Where Are the Best Sunrises in the National Park System?

Is the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park the best spot in the National Park System to view sunrise? Photo by Atutu via flickr.

Where do you find the best view of sunrise in the National Park System? Would it be on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, or, perhaps more logically, at Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park?

Cadillac Mountain certainly has a lot going for it. After all, at certain times of the year it's the first place on the Eastern Seaboard to bask in the waking day's sunshine, and with all that blue water, gray granite, and green forest as a backdrop, well, can it get much better?

Mount Rainier's Sunrise certainly has the name going for it, and, truthfully, the view is pretty spectacular.

People who collect sunrises know that weather really matters. For instance, there's that incredible viewshed you can drink in while shivering at the summit of 10,023-foot Mount Haleakala in Haleakala National Park on Maui. But depending on the trade winds, you get to see either one of the world’s most spectacular sunrise vistas or just a whole bunch of clouds.

Where else in the park system is the morning sun a glory to behold? And what parameters matter most to you? Does it subtract from the experience if you're sharing the sunrise with two or three dozen other folks? Does the "no pain, no gain" axiom apply? Should it be a struggle to reach your chosen vantage point? Is sunrise more potent in winter than summer or in fall when it ignites the surrounding forests' changing leaves?

Among the places I've admired it are from the top of the Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park, from Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and deep in the backcountry along Yellowstone Lake. Of course, that raises another question. Is the view deemed spectacular simply because of the view, or because of where you are at the moment? Obviously, from the top of Cadillac Mountain or the Grand Teton or Point Imperial you have a much grander, horizon-stretching view than you would from a backcountry campsite in Great Smoky, the Everglades, or Zion, where I was able to enjoy the soft, early morning light paint Kolob Arch, transforming it from a pale, cold slumbering ribbon of rock to a fiery masterpiece of erosion.

But if you truly believe enjoying life to the fullest means reveling in the moment, aren't the rays you feel in places that are gorgeous without sheer drops or expansive horizons just as rich?

So tell us: Where in the parks do you go to catch your favorite sunrises?


Two years ago I tried for 13 straight days to see sunrise at the top of Cadillac Mountain... only to make the drive and be buried in fog each and every time. So, my vote goes to North Rim of the Grand Canyon. [If we could include areas managed by the U.S. Forest Service, not just national parks] my vote for 2nd place finisher would be a remote campsite in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area where the calm lakes became an intense pinkish orange just like the sky... pretty awesome. P.S.: My trip to the top of Haleakala: buried in clouds!!

Marylander, I can sure sympathize. My own dawn visit to the peak of Haleakala -- probably the only one I'll ever get to make -- wasn't rewarded with a glorious sunrise either. It's a good thing that there's so much more to Haleakala National Park than a (sometimes) glorious sunrise witnessed from the mountaintop. What a fantastic place Haleakala is! One word of warning about sunrise-chasing on the 10,023-foot Haleakala peak. It's C-O-L-D up there in the predawn darkness, so bring a blanket.

My pick is Death Valley National Park. There are so many great locales within the park to sit back and enjoy a spectacular sunrise or sunset. My favorite is Dante's View... 5000+ feet above the valley floor and an awesome view of the Panamint Mountains.

Bryce Canyon anyone? I have seen both sunrise and sunset on many occasions and I do believe they are spectacular.

Joshua Tree: the dry air of the desert makes the moments before the sun gets to the horizon memorable. I've never seen such a serene light before or after. Then, when the sun comes up, the bizarre shapes of the Joshua trees make great silhouettes or look like chiseled out if they are in direct light, while the ground around them still is in the shadows.

Bryce Canyon: You may know, that there are a Sunrise Point and a Sunset Point on the rim, just half a mile from each other. Contrary to the names, I believe sunrise is more spectacular from Sunset Point, as you can see the rays creeping into the nooks and crannies of the hoodoos in the Queens Garden area much better from there.

Grand Canyon: It depends on the season, which location is the best to see the actual sunrise. You need a direction to the sun, where you can see it first in the canyon, meaning the first line of sight is below the actual rim. It is possible in early May (so get there now!) from viewpoints near the village, I think it was either Yaki point or Yavapai. Then you see Vishnu Temple as a silhouette against the first direct rays. From that moment you have about one hour with the most spectacular light, coming from a low angle, illuminating certain exposed rocks against the still dark canyon walls and floor.

I didn't realize that Haleakala was a National Park when I had a chance to visit in 1989. It was cloudy for me too, but the bike coasting down the mountain afterward made it all worthwhile. We stopped frequently to remove a layer of clothing. I couldn't believe that anywhere on Hawaii would it get that cold.

I've seen spectacular sunrises at all the parks I've visited, but will agree that probably the best were at (and in!) the Grand Canyon. We did a rafting trip in May '03 from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch, and hiked out. The hike started before sunrise at 5:30am, and it was amazing watching the sun come up and illuminate the canyon.

Best Sunrise: from the top of Mt. Dana, Yosemite National Park overlooking Mono Lake. Most glorious in color among the mountain dew.

I would vote for sunrise (and pre-sunrise) at Canyon Overlook above the Great Arch of Zion in Zion National Park, looking west at Bridge Mountain and across Zion Canyon into Oak Creek Canyon. There is a dramatic change of color on the Great West Temple, the Temples of the Virgin and Alter of Sacrafice before the sun rises in the east. The light of sunrise on the Great West Temple from above the Rockville Bench south of the Virgin River and the mouth of Zion Canyon is also a rare and wonderful sight experienced by few visitors to Zion National Park because it requires an uphill drive on dirt roads outside the south park boundary.

Then, of course, there is sunrise on Mt. Scott, overlooking Crater Lake from an elevation of 8929 feet. For the few of us who had official access to the Mt. Scott fire lookout, making breakfast in the lookout before sunrise afforded a 360 degree view that includes the lake, inner caldera and slopes of ancient Mt. Mazama, the volcanic crest of the southern Cascade Mountain Range, extending from Mt. Shasta, California in the south to the South Sister near Bend, Oregon in the north, and the upper and lower Klamath Basin in the southeast.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

The Kansas Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is beautiful at sunrise.

The best sunrises I've seen, seemingly every time I go there, are at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Camping on the east side of North Manitou Island, you're all alone and you can sit on the beach, listening to the breeze tickle the marram grass as the sun appears over Lake Michigan.

Kirby, I've always thought that shoreline vantage points on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan only offered great sunsets. Is the east side of North Manitou so far offshore that all you can see on the horizon when you look east is Lake Michigan? If so, I've been fooled by the fact that the Manitous are clearly visible (across the Manitou Passage) from dunetop vantage points along the SLBE mainland shoreline. BTW, is it true what they say about the Manitous? I mean, South Manitou for society and North Manitou for nature?

There are no mountains here, no canyons, no awe-inspiring arches, but I will put the sunrises in Everglades reflecting off the towering clouds right up there with any of the others mentioned.

Rick Smith

Gates of the Arctic National Park, on the banks of the Noatak River in summer.

The sun never really rises or sets. It swings around you at night to the north, skimming the horizon around this beautiful, wide glacier-carved valley. Everywhere else you get this magical 15-minute twilight.

Here, right across the north rim of the park that magical twilight goes on all night long.

Perhaps as wonderful as the Noatak Valley in the park, but in an altogether different way, is morning on Itkillik Lake all the way to the far northeast, actually within the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve. The Itkillik is a mysterous, primal landscape of open tundra, ancient artifacts, with mountains of the Brooks Range in the distance. In that twilight in that place you feel you are back thousands of years. In those mornings you feel you are in the newest, and the oldest landscape in America.

Yes, Bob, you've been fooled! The dunetop vantages you speak of are generally between SSW and SSE of a typical camp on the east shore of North Manitou. (Everyone else camps on the west side, so this is only relevant to me, I suppose.) So in the first shot linked below from Pyramid Point, you're seeing North Manitou's south shore about 7 or 8 miles almost due north of you. Looking due east from a typical camp on NMI, you'll be seeing 15 miles of water until you hit the Lelanau Peninsula which is both trending away from you to the east and losing the hundreds of feet of relief it has in the dune area. So the land is barely visible. I don't know where the sun rises on the 45th parallel in mid-July, but just a little bit north of due east from this camp and you've actually got about 80 miles of open water! See the sunrise pictures.

South Manitou is more for the fanny-pack-wearing crowd with kids in tow, but with some redeeming ecological features - an old-growth cedar grove, for example. North Manitou is wilderness and far more enjoyable. The rangers have generally informed me that I'm one of about 30 or 40 people on an island 20 miles in circumference on the trips I've made there. I suppose some times and seasons are busier, but it's definitely the choice for nature. I think it's the garter snake capital of the world. And two years ago, I managed to see a piping plover about 15 feet away from me, just before I turned around to see a huge adult bald eagle swoop over my head on it's way out to pick something out of the surf. Good stuff.

-Kirby.....Lansing, MI




Although Cadillac Mtn in Acadia is spectaular, I have to agree with you. My view of sunrise in the 'glades was from 1/2 a mile of shore on the west coast (i.e. the Ten Thousand Islands) It was absolutley one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen as the sun came over the mangroves reflecting of the water while it painted the clouds. The mountains and desert is great; but the Everglades is my favorite.

Myrtle Point near the summit of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

For me, it's a toss-up between Bryce Canyon and Mesa Arch at Canyonlands. Sunrise at Toroweap at Grand Canyon runs a close third.

Cadillac Mountain sunrise was spectacular when I was there the week-end of Oct 25th 2008. The skies could not have been more passionate. I guess I was lucky.

Its a tie between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands Sunrise - Mesa Arch Arches sunrise - Picture of Turret Arch looking through the Windows. Arches sunset - Delicate Arch and the Windows. You will not be disappointed at any of these locations unless the weather is bad.