I’m not a morning person. But any time I’ve woken up early enough to experience a sunrise hike, it’s been a peaceful experience that sets me in a positive mindset for the rest of the day. Every once in a while, it’s worth the effort to get up and meet the sun, especially if you can make it to a scenic landscape. Sunrise provides some of the most striking light all day, so even familiar sights can look special while bathed in the morning glow. Hiking at sunrise requires extra consideration. This article will help you prepare for a morning excursion and lists a few great sunrise hikes around the United States.
Prepping for a Sunrise Hike
Plan Your Route
For a sunrise outing to be successful, you have to plan your trip at least the day before. Unlike a daytime hike, it’s hard to do a sunrise hike on a whim. Here are steps to get you started:
- Figure out what time the sun will rise. A simple online search will give you that information, and most weather apps provide it as well. Plan to arrive at your end point at least 10 minutes before sunrise, so you’re all set up to enjoy the best views once the sun comes up.
- Determine how early you are willing to wake up and what time you’ll be able to leave your home.
- Figure out how long of a hike you are able to do in that timeframe. One mile with no incline typically takes 20 minutes to hike, so add on time for more difficult hikes. Consider driving time in your calculation.
- Choose a hike that fits your timeframe and skill level. Leave your itinerary with family or friends, just in case something goes wrong.
- Set your alarm — and stick to it!
If you’re hiking with kids, the trip will probably take a lot longer than expected, so consider choosing a shorter hike and give yourself plenty of time.
Get Everything Ready the Night Before
The last thing you’ll want to do at 4 or 5 a.m. is pack. Get your hiking boots, clothes and gear ready the night before so that in the morning, you’ll be able to hop out of bed and be out the door in no time. You should even plan what to eat for breakfast before your hike. Make the morning easy for yourself so you have no excuses. Remember that mornings, even during the summer, can be chilly, so pack more layers than you think you’ll need. Since you’ll be hiking in the dark or in the weak dawn light, headlamps and flashlights with extra batteries are essential. A Hydroflask of hot water, tea or coffee provides a toasty pick-me-up. Check out these guides for more packing and safety tips:
Hike to Your Destination the Evening Before
If you love camping or backpacking, consider camping at a great sunrise destination. Waking up in your tent and peeking out to see the morning’s colors is a wonderful way to start your day. Look into National Parks or other public lands that offer backcountry camping, or camp at an established campground with panoramic views.
5 Epic Sunrise Hikes in U.S. National Parks
You don’t have to travel far from home to see an amazing sunrise. But if you want to integrate a sunrise trail into a longer trip, these hikes in national parks around the United States won’t disappoint.
Potato Harbor: Channel Islands National Park
Round-trip Length: 4 miles Type of Trail: Lollipop Elevation Gain: 410 feet Difficulty: Moderate Trailhead Location: Scorpion Ranch Campground, Santa Cruz Island Santa Cruz Island, one of five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park, is ecologically rich and is known for its coastal vistas, sea caves, and distinct plant and animal species. To get to the island, visitors must take a one-hour boat ride from Ventura, California, through Island Packers. The earliest ride leaves Ventura at 9 a.m. each day, and the latest boat leaves the island at 3:30 p.m., so many people opt to camp on the island for a night to make sure they have enough time for activities. The trail to Potato Harbor (which is actually Cavern Point Loop to North Bluff Trail) is easy to follow and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Much more impressive than its name, Potato Harbor is a gorgeous cove of clear blue water viewed from an island bluff. The hike starts at Scorpion Ranch Campground, so I’d recommend camping there and hitting the trail about an hour before sunrise to see the cove in the day’s best light. Don’t forget to look for adorable island foxes near the campground, and whales (or other sea mammals) off the coast.
Cadillac Mountain: Acadia National Park
Round-trip Length: 7.1 miles Type of Trail: Out-and-back Elevation Gain: 1,350 feet Difficulty: Difficult Trailhead Location: Off ME Route 3, 100 feet south of Blackwoods Campground Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine, is known for its colorful seaside sunrises and draws visitors from around the world. As the tallest mountain on the Eastern Seaboard (1,530 feet), Cadillac Mountain is the first place you can see the sun rise in the U.S. during the fall and winter. To reach the summit, climb the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail through mixed forest and enjoy the spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. The ascent to the top is gradual, but the trail is long and requires endurance, so this may not be the best choice for families with small children. The summit is also accessible by car, which means that even in the wee hours of the morning, the view from the top can get crowded. To enjoy the sunrise in relative solitude, avoid visiting the park over the weekend (especially in the summer), or stop hiking a little bit before the end to have the trail mostly to yourself.
Discovery Point: Crater Lake National Park
Round-trip Length: 2.2 miles Type of Trail: Out-and-back Elevation Gain: 100 feet Difficulty: Easy Trailhead Location: Rim Village Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon offers more than 90 miles of trails surrounding the deepest lake in the United States. The lake was formed 7,700 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and then collapsed into itself, forming a caldera that has since filled with snow and rainwater that appears pristine blue. The Discovery Point Trail follows a portion of the western rim, allowing visitors to watch the sun rise over the lake. It’s a magical sight! Keep in mind that while the park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, deep snow forces roads to close to cars in the winter. At that point, the roads are open to skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers. If your family loves snow, winter could be the perfect time to visit.
West Thumb Geyser Basin: Yellowstone National Park
Round-trip Length: 0.6 mile Type of Trail: Loop Elevation Gain: 59 feet Difficulty: Easy Trailhead Location: West Thumb Geyser Basin parking area This easy, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk trail in Yellowstone National Park circles through a basin of clear, aquamarine hot springs and dormant geysers near Yellowstone Lake. This thermal area is particularly gorgeous at sunrise, when you can see brilliant pinks and reds reflecting on the deep, steaming pools. There are plenty of other trails in the area if you complete this hike and are ready for more. Take note that during the summertime (May through September), the park roads are open 24 hours a day. During the rest of the year, park hours vary and some locations close.
Backcountry: Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is an otherworldly landscape of layered badland hills, rock formations, and petrified wood dating back to 200 million years. Sunrise is a lovely time to walk this terrain, as you’ll be able to watch the sun’s warm rays wash over the multi-colored geologic formations, making the Painted Desert more colorful than ever. The park road in Petrified Forest doesn’t open until after sunrise, so the best way to catch the morning’s first rays in this unique location is to backcountry camp and wake up to the dawn. Most of the park is a trail-less wilderness — it’s up to you to carve your own path in the backcountry. Backcountry permits are free and can be acquired at the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum.