With breathtaking views of the constellations and sky above, stargazing in the North Carolina Mountains truly is out of this world! Due to its remote location about an hour west of Asheville, Jackson County has no pollution, meaning the fullness of a dark sky night is on display year-round.
According to HipCamp, some of the best days for stargazing are coming up in August on the 8th, 11th, 12th, 19th, and 22nd, so pack your telescope and long exposure camera and start planning your trip to Jackson County to witness the magic of a starlit night.
*Stargazing in the WNC Mountains may require a camping trip. Make sure always to let others outside of your group know your location, download an offline map, have sufficient batteries for cellphones & headlamps, pack adequate gear & food, and secure the proper permits for camping. Ensure to monitor weather, as it can change quickly in the NC Mountains, and be aware of nocturnal animals. For more information, check out our Safety Guide.
Drive to the View
America’s favorite drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, winds through several forests on the 70+ miles along Jackson County’s northeast boarder. Some of the best views are found right along the roadside – no hiking or camping required! Make sure to pack a blanket as temperatures frequently remain 10 degrees cooler than in the lower elevations, making even summer nights chilly. These spots are best for stargazing:
Waterrock Knob Overlook (Milepost 451.2) – A short drive from downtown Sylva on the Parkway South, Waterrock Knob has long been a favorite overlook for golden hour sunsets and exploring the trails during the day. When the sun sets to the west, the fullness of a Blue Ridge Parkway night comes to life. With both east and west-facing views, Waterrock Knob fully displays the night sky year-round on clear nights. With ample parking and room for chairs, it’s no wonder why this is a common vantage point for meteor showers. One of the best ways to get the full experience is to grab dinner to-go from one of our local restaurants and enjoy it at the picnic tables while the sun sets behind the horizon. Then, you’re already set up to watch the night sky take over.
Roy Taylor Forest Overlook (Milepost 433.3) – Sitting at 5,580-feet, the Roy Taylor Forest Overlook is a great vantage point for stargazing. Located about a one-minute walk from the parking area is a viewing platform with benches that allow for uninterrupted views of the night sky facing the forest.
Cowee Mountain Overlook (Milepost 430) – Head north along the Parkway and you’ll find Cowee Mountain Overlook, which displays a complete 180-degree view of pristine National Forest land. At night, the absence of light pollution illuminates the night sky behind the mountains in sheer darkness. Although the overlook is currently missing its sign, it’s easy to find as it’s the next overlook directly after Richland Balsam heading north.
Devil’s Courthouse (Milepost 422.4) – The Devils Courthouse Overlook and Trail shows off the beauty of the night sky. If you don’t mind a hike in the dark, accessing the view from the top requires a short but steep walk along a mostly paved path. Like many vantage points along the Parkway, its remote location allows for you to see far off into the night sky without any visible light pollution on a clear night. If you do hike the trail, make sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight and sturdy hiking shoes.
The Great Smokies are a 520,000-acre National Park shared with our neighboring state of Tennessee. Many locations in the park offer views of the night sky, especially along the North Carolina (eastern) facing vantage points. Some of these areas are a bit further from Jackson County, but they are more than worth the drive for serious stargazers.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center Field – As you enter the Great Smokies in Cherokee, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the gateway to the Park. The large field where the Visitor Center is located is a great place to witness the night sky without even going into the park itself. Simply pull over onto the designated parking area and pull up a chair.
Newfound Gap Overlook – at the Tennessee and North Carolina border, the Newfound Gap Overlook is an easily accessible vantage point with ample parking. Facing north into the valley below are stunning views during the day and excellent stargazing at night. All you have to do is pull up a car and turn off the lights – no hiking required.
Clingmans Dome – right across the road is Clingman’s Dome Road, which leads to one of the most iconic vantage points in the Great Smokies. The drive to the tower is dark and remote, and access at night is only achievable via hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. If you’re willing to take on this trail, you will be rewarded with endless views of the night sky atop one of the highest points in the Southeast.
Luftee Overlook – Located 15.8 miles from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you can pull off the road to find the Luftee Overlook. It faces Cherokee, so the night sky is large and bright with less light pollution than Tennessee facing overlooks. No hiking required!
Night Hike Required
Whiteside Mountain – Whiteside Mountain is known for being one of the oldest mountains in the world and having some of the highest vertical cliffs east of the Rockies. Sweeping night sky views can be experienced from the summit at night. Requiring a two-mile round-trip hike, the views from the summit at 4,930-feet peer into neighboring South Carolina and Georgia to create a stunning visual. Make sure you pack your headlamp and flashlight on this hike, as the hike down is short but does require optimal visibility for safety.
Panthertown Valley – Known as the ‘Yosemite of the East,’ Panthertown Valley’s remote location makes it a prime vantage point for experiencing the Milky Way at night. Views in Panthertown do require a hike, as well as overnight camping (requiring a permit), and we always recommend picking up a map, either from the Highland Hiker in Cashiers or online, before taking on the trail. One of the best vantage points in the Valley can be seen from Salt Rock Gap, located less than a half-mile from the parking lot. The views face directly into over six thousand acres of undeveloped land and there is no light pollution to be seen.
Pinnacle Park – Located just minutes from downtown Sylva, Pinnacle Park is a 1,500-acre natural oasis known for its iconic West Fork Trail that leads to the top of a 3.5-mile one-way hike ascending over 3,000 feet. For those who are serious about stargazing, Pinnacle requires an overnight stay beginning with a daytime hike, as its rocky terrain on the way down is too difficult to navigate at night, even with proper headlamps and illumination gear. Fortunately, camping at Pinnacle Park is free and only requires a permit for your stay at one of three campsites. From atop the Pinnacle, you’ll be able to overlook the town of Sylva in the distance while you stare up at the fullness of the night sky.
With such natural beauty, it’s no wonder why the WNC Mountains have long been revered as a stargazer’s paradise. In the towns of Jackson County, you’ll enjoy fantastic lodging rates, boutique shopping, delicious non-chain dining, and much more to explore during the day. Find the perfect remote vacation rental to stargaze from, or look into our other lodging options here. Not into stargazing? How about a Golden Hour Sunset instead? Check out our Trip Planner for more inspiration and to get the insider’s guide to all things Jackson County.
*Many of the attached images were captured using a “Long Exposure” with professional photography equipment.