McAfee Knob in Virginia

Virginia's McAfee Knob is a gorgeous spot to greet the morning sun. (©Sam Dean Photography/Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge)

How to Plan the Perfect Sunrise Hike

By Jennifer McKee on 04/18/17
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Hiking is a way to connect with the natural world, a form of recreation that is suitable for novice and seasoned hikers of all ages. In addition to daytime hiking's benefits, the prospect—and culmination—of a sunrise hike adds exhilaration and an even greater sense of accomplishment into the mix, not to mention the beauty of greeting the day from a special spot. 

Lace up your walking shoes and explore these must-visit trails and learn everything you need to know for a successful sunrise hike. 

Sunrise from the Masada Snake Path in Israel

A 6,000-Foot State of Mind

"I always feel more centered, focused and ready to start my day after a sunrise hike," said Saveria Tilden, a consultant and outdoor educator for REI's Outdoor School. "They are as much for the mind as they are for the body."

A lifelong recreation enthusiast, Tilden credits a life-changing backpack through the Sierra for stoking her love of the outdoors, and changed her career to work with companies and organizations committed to getting others outside. She serves one such organization—the American Hiking Society—as an ambassador. 

"Often, seeing the sunrise is a result of an alpine start while mountaineering. These have been some of my favorite sunrises, and are usually accompanied by a feeling of accomplishment and inspiration," said Tilden. "My favorite sunrise hikes are the ones closest to home that help me get a great start to the day." 

You don't necessarily have to look to far-off destinations for a spectacular sunrise hike according to Tilden.

"My local sunrise hikes offer me serenity, peace and a sense of renewed purpose," said Tilden. "I recommend finding a hike that will have a good payoff with a nice view."

Thor's Hammer at Bryce Canyon

Prepare Before the Climb

It's important to think about the weather you'll encounter when you head out for a sunrise hike. Carey Kish, a registered Maine guide, said that one of the most common sunrise-hiking mistakes people make is being unprepared for the elements.

"You'll be hiking in the pre-dawn darkness when it's cool or cold outside, so layers of warm clothing are necessary," said Kish.

Also crucial for a sunrise hike is a headlamp—with extra batteries, he emphasized.

While neither Kish nor Tilden would head out on a hike without hiking essentials, there are a few additional things to consider to make your sunrise hike a success. 

"Know how to read a map and use a compass," said Kish. "Go with others more experienced until you develop a good feel for the woods and find your own level of comfort."

Tilden agrees that having a hiking buddy is a good idea, for safety's sake. 

"You should also always plan on leaving a note at home or with someone to let them know your hike plans: where you plan to hike and how long you intend to be gone," said Tilden.

Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park

Are You a Day Person or a Night Person?

Sunrise hikes vary from short treks that start an hour before sunrise to those that having you hiking from nightfall to reach the top of a peak by the time the sun is coming up.

"It depends on the miles in to the destination and your personal desires," said Kish. "If you're not a morning person, it's better perhaps to hike in the evening before and be right there come sunrise. This is predicated, of course, on the notion that camping at or near the sunrise site is allowed. And an overnight requires the full complement of backpacking gear."

Tilden recalled her most memorable hike, greeting the sunrise at Mt. Rainier, which involved an overnight journey.

"We woke up in the dead of night and watched as the sky started turning a deep red," said Tilden. "We were above the clouds and as the sun came up over the clouds, it washed the top of the clouds with orange and yellow pastels."

The sunset from Mount Kilimanjaro

A Sunrise Hiker's Bucket List Destinations

Whether you travel near or far, spectacular sunrise hikes await. But for those looking for a true-bucket list experience, Kish counts his as a sunrise from the Everest Base Camp in Nepal; Tilden, from Mount Kilimanjaro. 

In addition, Kish highly regards the east coast's Appalachian Trail: he's enjoyed every sunrise from Georgia to Maine on his 2015 and 1997 thru-hikes. Among the most spectacular points along the trail is Virginia's McAfee Knob.

"It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," said Kish. "It overwhelmingly shaped my adult life."

National parks such as Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon are also popular U.S.-based sunset hikes, but lesser-known parks such as Acadia National Park—the very first point to see the sun rise in the U.S. is from Cadillac Mountain—and Sweetwater Creek State Park also afford unforgettable sight lines for sunrise hikes. 

For those who wish to hike their way across the globe, don't-miss sunrise hikes include Mount Batur in Bali, the Masada Snake Path in Israel, Pulpit Rock in Norway, Ayers Rock in Australia and Machu Picchu in Peru.