Acadia National Park
Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., is the first place in the country travelers can see the sun peak over the horizon. Click through for nine more iconic national parks with the best sunrises and sunsets.
Little inspires as much hope and suspense as the rising and setting of the sun. These bookended golden hours blanket the world in warm light, bring awe and inspiration, and provide breathtaking backdrops for photos. When these daily events play out in spectacular settings, such as national parks, they cast extraordinary light over picture-perfect landscapes, forests, and waterways.
The arrival of spring or fall at the equinox—every six months, once in March and again in September—splits Earth’s day almost in half, giving us about 12 hours of daylight and 12 of night (their counterparts, solstices, mark winter and summer). Next week’s autumnal equinox is one of the two times per year (the other is the spring or vernal equinox) when travelers can see the sun rise due east and set due west. Which makes it an ideal time for an early morning hike or peaceful evening stroll to greet the day or night in a wild, wonderful realm.
Acadia National Park
Early risers strive to be up in time to catch America’s first sunrise on top of Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park. Between October and March, the sun climbs above the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon, casting streaks of color—oranges, reds, pinks, depending on atmospheric conditions—upon the water. In the foreground, the exposed rock of the mountains glows warmly in the sun’s rays. Gates are open 24 hours at the park, but due to seasonal climate conditions, the road to the top of Cadillac Mountain is closed between December 1 and April 14.
Yosemite National Park
Near the end of each clear day, the harsh sun softens to cast a gentle glow over the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, deep within this California national park. Within minutes, the exposed northwest face of Half Dome—a distinctly shaped, granite rock formation—appears as a monumental sundial, tracking the hours of the day.
Canaveral National Seashore
In the 1950s, the U.S. government determined that scientists, engineers, and astronauts working in the U.S. space program on the southern end of Cape Canaveral needed privacy. As a result, in 1975, Congress preserved 58,000 acres of seashore, land, and lagoons—along with 24 miles of protected coastline—to create the longest undeveloped beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. It’s easy to see how the Sunshine State earned its nickname as you watch sunrise over the rustic barrier island beaches—Apollo, Klondike, and Playalinda—an experience far from the sight of 20-story condos and crowded highways.
With national icons framing each end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., dawn and dusk softly illuminate silent sentinels symbolizing American history. When the blue and orange sky breaks in the east, the gleaming white Capitol dome, topped by the Statue of Freedom, is backlit by cool rays of daybreak. At dusk, try to find a spot near the steps on the western front of the Capitol building to see the sun descend behind the Washington Monument before backlighting the Lincoln Memorial.
Joshua Tree National Park
As afternoon fades into evening, this national park in the desert of southern California, near Palm Springs, becomes an astronomer’s wonderland. Roads and ridges that run north and south draw travelers toward ever-changing vistas. A trek to the less-visited areas in the park provides ample views of fan palm oases, seasonal gardens of cholla and ocotillo, and giant branching yuccas known as Joshua trees. Framed by bands of color, darker above and brighter below, these otherworldly plants appear as inky black splotches against the sky once the sun fades.
Badlands National Park
In the eastern reaches of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, a series of overlooks carved out from colorful buttes offer ideal vantage points to see morning break and nightfall. From atop the north-south ridge are commanding views at dawn and dusk, and after the sun disappears in a swirl of pink and orange clouds the night sky is soon aglow with a shimmering sheath of stars.
Death Valley National Park
Two areas in this western California national park offer near-perfect settings for watching the sun rise or set. Of the 2,600 square miles contained within the park, Zabriskie Point, near Furnace Creek, is considered the ultimate overlook for both sunrise and sunset. Just off California Highway 190, this viewpoint is easily accessible by vehicle; a paved trail leads to a popular observation deck while a small path leads a short distance north to present the landscape from a slightly higher elevation. From here, the soft red-violet glow of sunrise adds shadows and depth to the surreal landscape of the peaks and ridges once hidden by a prehistoric sea.
The Eureka and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes offer spectacular views, as well. At dawn or dusk, the low-angled rays of the sun rake across the dunes, illuminating the sand’s ripples, ridges, and geological features.
Arches National Park
Delicate Arch seems to ignite with the flare and fire of the desert sun at sunset in Utah’s Arches National Park. Delicate Arch Trail—a 1.5-mile hike from Wolfe Ranch to the arch—takes travelers to the center of the “sandstone fin.” This iconic 46-foot arch changes color like a desert chameleon at sunset, filtering light through a color wheel of crimson, auburn, and gold.
Petrified Forest National Park
Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is a must-see at daybreak. The best time of year for this is during the 10 days before and after summer solstice in June. When the Earth’s alignment with the sun impacts the park, more than a dozen “solar calendars” left throughout the area by its prehistoric peoples, light up. Here early risers can marvel at the confluence of ancient understanding and natural phenomena when spiral and circular petroglyphs intersect with the sun’s rays.
Saguaro National Park
Any image of the Old West includes the striking silhouettes of Arizona saguaro cactus, the towering icon recognized by its barrel trunk and upraised arms. These alone are worth the visit to this Southwest national park, north of Tucson. In the eastern Rincon Mountain District, Cactus Forest Drive—a popular loop road across the flatland—provides easy access to saguaro views and epic sunset sights. Seeing this Southwest icon in silhouette is a vision not to be missed, especially as twilight falls and bands of color appear on the horizon beneath a velvety night sky.
This story was originally published in the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks. It has been updated with new information since it first published digitally on Oct. 18, 2018.