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Does the Milky Way Really Look Like That?

The Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon with some clouds hovering near the horizon.

The summer Milky Way from Cedar Breaks National Monument in southern Utah.

Capturing stunning images of the night sky has become much easier in recent years. The low-light performance of modern cameras (and even my six-year old Nikon D750) far outpaces the capabilities of cameras made even a decade ago. Recently, I was flipping through some old astronomy magazines from the early 2000s and was shocked not only by the (low) quality of the wide-field astrophotography of the day, but also by the incredibly expensive gear used to produce those images at the time. 20 years ago, it was extremely difficult to capture a detailed image of the Milky Way without a high-end camera and an expensive tracking mount.

Today, even some phone cameras can capture passable images of the Milky Way. Stunning panoramas of our galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon are now a dime a dozen on social media. Given the advanced abilities of today’s cameras, it is natural to wonder: “Does the Milky Way really look like that?” Do the spectacular Milky Way images we see plastered across the internet accurately represent what the human eye can see? Or is this incredibly rich detail only visible to a high-tech camera sensor? Or, more nefariously, could these images simply be the result of some Photoshop trickery? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is a combination of all three!

Let’s begin by discussing one way in which most Milky Way images are not representative of what the human eye would see: color. The Milky Way will always look monochromatic to the naked eye. However, the reason why has to do more with the physiology of the human eye than any deception on the part of the photographer. Let me explain.

Some photographers do like to crank up the saturation of their Milky Way images beyond belief. Night sky photos with vibrant blues, purples, oranges, and pinks are the tell tale signs of digital embellishment. Rather than point fingers, I’ve created my own version below to illustrate:

A photograph of the Milky Way with extremely vibrant colors

An image of the Milky Way (and a meteor) over Mt. Adams in Washington state…with the saturation slider cranked up to 100 in Adobe Lightroom.

To be clear, these colors aren’t real. This is Photoshop trickery, pure and simple. Here’s what the same image looks like without the saturation increase:

A photograph of the Milky Way galaxy hovering over a tall volcanic peak.

The same image, with natural color.

Much more subdued, certainly, but look closely and you’ll see that there is still some color there! Here’s the good news: those colors ARE real! Notice the pale green sky behind Mt. Adams. That’s airglow, a phenomenon caused by gas molecules in our atmosphere re-emitting energy they absorbed during the day in the form of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. If you open the photo full screen and look really closely, you can also see some small pink-ish blotches along the plane of the Milky Way. These are hydrogen gas clouds—stellar nurseries if you will—glowing with the characteristic ruddy hue of ionized hydrogen.

Now for the bad news: while these subtle colors are “real”, you’ll never actually see them with the naked eye. Why not? To sum it up, our eyes suck at seeing colors at night. We see using two different sets of cells in our retinas: rods and cones. The cones are what allow us to see color. Unfortunately, the cones only work when there is lots of light entering our eyes, like during the day. Our rods are mostly responsible for our night vision and they are, sadly, colorblind. This is why the night sky (and low light scenes in general), always appear in shades of gray. Only a few of the brightest stars and planets emit enough light to trigger our color-seeing cones. The diffuse glow of the Milky Way does not.

Cameras on the other hand don’t have rods and cones. They are much better at picking up color in low light, so they naturally produce images that are more vibrant than what we actually experience…no editing necessary!

With this in mind, let’s remove the color entirely from our Milky Way image:

A photograph of the Milky Way galaxy with all color removed

Our Milky Way image converted to black and white, a more accurate approximation of what the human eye sees at night.

With the color out of the picture, is this now what the Milky Way actually looks like to the naked eye? Yes…under certain circumstances.

Look closely at the Milky Way in the image above. Notice the detail. It’s complex. It’s interesting. Some parts are brighter, others fuzzier, with dark blotches and voids winding sinuously from upper left to lower right. The Milky Way is a complex place, and this manifests itself in our view of it from Earth. In this regard, this photo actually does a pretty good job of depicting what the Milky Way actually looks like. You CAN see this detail and complexity with your own eyes…provided that a few things are true:

#1: You have a dark sky. For most people, light pollution prevents the Milky Way from being seen in its full glory. If you want to see the kind of detail shown in a photo like this one, you need to be somewhere dark. Not “turn off the porch light” dark. Not “drive out to the edge of town” dark. Not even “drive an hour up into the mountains” dark. Light pollution is incredibly pervasive and the view of the Milky Way can be degraded for literally hundreds of miles from a major city. Even some of the most remote wilderness areas in the United States are still awash in the glow of artificial light. Places like eastern Oregon, central Idaho, northern Nevada, and southern Utah are among the few locales where you can still experience a pristine night sky. A view of the Milky Way from anywhere else simply doesn’t compare.

#2: Your eyes are dark adapted. Remember the rods from earlier? While our rods allow us to see fairly well in low light, they need at least 20-30 minutes of darkness in order to reach peak sensitivity. This period is known as “dark adaptation” and it is a key ingredient of a successful stargazing session. Gazing at the Milky Way before your rods have had time to fully dark adapt is like looking at a Van Gogh or Monet with dark sunglasses on; you miss many of the finest details. If you walk out of a brightly lit RV or tent and look skyward expecting to see the Milky Way like it appears in a photo, you’ll be quite disappointed. Even using a headlamp or checking the time on your phone while waiting for your eyes to dark adapt can inhibit the process. For this reason, astronomers typically use red lights at night because our rods are less sensitive to that color, making it easier to preserve night vision.

#3: You are in the right place at the right time. We live in the suburbs of the Milky Way galaxy. When we look toward the center of the Milky Way (downtown), it looks brighter, because we are looking at a greater concentration of stars, gas, and dust. When we look away from the center, it looks dimmer. Images like the one I’ve been using in this post are taken looking downtown…toward the galactic center. This portion of the Milky Way is only visible during certain times of year. In late fall, it’s behind the Sun, making it rather difficult to photograph or see. Late evening in the summer and early fall, or early morning in the Spring is the ideal time to catch it. At other times of year, when the galactic outskirts grace our sky, the Milky Way is much more ho-hum. You’ll also want to avoid the Moon, whose glow will mostly overwhelm the diffuse and relatively faint Milky Way.

If all three of these things are true, then yes, the black and white image above is a good representation of what the Milky Way looks like to the naked eye. Sadly, only about 20% of North Americans can even see the Milky Way from their homes, much less see it under ideal circumstances. Light pollution has masked the view of our home galaxy to the point that most of us no longer know what it should look like. Ecologists call this “shifting baseline syndrome”, a phenomenon in which each successive generation comes to regard the state of the environment around them as “normal”. In other words, as we degrade our environment, we gradually forget what things used to be like, or, in this case, look like.

While increasingly rare, such a view of the Milky Way is one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. I vividly remember a backpacking trip I took over a decade in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park in New Zealand. The Milky Way appeared so bright that it cast shadows on the ground, and I was able to read a book (albeit barely…) by its light. Oddly enough, sometimes the “darkest” skies are actually the brightest because so many stars are visible.

Fortunately, light pollution is an easy problem to fix. Many outdoor light fixtures are poorly designed and allow light to escape upward into the night sky. While our modern lives certainly require light at night, that light is almost always needed on the ground, not up in the sky. Illuminating the sky or the crown of a tree makes no one safer or more secure from hazards real or imagined. Light fixtures that direct light downwards (known as “fully shielded” fixtures) eliminate much of the problem. Cities that use such lights, like Flagstaff, Arizona (where I grew up), produce substantially less light pollution than other cities of comparable population. You can see the summer Milky Way from downtown Flagstaff…a city of nearly 100,000 people. Simple actions can go a long ways toward preserving the view of the Milky Way for future generations. (For more on what you can do to combat light pollution, check out the great work being done by the fine folks over at the International Dark Sky Association.)

The Milky Way is visible in the night sky over a smoke filled lake.

A view of the Milky Way over Crater Lake in southern Oregon. A layer of smoke from the 2020 Oregon & California wildfires is seen near the horizon.

Backpacking the Olympic Coast

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

Living in the desert of central Washington, it can be easy to forget that we live in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the high volcanic peaks of the Cascades are visible from our backyard (and thus remind us of their presence daily), the damp shores of the Pacific remain out of sight and out of mind most of the time.

Our most recent summer trip took us all the way to Washington’s western edge for a short backpacking trip along the coast in Olympic National Park. Coastal backpacking comes with a few unique challenges. For starters, predicting the weather along the coast is notoriously difficult, in part due to the relative lack of surface weather observations over the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, where most of our storm systems approach from. This fact ended up rearing its head on the final night of our trip.

Perhaps even more importantly, safe coastal backpacking requires that you know how to read a tide chart. The Washington coast experiences a fairly large tidal range, up to 10-12 feet during certain parts of the month. That’s enough to make vast sandy beaches completely disappear. A successful trip requires acute awareness of the timing and magnitude of the twice-daily high and low tides. The coast features many headlands (rocky outcroppings that jut out into the sea, often without any sort of “beach” whatsoever) that can only be traversed when the tide is below a certain level. Getting the timing wrong can (at best) result in having to sit on the beach for hours waiting for the tide to go out or (at worst) getting trapped in a dangerous situation as the tide rises and cuts off your escape route.

As this would be our first coastal backpacking trip, we obtained a permit for a fairly short and straightforward route beginning at Rialto Beach, heading north past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, and eventually camping for two nights on the beach near the Chilean Memorial, the site of a shipwreck that killed 18 sailors all the way back in 1920. The terrain along this section of the coast was quite variable, ranging from long stretches of soft, sandy beach, to the slightly more annoying cobble and pebble beaches, to large boulder fields and headlands that were somewhat difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack:

A hiker with a large backpack navigates a pile of boulders along a coastline.

Picking our way along the rocky Olympic coast en route to our campsite at Chilean Memorial.

Alternating bands of dark and light colored rock stretch to the horizon along the coastline.

Tilted layers of sediment have been planed off by wave action near Hole-in-the-Wall, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Small plants grow along a rocky coastline

Cape Johnson, Olympic National Park, Washington. With not much beach to speak of, this is a great example of a spot where being aware of the tide situation is essential! 

After a little more than four miles of hiking, we arrived at the small, unnamed cove home to the Chilean Memorial and found a campsite just above the high-tide line among large pieces of driftwood. This sheltered cove made for a relatively quiet and peaceful camp, as the myriad rocks and sea stacks just offshore caught the brunt of the surf, limiting the amount of wave action reaching the beach. We enjoyed watching the landscape of the cove change over the next few days as the mist and tides repeatedly swallowed up and revealed the sea stacks and small rocky islands. We quickly discovered that the largest sea stack (pictured below) was connected to the mainland via a rocky isthmus at low tide, and ended up hiking out to it one evening to look back on our campsite.

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay

View out into the Pacific Ocean at sunset from our campsite on the Chilean Memorial beach in Olympic National Park, Washington

Orange and purple light is reflected in the calm waters of the ocean surface at sunset.

Looking back toward the Chilean Memorial beach and Cape Johnson from the base of the large sea stack in the previous photo.

While we had our fair share of clouds and mist, it did clear up enough on one evening to reveal the night sky. The moon was just past full, so the Milky Way was only barely visible, but it was still fun to see the southern stars rise and set over the Pacific:

The Milky Way is just barely visible in the sky over the coastline

A faint hint of the Milky Way reveals itself despite the light cast by the rising moon (just behind the trees at left). 

Two people sit on a log illuminated by the glow of a campfire.

Enjoying a driftwood campfire on the beach.

Our trip came just a few days after the full moon, meaning that the low tides were some of the lowest of the month. These so-called “negative tides” are the best for exploring tide pools along the coast, as they reveal a greater variety of sea squishies:

Two large bright green anemones on a rock

Two giant green anemones in a tidepool in Olympic National Park, Washington.

A variety of marine life in a small rocky pool of water.

A crowded tidepool containing multi-colored aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) in Olympic National Park, Washington

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

In addition to the living tidepool organisms, we also observed large quantities of dead jellyfish (at least three different species) washed up on the beaches, including several massive (~2 foot wide) lion’s mane jellies:

The gelatinous remains of a red and orange jellyfish sit on the beach next to rocks and seaweed

A deceased (?) lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) washed up on the beach in Olympic National Park, one of many, many such jellies we found on our trip.

For our third and final night, the original plan was to hike most of the way back to the car and camp along Rialto Beach near Hole-in-the-Wall. Prior to departure, the weather forecast for this night had called for a fairly robust storm coming in off the Pacific. With an ailing tent that has become somewhat more, shall we say, permeable than one would desire, we briefly debated whether to just call it quits to avoid the chance of getting soaked. Surprisingly, we were able to get enough cell service on the beach to check an updated weather forecast, which showed a drastically reduced chance of rain and little precipitation expected. Consequently, we decided to stick with the original plan and set up camp in the trees at the north end of Rialto Beach. Our decision to stay was quickly validated as we observed a number of whales spouting and breaching throughout the afternoon just offshore.

A camper sits next to a tent under a tarp, scanning the skies with binoculars.

Our final campsite along Rialto Beach. From this vantage point, we saw a number of whales (likely humpbacks) spouting and breaching off-shore throughout the afternoon and evening. 

12 hours later, at 3 AM, when I was emerging from the tent for the third time to re-secure our tarp and shelter in the face of driving rain, wind, and large, deafening waves crashing up against the bluff just a few feet from our tent, I wasn’t so sure. A great example of the fickle coastal weather I suppose, and a good character building experience as Calvin’s dad would say.

While intense, the storm was brief, and by morning the skies were clearing, making for a pleasant stroll down Rialto Beach back to the car. All in all, the trip was a refreshing change of scenery from our predominantly mountain-based adventures the rest of the summer!

White puffy clouds dot the sky over a long sandy beach

Benign clouds greeted us in the wake of the storm for our short hike out to the car on the final morning. 

Summiting Mt. St. Helens

View of rocky and snowy ridgeline with volcanic peak in the background

Looking east along the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Adams in the distance.

Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.

After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.

From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!

To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:

A hiker scrambles up a rocky slope with a forest and low-lying clouds in the background

Breaking out of the trees on the Monitor Ridge route.

A hiker walks along a rocky ridge with clouds and a distant volcanic peak in the backgrounde background

Heading up Mt. St. Helens with the clouds below us and Mt. Hood in the background.

Dark, jagged volcanic rocks on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens with clouds far below

Nearing the top of the boulder field on the Monitor Ridge route. Only a mile to go!

We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.

The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.

Panorama of a large volcanic crater with a mound of solidified lava in the center

Panorama from the Mt. St. Helens crater rim, looking north across the lava dome and Crater Glacier to Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier. (Click image to enlarge)

Panorama showing a variety of distant mountains and a low cloud layer

Panorama looking south from the crater rim. Mt. Adams at left, Mt. Hood just left of center. (Click image to enlarge)

View of a volcanic peak with a blue lake in the foreground

Clouds part to reveal Spirit Lake and the distant cone of Mt. Rainier, more than 4,000 feet higher that Mt. St. Helens.

While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!

Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.

With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!

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