Written by Josh McCabe
The show that you get during a sunrise or sunset in the Canadian Rockies is something that you will never forget — warm alpenglow lighting the mountain peaks on fire, paired with perfect reflections in the still alpine lakes. There is no better spot to view the sunrise or sunset than from the summit of a mountain. This blog will help prepare you to hike in the dark safely.
Planning the hike
I mainly only do a sunrise or sunset hikes on mountains I have already summited. Doing the same will give you more confidence in navigating your way to the top and give you an idea on timing for making it in time for the sunrise or sunset. It is best to arrive 45-minutes before the sun rises as the sky starts lighting up well before the sun crests the horizon or 30-minutes before sunset.
Gear to pack
The gear you pack (or don’t pack) can make or break this beautiful experience. You won’t be enjoying the sunrise too much if you’re busy fighting off hypothermia while you’re sitting there, shivering, waiting for the sun to rise.
Below is a list of gear that I always make sure to bring on all my sunrise and sunset hikes for safety and comfort.
A quality headlamp with backup batteries is a must. This lighting system will make your hikes through the pitch-dark forests a lot safer, and a whole lot less scary. Having a backup headlamp or flashlight would also be a great item to pack in case you run into any issues with your main light. For a fun use of these light sources, try arranging them to add a cool beam of light to some nighttime pictures while you’re waiting for the sun to rise. If you’re looking for one that you can rely on to not leave you in the dark, check out the Trail Speed 3XT headlamp.
If you’re planning one for the wintertime, where navigating in the daytime can even be difficult in itself due to snow-covered trails, I highly recommend bringing a GPS unit along with you to aid you in case of a loss of directions (which happens to me more than I would like to admit). Whenever we are venturing into the wild, we pack our Spot X. It can give you great peace of mind knowing that even when you’re out of cell coverage, you still can reach emergency services via satellite if needed.
Even if you are doing a summer sunrise hike, it still can get quite cold while you’re sitting at the top of the mountain in the cold, waiting for the sun to come up. Packing yourself a warm baselayer, gloves, toque, and something to make a pot of coffee or tea at the top can make this experience much more enjoyable. My Patagonia Retro Pile pullover has kept me nice and cozy while waiting for the sun to make an appearance.
During the summer months, bears can be even more active at night (shortly before sunrise and shortly after sunset) as it helps them to avoid the heat during the warm summer months. Carrying bear spray, and making some noise letting them know you’re in their area are some great bear safe practices during your hikes through their territory.
When it’s dark, you don’t see all the tripping hazards hiding on the trail. I always have my Black Diamond hiking poles out, which has saved me from a fall or two.
Bring a friend
Along with having someone to share this amazing experience with, bringing a friend along for the adventure will make it a safer and more enjoyable experience.
My first sunrise from the top of a mountain
It was 2:00 am when the alarm clock went off from our cozy tent. We were camped out at a site in Yoho National Park, not too far from our trailhead. Climbing out of our toasty warm sleeping bags and entering the cold dark of the night was not an easy thing to do. But, the scene we had pictured in our heads helped push us through. Our goal of this morning was to reach the summit of Devils Thumb in time to watch the sunrise over the famous Lake Louise.
It was a short drive to the Lake Louise parking lot to begin our hike. When we arrived at the parking lot, it was a more peaceful scene than you may have pictured in your head right now. That morning, we had the entire parking lot to ourselves.
With one last final check over of our gear, we clicked our headlamps on and began the hike.
Walking through the dark forest at first was not a pleasant experience at first. But, as the hike went on, we both truly started to appreciate the complete calm of our surroundings — the only sound coming from our footsteps winding up the mountain trail.
We gave ourselves more than enough time to reach the summit; this was a hike that we have both done a couple of times during daylight hours, so we were very familiar with the timing and route finding on the way up.
We made it to the summit with just enough time to get out our Jetboil cooking system and brew up a pot of coffee and set up the camera.
When the sun neared the horizon, it began to light up the surrounding mountains, turning them to a warm fiery orange, the sky a perfect mix of purple and blue tones, and Lake Louise was as calm as glass with perfect reflections of the surrounding landscape.
This was our view from the summit of Devil’s Thumb shortly after the sun peaked over the horizon and started to shoot its light rays across the sky.
After the light show finished, we cooked up some oatmeal and fully let our surroundings soak in.
Conquering your first sunrise, or sunset hike
A hike that I always recommend to people is Big Bee Hive. This trail is 10.3 km out and back with 647m of elevation gain. With a solid pace, you can reach the finish in 1.5–2 hours, which means not a lot of time spent in the dark! The path is also straightforward to follow with signage the entire way up.
Below is a shot of sunrise from Big Bee Hive, Lake Louise, Alberta.
I hope this blog has given you some more confidence and inspiration to get out there and enjoy the spectacular experience that a sunrise or sunset hike can give you.