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Watching the sun rise from a mountaintop is one of the most profound hiking experiences you can have
Sure, it takes a little extra planning and some extra layers. And, ugh, you do have to wake up at a crazy hour. But, honestly, a sunrise hike is a must-do for every mountain hiker who wants to grow their experience. Beyond that, it’s a true bucket-list life event.
Here’s how to plan your first sunrise hike — what to bring, when to go, what to expect.
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Thirteen Benefits of Sunrise Hiking
The many benefits of going on a sunrise hike are very easy to list. Here’s a baker’s dozen of reasons you might love your first sunrise hike:
- You’ll see far fewer people on the trail
- You’ll always be able to get a parking spot
- You’ll see stars and constellations on a hike
- In summer, you’ll beat the worst of the day’s heat
- The air is the clearest and cleanest it’ll be all day
- Pre-dawn light is spectacular, a real show before the main event
- You’ll see early-morning valley mist before the sun burns it away in the minutes after sunrise
- You will hear aggressively chirpy birdsong
- You will know a morning’s stillness
- Witnessing sunrise from a mountaintop is a primal and awe-filled experience
- A sunrise hike is a fresh challenge
- Completing a sunrise hike is an achievement
- Look at you! It’s 10am and you already finished a hike!
Planning Your First Sunrise Hike
It might seem obvious but it should be said: for sunrises, you’ll want to research locations with views facing east.
Some people like apps like PhotoPills to help them plan locations and views. I prefer pouring over NYNJTC maps of the Catskills to figure out my lines of sight. Even the Google Maps website is a help (with the terrain layer turned on).
And keep in mind that fire towers offer amazing 360° views. They’re great for both sunrise hikes and sunset hikes.
You can also simply let experience be your guide. Make a note of any east-facing vistas on your hikes and build a simple list on your phone’s notes app.
- Confirm the timing: check your phone’s weather app for sunrise times
- Check the weather: clear sky is fine, overcast skies suck, some clouds is best!
- Get permission: make sure the location is open and public, or that you have explicit permission to access, cross, or use any private locations
- Get 40+ tips on the Best Camera Settings for Photographing Sunsets & Sunrises
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What to Pack for a Sunrise Hike
You’ll definitely need a hiking headlamp. (As the saying goes: “two is one / one is none“) And if it’s even a little icy, make sure to bring your microspikes.
- Plan for the chill: throw a few extra layers in your pack — you’ll likely be standing still for an hour, sweaty from your hike, and there’s often a strong breeze as the terminator passes overhead
- Bring a hot drink in a thermos, or some soup, or some hot oatmeal — hot food is always twice as delicious on a cold mountain
- Pack the 10 Essentials and always tell someone your hike itinerary and planned return time
Finally, get everything ready the night before so you can roll out of bed, chug some caffeine, and just go.
Timing Your Sunrise Hike
Are you ready to deal with an Alpine Start? An Alpine Start is when you begin any hike in the dark to get a head start on the day.
On a mountain hike, your chosen location may be anything from an hour to several hours from a trailhead. Many hikes in the Adirondacks require an Alpine Start simply to secure a parking spot.
Keep in mind that some of the very best sunrise light happens before sunrise. And it can be truly spectacular. Take a look at this sun pillar I saw from the summit of Windham High Peak in The Catskills.
Plan to arrive at your chosen viewpoint at least 30 minutes before sunrise. Your phone’s weather app will tell you what time sunrise is at currently.
- In New York, after the clocks spring forward, dawn is around 7:00
- By June 20/21 (shortest nights of the year), dawn breaks as early as 5:20am
- By Mid-July, dawn breaks at 5:45am
- By September 1, dawn breaks at 6:25am
- By October 1, dawn breaks at 6:55am
You can figure out how long the hike in to your viewpoint will take with this standard hike-timing formula.
Wildlife Activity at Dawn
Many animals are most active around dawn and dusk. This includes deer and bear.
In New York, we have black bears only and they’re usually very timid. Black bears tend to behave like deer and routinely run away from people. You can almost always scare them away with noise. Mass.gov has a great PDF you can read on Recommendations for Human/Black Bear Encounters.
I don’t live or hike in grizzly country, so I have no knowledge or recommendations on that score. But bear spray seems like it would be an absolute minimum requirement.
Snakes tend to be most active during the day in the warmer months. However, they do also move around on hot nights. Read a little more here about rattlesnakes.
Sunrise Hikes: Safety Issues
One benefit that sunrise hikes have over sunset hikes is that sunrise hikes provide a small margin of safety. Accidents are a risk on any mountain, any time, but the stakes go up in the dark.
If you get into trouble, an evening hike means a long, cold wait for help. On the other hand, hiking into sunrise at least gives everyone a full day of sunshine ahead. This stacks the odds a little more in your favor.
Except for very popular locations, you are extremely unlikely to ever bump into anyone in the forest at night. This is a double-edged sword. You may love that part of it, or it might be of concern to know that even on a popular route, should something happen, no other hiker will pass by for hours.
No matter what you do, make sure you leave your hike plan and return time with someone you trust. Read 3 Best Ways to Not Die on a Hike.
Sunrise Hikes: Conquering Your Fear
Before I did my first sunrise hike, I’d already done several headlamp hikes after sunset in the mountains. So I was used to at least finishing hikes in the dark.
Even so, heading into the woods in the dead of night, alone, definietly required a certain level of commitment. It took a few repetitions to relax about it all.
These days, however, being in the woods alone at night doesn’t bother me even a little. I feel totally confident heading into a dark forest at 3:00 am; it might as well be noon.
That said, what’s more fun than doing a scary new thing with friends? If you feel like that’s the way to go for you, you should absolutely go ahead and hook up with a hike buddy, or a group, and go have a blast.
It won’t be long before you’re completely addicted to sunrise hikes.
Sunrise Hikes in the Catskills
Here are some amazing sunrise hikes you can do in The Catskills…
- Huckleberry Point — fantastic spot to watch the morning’s first rays flood the clove
- Silver Hollow Mountain — this one is off the beaten path but there’s a lookout on Silver Hollow Mountain where you can watch the sun rise over Plateau
- Red Hill Fire Tower — short and sweet, a little steep in spots, but this is such a fun trail with an epic sunrise payoff (new route and classic route)
- Windham High Peak — one of the easiest Catskills High Peaks to hike and the summit has three fantastic lookouts (several routes)
- Tremper Mountain Fire Tower — this one’s a huffer (it’s steep) but there are no rock scrambles and the view from the fire tower is incredible (two routes)
- Overlook Mountain Fire Tower — this is a straightforward hike to what might be the best view in The Catskills
Get 40+ tips on the Best Camera Settings for Photographing Sunsets & Sunrises .
Here are some of the amazing sunrise hikes I’ve done.
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