Although it happens twice a day, more often than not the natural phenomenon of the rising and setting sun is overlooked. These events command a lot of attention at national parks, where perhaps an extraordinary landscape or a prominent feature accentuates this important and extraordinarily beautiful event. [See "sunset wars" pictures of national parks' amazing skies.]
Acadia National Park
Sunrise from Cadillac Mountain
Early risers are up at Acadia National Park in time to catch America’s first sunrise. Between October and March, the first light of day to fall upon the United States shines upon 1,528-foot Cadillac Mountain in the heart of Acadia, on Maine’s coast. It’s a wonderful sensation to feel the warmth of the sun, and that experience is heightened by spectacular panoramic views from an overlook at the peak. The sun rises above the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon and casts streaks of color—oranges, reds, pinks, depending on atmospheric conditions—upon the water, while in the foreground the exposed rock of the mountains glows warmly in the sun’s glow. From the parking lot walk to the Summit Trail and find a spot (out of the wind) facing east. Plan this ascent. Gates are open 24 hours at the park, but due to weather conditions, the road to the top of Cadillac Mountain is closed between December 1 and April 14. Sunrise occurs around 6:30 a.m. in October, about a half hour later in November. Dress for the weather, bring along a camera, some snacks, and something warm to drink while waiting for the start of the daily show.
Yosemite National Park
Sunset views of Half Dome
Nature photographers will never lack for an amazing image as long as there are sunsets and Half Dome. Near the end of each clear day, the usually harsh sun softens to cast an even and gentle glow throughout the eastern end of Yosemite Valley, deep within this California national park. Within minutes, the exposed northwest face of Half Dome begins to change hues with the setting sun and, depending on the season, the scene may vary between a brilliant reddish orange and a soft wintery gray. Other mountains are being illuminated across America, certainly, but Half Dome’s broad wall of granite seems to scoop up every ray of the setting sun, creating an inspiring glow across what could be the world’s largest sundial. [Find more dazzling places to see sunsets around the world.]
Canaveral National Seashore
Sunrise over Klondike Beach
In the 1950s, the government determined that the scientists, engineers, and astronauts working on America’s space program on the southern end of Cape Canaveral needed some privacy. To protect the cape from further development while ensuring privacy, 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. Arrive here for sunrise and infinity lies to the east. The barrier island beaches—Apollo, Klondike, and Playalinda—are largely absent of people so this will reveal a Florida sunrise in its natural state, an experience that is a pure pleasure and one that can be savored minus the din of highway traffic and far from the sight of 20-story condos. This is especially true of Klondike beach, sandwiched between the two others and accessible only by foot; Klondike has been designated a backcountry beach, and the park restricts the number of visitors to its wave-lapped sands. Bring a beach chair, set up on the sands, and at daybreak the music of nature begins. Here comes the sun.
Sunrise and sunset beyond the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial
With national icons framing each end of the east-west National Mall in Washington, D.C., dawn and dusk softly and gradually illuminate silent sentinels of American history. When the crisp blue and orange sky breaks in the east, the gleaming white Capitol dome topped by the Statue of Freedom is backlit by the refreshing rays of daybreak, and the effect elicits a natural sense of optimism. At dusk, try to find a spot on or near the steps on the west front of the Capitol building. The Mall is adorned in the comforting rays of sunset that first descend behind the Washington Monument before backlighting the Lincoln Memorial. Once again, that sense of hope and optimism returns, knowing that now and for the next several hours it will shine from here to the Pacific as it falls across 3,000 miles of America.
Joshua Tree National Park
Sunset of Joshua trees along park roads
As the afternoon fades into evening over Joshua Tree’s cactus and pinyon, cool clouds fingerpaint the sky above this southern California desert park. Adding an aural layer to the vivid spectacle of sunset is the distinct bay of howling coyotes. Roads and ridges that run north and south persuade travelers to reach peaks that provide an ever-changing vista as the world turns. Should a vehicle be able to negotiate off-road trails, views can improve through access to little-visited areas populated by cacti and junipers and yuccas, and silhouetted against the horizon, the most special part of sunset, the park’s eponymous Joshua trees. Framed by bands of color, darker above and brighter below, these otherworldly plants appear as inky black splotches against the sky.
Badlands National Park
Sunrise and sunset from eastern overlooks and north-south ridges
The cliché image of a cowboy riding into a beautiful sunset magnifies the cowboy’s independence as well as nature’s power. That feeling still exists in South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, where a lack of development leads to a refreshing sense of solitude. In the eastern reaches of the park, a series of overlooks are carved out from the colorful buttes for a perfect vantage point and sanctuary, where the lonely wide-open prairie, protected in the adjoining Buffalo Gap National Grassland, leads to a feeling of oneness with nature. From atop a 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
Sunrise and sunset at Zabriskie Point and the Sand Dunes
Two areas in this western California national park offer near-ideal settings for watching the sun rise or set. Zabriskie Point is encircled by a colorful montage of mountains and valleys, and here the line of sight will sweep up to the summit of Telescope Peak and, in the distance, down again into the depths of a smidgen of 156-mile-long Death Valley. Of the 2,600 square miles contained within the park, this vantage point near Furnace Creek is considered the premium 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 little-noticed path leads a short distance north to present the landscape from a slightly higher elevation. With this advantage, 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 a no less spectacular sunrise or sunset, just a different one. Here at dawn or dusk the low-angled rays of the sun rake across the dunes, burnishing the sand to a high glow and highlighting ripples and ridges and animal tracks.
Arches National Park
Dusk at Delicate Arch
At sunset in Utah’s Arches National Park, Delicate Arch seems to ignite with the flare and fire of the desert sun, its iconic image symbolizing the American Southwest. It’s roughly 1.5 miles from Wolfe Ranch to the arch via the Delicate Arch Trail, so time your hike to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset and simply follow the cairns that mark the route. The trail pitches up and around the final corner where, pierced by wind and sand, the center of the “sandstone fin” has created a 46-foot arch that, at sunset, changes like a desert chameleon, filtering sunset through a color wheel of red and orange and crimson and gold.
Petrified Forest National Park
Summer solstice sunrise
With Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park an already magical setting for a great American sunrise, one day in particular may influence anyone’s travel schedule. With the sun’s rays tracking a slightly different path throughout the year, for ten days before and after June 21 (with the highlight being on the summer solstice), the Earth’s alignment with the sun impacts more than a dozen “solar calendars” left throughout the park by prehistoric peoples, with the spiral and circular petroglyphs being intersected by or interacting with the sun’s rising rays. Ancient tribes took time to place them here. Take time to marvel at their confluence of ancient science and nature.
Saguaro National Park
Sunset silhouettes of saguaro along Cactus Forest Drive
Any diorama 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 the two areas of this national park that bookend the city of Tucson. The eastern Rincon Mountain District is the larger of the two, with ancient saguaros sharing the land with other varieties of cactus including prickly pear and ocotillo. There’s a greater density of saguaro in the western region, but the eastern side features Cactus Forest Drive, a popular loop road across the flatland that provides easy access to saguaro views. These sunsets may not be the most spectacular in America, but seeing a Southwest icon framed in silhouette is a vision not to be missed, especially as twilight falls and bands of color are squeezed on the horizon beneath a velvety dark blue night sky.
This story was originally published in the National Geographic book The 10 Best of Everything: National Parks.