10 Best National Parks for Sunrises and Sunsets

The view is the thing

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Have you ever spent several pre-dawn hours climbing to the summit of a mountain so that you can get the best angle to see the sunrise? Some people will go to great lengths to witness the daily dramas of sunrise and sunset. It's not just about watching the big yellow ball appear or disappear over the horizon, but about the surrounding landscapes and clouds at the same time.

A handful of the most dramatic dawn and dusk destinations are inside U.S. national parks. Some sun-viewing spots are well known and filled with photographers each morning and evening. Others are remote and difficult to access, so you'll have to share the panoramas with only a few intrepid hikers.

Here are some great places to watch the sunrise or sunset in U.S. national parks:

Lake Kabetogama, Voyageurs National Park

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In 2016, USA Today celebrated 100 years of the National Park Service by conducting a readers’ choice poll. The winner for the “best sunrise/sunset” category was somewhat obscure: Lake Kabetogama, which is one of more than two dozen lakes in Voyageurs National Park in northernmost Minnesota. This park, popular with paddlers, has a number of vantage point from which to watch the sun set or rise over the water.

Kabetogama was voted the best, not only in Voyageurs, but in the entire National Park system. This buzz alone makes this rather remote spot worth checking out. The skygazing does not have to stop after dark at Voyageurs. Because of its latitude, this is a great place to catch a glimpse of the northern lights (aurora borealis), and summer campers may also see the August Perseids, a well-known meteor shower.

Various locations, Badlands National Park

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The craggy rock formations, otherworldly landscapes and a strong network of roads and trails make Badlands National Park one of the best places for sun seekers. The South Dakota destination has a number of popular viewing spots, and instead of just standing there and waiting for the “main event,” photographers can take advantage of the magic blue hour that occurs around sunrise and sunset to capture the unique landscapes in soft, even light.

Those who like an elevated vantage point can head to the Pinnacles Overlook, ideal for sunsets. The easy Door and Window Trails lead to popular sunrise viewing locations, as does the more-challenging, longer Castle Trail. All of these places put the trademark Badlands landscapes in the foreground. The Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway is another sunrise or sunset option. The road passes through the park and has numerous stopping points where you can get out and take pictures. The loop is 39 miles, so you could potentially drive it both at dawn and dusk.

Haleakala Summit, Haleakala National Park

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Haleakala is a 9,700-foot mountain on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Its summit is a popular sunrise viewing location. You can reach the top by road. Though the drive can take up to two hours, it's easier than many of the world’s other summit sunrise spots, which require an all-night climb. The Haleakala viewpoint is popular enough that you should arrive ahead of time (sunrise is between 5:38 and 6:55 a.m. depending on the time of year) in order to get a good spot.

Haleakala is much colder than you might expect. The temperature drops about 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation. This means that the summit of the mountain is 30 degrees cooler than the seashore. Once you have seen the sun, you can remain on the upper slopes of Haleakala and explore the unique volcanic landscapes, which are quite different from the tropical ecosystems that dominate Hawaii’s lower elevations.

Yaki Point, Grand Canyon National Park

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The Grand Canyon has some of America’s most iconic panoramas. It’s no surprise that most scenic overlooks along the canyon rim get overcrowded in the predawn hours and again at sundown. One of the most popular sunrise viewing areas is easily accessible Mather Point. Yaki Point offers similar panoramas and, though it is not quite as accessible as Mather, it is usually much less crowded.

Yaki Point is served by a shuttle bus that starts running at 4 a.m., so sunrise chasers will have time to get there and set up their cameras for the perfect shot. (The buses also run until one hour after sunset). Yaki and Mather are two of more than a dozen Grand Canyon overlooks that are often recommended for sunrise and sunset viewing.

Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park

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Cadillac Mountain is in Acadia National Park, Maine. It's one of 20 mountains on Mount Desert Island. Not only is the 1,500-foot summit a great place to see the sunrise, it's the first place to see it in the United States between October and March. During the summertime, viewers on nearby Mars Hill see the sun a few moments earlier. Some visitors arrive on the Cadillac summit early to see the whole event, from first change in light to full sunrise.

The scenery (the Atlantic in the background and the islands of Frenchman Bay in the foreground) draws photographers, but the predawn crowd swells with "first sunrise" viewers. Luckily, there are a huge number of hiking trails on the island, so the attraction of Acadia National Park does not diminish after sunrise.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

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Mesa Arch draws photography enthusiasts each morning because the sunrise can be seen through the half-circle of sandstone. The dawn is undeniably impressive here with the underside of the arch turning a glowing red color as the first rays hit it. Similarly dramatic colors are cast on the unusual rock formations of the Canyonlands and the mountains in the background.

Because it requires only a short hike, the arch can get quite crowded, especially during “peak season” in the spring and summer. Fall and winter are reportedly less crowded, but the sun’s appearance is no less stunning. Canyonlands has a number of trails of all difficulty levels that lead to points and overlooks or that wind down among the rock formations.

Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park

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Glacier National Park is the destination of choice for people who like stunning lake sunsets. This Montana park has more than 700 glacial lakes, 131 of which are named. Which lakeshore has the best sunrises and sunsets? It comes down to a matter of personal preference, but Saint Mary Lake has an ideal setting with pines, peaks and clear water that reflects the dawn and dusk colors perfectly.

Perusing Glacier’s impressive collection of sunrise and sunset photos, it might seem like any lake is acceptable for both morning and evening sky viewing. This might be the case, but the National Park Service says that ideally, visitors will enjoy the sunrise in the eastern portion of the park, where Saint Mary Lake is located, and head to the western section of Glacier, where the largest lake, Lake McDonald, provides good sunset views. The night sky, including the northern lights and the Milky Way, are often visible from the lakeshores as well.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park

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If you value options, then Shenandoah National Park is arguably the best sunrise and sunset destination in the country. That is because the Skyline Drive runs along the Blue Ridge Mountains through the length of the park. The road has no fewer than 75 scenic overlooks. Some look eastward over the hilly landscape known as the Piedmont region, while the west-facing sunset lookouts offer panoramas of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It takes about three hours to drive the length of the 105-mile road because the speed limit is only 35 miles per hour. The drive is pleasant at any time of year, but people often go in spring and summer for the wildflowers and autumn for the fall foliage. Unfortunately, the road can sometimes close due to inclement weather. The NPS announces current conditions on a dedicated phone line and social media.

Pa Hay Okee overlook, Everglades National Park

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The Everglades is known for its wild watery landscapes. The short, quarter-mile loop known as the Pa Hay Okee Trail offers a different kind of setting. Like many other “trails” in the ‘glades, this one consists of a boardwalk that protects hikers from the sometimes soggy ground. Unlike the stereotypical scenery in the park, the Pa Hay Okee passes cypress trees and a sawgrass prairie.

The flat ground and lack of tall plants makes this an ideal place to see the South Florida sunrise. The short trail length (the lookout is halfway along the loop) also helps with accessibility, and the elevated “overlook area” provides a good angle for sunrise pictures.

Moro Rock, Sequoia National Park

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Moro Rock is a granite formation in Sequoia National Park. Because of its prominence, it's a great place to see the sun rise and set over the surrounding forests, the San Joaquin Valley and the peaks of the Great Western Divide. The trail to reach the lookout point is somewhat challenging for people who fear heights. It includes a steep staircase carved into the side of the rock.

Shuttle service makes it relatively easy to reach Moro Rock, and Sequoia has plenty of other overlooks. Many are granite dome formations like Moro, including a pair of granite domes called Beetle Rock and Sunset Rock. As the latter’s name suggests, these easier-to-reach spots are good places to end the day.