Whether you prefer to sleep outdoors in a tent, a van, or an RV, waking up to the sunrise is a great way to feel as though the world’s your oyster and the whole day has the potential to be fantastic.
But, good news: you don’t have to sleep outside to see the sunrise. You do, however, have to wake up probably significantly earlier than you normally do – but hey, that’s what coffee is for. And if you’re going to wake up early, it should be for a good reason, like going for a fantastic sunrise hike.
There’s no end to the options for sunrise hikes in the U.S. and Canada – or the world, for that matter. So while this isn’t an extensive list of the only sunrises you’ll want to see in your lifetime, it’s still a list of seven you’ll certainly want to put on your bucket list.
If you’re not near any of these trails, don’t worry. You can find your sunrise trail by doing a bit of research. Look for one that has views to the east, isn’t obstructed by any taller peaks even further east, and has a reasonably easy-to-follow route, since you’ll be hiking it mostly in the dark.
1. Ryan Mountain Trail
If you’re headed to Joshua Tree, you’re in luck when it comes to catching the sunrise. Owing to the mostly flat terrain of the park and desert fauna, you’ll find that the sunrise is pretty amazing from almost any spot in the park, especially if you’re keen to get photos of Joshua trees silhouetted against the brightening sky.
One especially appealing hike to take if you’re chasing the sunrise is Ryan Mountain. It’s not a long hike (3 miles round trip), but it’s steep, gaining just over 1,000 feet of elevation on the way up. Since it’s the second-highest peak in the park, the view from the top is stunning as the sun begins to peek out over the rest of the landscape.
This hike begins from the Ryan Mountain Trailhead, closest to the west entrance of the park. Bonus tip: If you’re staying here, try to get a spot in Jumbo Rocks campground and scamper up one of the rocks to watch the sunrise.
2. Ship Harbor Trail
Acadia National Park is the easternmost national park in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that it offers some of the best sunrise views in the country. Rather than taking the most crowded wonderland trail, pop onto the Ship Harbor Trail. It’s well-marked and relatively flat, so it’s quite easy to do in the dark with a headlamp. At the endpoint of the loop, you’ll be at the mouth of the harbor which opens to the east, giving you great views of the sunrise above the ocean. There are tide pools for kids to play in and plenty of lovely spaces to relax. Since the hike is relatively short (under a mile each way) you might want to consider bringing a breakfast picnic with you to enjoy on the shore.
The hike begins at the Maine 102 trailhead, where you’ll find restrooms and a small parking lot.
3. The Wave, Utah
Utah has no shortage of beautiful hikes, which is perhaps why it has so many heavily visited national parks, like Zion and Bryce Canyon. However, the Wave isn’t in a national park – it’s part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The Wave is a massive rock formation that appears to have gently curving stripes of different colors covering its walls. You’ve almost certainly seen photos of the landscape. The trail that leads there is about 2.5 miles each way, but you’ll need a permit to access it (which you can apply for online.)
As you can imagine, this place is super dramatic at sunrise. Some of the stunning walls are bathed in shadows while others are vivid shades of orange and red. You can watch the light spread through across the formation.
This hike begins at the Wire Pass Trailhead, but you must have a permit (unless you want to risk a $1000+ fine.)
4. Vermillion Lakes
If your trip is taking you into western Canada, Lake Louise and Banff are probably on your itinerary. Wake up early one morning and take the short hike to Vermillion Lakes. Moreover, for this hike, you don’t have to get up too early, as the hike starts at the lakes about two miles from the town of Banff.
The lake is very still in the morning, which allows the surrounding peaks to reflect on the water, creating a stunning landscape made even better at sunrise. After the sun comes up (or during, if you prefer), you can hike around the lakes on the Fenland Trail, which is a prime area for spotting wildlife, especially in the early morning. Be sure to wear bug spray and bring binoculars.
The hike starts at Vermillion Lakes Drive, but you can also start the Fenland trail from the parking area on Mt. Norquay Road.
5. Potato Chip Rock
The whimsically named Potato Chip Rock may sound like one designed for couch potatoes, but this hike is actually rather challenging. It’s just outside San Diego and is about 7.5 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet. At the top, you’ll find the trail’s namesake: potato chip rock, so named for its resemblance to a slim potato chip. It juts out dramatically over the landscape (so be especially careful in the dark!) and is beautifully silhouetted during sunrise. Sitting on the edge of this rock really does feel a bit like floating in the sky. During the day, the potato chip is quite crowded and somewhat washed out in terms of color, especially with the fog and smog from the city. But at sunrise, it’s an entirely different story.
This hike begins at Lake Poway Park in Poway, California. It’s about 30 minutes north of San Diego and has an $8 parking fee on the weekends.
6. Bright Angel Trail
For a long day hike, consider the Bright Angel Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, on the South Rim. It starts very near the visitor’s center and is about 15.5 miles round trip. However, since it’s an out-and-back trail, you can decide how far you’d like to go. There are rest stops along the way around the 1.5-, 3-, and 5-mile marks, but keep in mind that the return hike is harder than the outbound hike as it begins entirely downhill.
Fortunately for hikers chasing the sunrise, the best view will be from the first rest stop, just 1.5 miles in. It’s enough of a distance to be in the canyon for sunrise, but not so far down in elevation that the sunrise is blocked. You’ll be able to watch the canyon light up with morning colors (and beat the heat, since the trail is pretty exposed.) The other ideal aspect of this hike is that you can see the sunrise from just about anywhere on the trail, so even if you get a later start than you’d like, you’ll still have phenomenal views. The top of this trailhead can be very crowded around sunrise as it’s so close to the visitors center, so the further down the trail you go, the less crowded it’ll be.
7. Emerald Lake
Rocky Mountain National Park is worth a visit any time of day and you’d be hard pressed to find an ugly view. But if you’re seeking a sunrise vantage point, head to Emerald Lake, which starts at the Bear Lake Trailhead. The hike to the lake is about 1.5 miles and gains about 700 feet in elevation. Once you get to the lake, there are plenty of areas to put down a blanket and watch the sun come up.
Emerald Lake is the epitome of an alpine lake, with still, reflective water, and steep, jagged peaks rising in the background. It’s a beautiful spot in the park but it does get quite crowded, which is another reason to start early in the day. On the way to Emerald Lake, you’ll also pass Dream Lake and Nymph Lake, so you’d be hard pressed to find a bad spot to watch the sunset along this trail. If you want to continue hiking after the sun comes up, you can extend the hike by taking the trail to Lake Haiyaha on the way back. There are a few trails in this area, so be sure to grab a Bear Lake hiking map when you enter the park.
This hike begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead, which has restrooms and parking.
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