What does the milky way look like from earth to the human eye without light pollution?
Cameras are great, they allow us to compress several seconds of light exposure into a single instant. This allows us to take amazing pictures of the night sky, like this one.
Of course you can see we also have a great view of the landscape, we know that this is a trick from a camera and we're collecting a timed sample of light. This isn't something a human eye can see because we can't compress time into a single vision.
I'm curious though -- people knew about the milky way long before we could do this cool trick with camera. That means they must have seen at least something of the concentration of stars and gases from earth -- So it makes sense that without light pollution this could be seen with the naked eye to some extent -- What does the milky way look like from earth to the human eye without light pollution?
I was watching the night sky on Teide (Canary Islands), at 3300 meters above the sea level. The sky there looks almost as on this photo.
It is sad that these days, so many people have simply never seen it ! I was fortunate as a small kid to spend a lot of time on the family friend's farm in a dark rural area: vast numbers of people today have simply never seen the milky way, which is quite incredible.
A picture will never convey the same impression. You have to see it for yourself. I recently visited Death Valley, and took advantage of that opportunity to observe the sky from the desert, far from all cities. It looks amazing. Use one of the online light pollution maps to find places with reduced light pollution for such observations.
As a college student my parents bought me a club-med vacation to Cancun in the early 1980s. I remember laying on the beach at night looking at the stars in awe. I'd been to summer camp and I saw some nifty skies hiking the Appalachian trail, but I'd never seen the night sky like that before. No Milky-way that I recall, but still, Wow. Very moving.
It is pretty obvious from a dark sky.
Sky and Telescope have a simulation (using stellarium) of the sky with a limiting magnitude of 6.5 (about the limit with excellent eyesight and a very dark sky). The Milky Way is very clear. Light and dark tracks are visible. It is clearly something that every person would know about and be able to see nightly. It is no surprise that it is mentioned in the myths of many ancient peoples.
I don't have any photos right now, but I think the only photo that really comes close was James K's. The Milky Way looks much like it does in the photos, but with much less magnitude, and virtually no color variation. This is because rods in our eyes allow us to see in dim light, while cones help us differentiate color. If you're in a dark location, in my opinion somewhere blue or darker according to this map:
then it is something worth going out, staying up late and seeing and CERTAINLY photographing if you've got a camera that can do long exposures. (some smartphones these days technically can, but I'd find a cheap used APS-C camera like a Sony a5100 or Nikon D3300).
Overall, it's like a huge yet distance milky cloud, and when you look up, you feel incredibly small. It's awesome.
I saw it once although I was at the perifery of a "rather big" industrial town, but it was very cold and clean. At first I was even scared of some chemiluminescent pollution! It was far from the spectacular display of photographs or from what one can see as reported in the other answers above but nevertheless breathtaking. Two arched stripes of white luminescence, more exotic than just "milky" as the name suggests, if I can say so.
It seems other answers post pics that should be impossible to attain without light accumulation.
I would say for a first naked eye observation to expect just a splitted luminous white trace. Impressive nevertheless!
It depends where you are standing, which altitude and longitude. The nearest the equator and the higher altitude, the clearer the stars are.
Here's a bunch of pictures by a guy called Cohen who alledgedly calculates his exposure time. I can confirm that the countryside in France, the sky is looks like that when your eyes are used to the dark. At Lattitude zero degrees on the equator you can see at least twice as many stars as in France, on top of of an equatorial mountain like mount Bromo, you will perhaps see 5 times as many stars as in temperate climates, so the MilkyWay is 5 times more visible than in our best conditions, elsewhere.