Metro Atlanta, as countless streetlights and buildings simply flood the sky with light. Night skies are surprisingly hazy even in small North Georgia towns like Dahlonega or Cornelia. For the crispest stargazing, get as far away as you can from the nearest town.

4.Pick a south-facing view to see the Milky Way. 
Spotting the Milky Way galaxy requires more planning than regular stargazing. The core of the Milky Way is only visible from February through October in Georgia. From February to June, the Milky Way is visible to the southeast in the early morning; from July to August, the Milky Way is visible to the south in the middle of the night; and from September to October, the Milky Way is visible to the southwest in the evening. And remember—the camera captures more detail in the Milky Way than the naked eye can see, but you can still catch a glimpse if the skies are dark enough! 

5.Avoid staring at bright lights. 
It takes 15 to 20 minutes for our eyes to fully adjust to natural nighttime darkness. Once you reach your stargazing destination, turn off light sources such as vehicle headlights, headlamps and cell phones. The longer your eyes remain shielded from bright lights, the more spectacular the night sky will appear.   

Need more stars in your eyes? Check out these area Planetariums.  
Curious to learn more about the many mysterious sights in our night skies? Consider visiting one of North Georgia’s state-of-the-art planetariums. 

·       George E. Coleman, Sr. Planetarium (https://ung.edu/planetarium/)
University of North Georgia, 159 Sunset Drive, Dahlonega, GA 30533
A planetarium show is open to the public every Friday at 8 PM; admission is free. Show topics change throughout the year but include live presentations of the evening sky and recent astronomic discoveries. Afterwards, people are invited to view the night sky at the UNG North Georgia Astronomical Observatory, which features a 28” reflecting telescope. ·       

Rollins Planetarium (https://www.yhc.edu/planetarium)
Maxwell Center at Young Harris College, Dobbs McEachern Road, Young Harris, GA 30582
Planetarium shows are open to the public on select Friday evenings. For each show, admission is $5 per adult, $3 per child, and free for children under the age of 4. Individual shows have a wide variety of topics ranging from “Skies over Georgia” to “Space Aliens.” Separately, people may visit the Young Harris College Observatory for telescope viewing on occasional open house nights.·       

Bentley Planetarium (https://tellusmuseum.org/exhibit/bentley-planetarium/
Tellus Museum, 100 Tellus Drive, Cartersville, GA 30120This planetarium is distinguished for its whopping selection of eight shows per day. Four different topics are covered – each one rotated twice daily – including “Live Tour of Tonight’s Sky” and “Destination Solar System.”  Tickets are $4.25 for the first show with paid museum admission, and $2.75 for a second show on the same visit. 


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