What road trip would be complete without a classic sunrise or sunset shot? Here are seven places to capture the moment against some of this country’s most extraordinary and colorful backdrops—from sea to shining sea and from the first sunrise to the last sunset.
#1: The First Sunrise, Down East, ME
To catch the first sunrise in the continental United States, it is, quite literally, about “location, location, location.” If you’re dead set on a dawn replete with rocky bluffs and bold Atlantic surf, then, between early October and early March, make the 3.5-mile drive (or challenging 7.5-mile hike) up 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain near Bar Harbor in Acadia National Park. Just before the equinoxes, head 100 miles northeast to West Quoddy Head State Park near Lubec. To catch the sun’s first rays from late March to mid September, however, you’ll have to travel well inland and north to 1,748-foot Mars Hill.
#2: Perdido Key, off Pensacola, FL
The fine-grained quartz sand along the shores of this Gulf Coast barrier island is powdery and oh-so white. The water is a true blue, generally complemented by an equally blue sky thanks to an average of 340 sunny days a year. What’s more, 60 percent of the key is state or federal park land, so all this beach, sea, and sky are virtually uninterrupted. Imagine waves lapping gently, light breezes rustling sea oats in the dunes behind you. Breathe in the warm and briny air. Picture the light and sky changing hues as the sun sets. Perfection.
#3: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS
“We were soon free of the woods and bushes and fairly upon the prairie.” You, like 19th-century documentarian Francis Parkman in his book, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky Mountain Life, can also be upon the prairie. And you can do it in time for a uniquely American sunrise or sunset at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The gently rolling, 1.75-mile Southwind Nature Trail runs through cottonwood stands and tall grasses to Prairie Overlook, where, at twilight, the sun blazes orange, red, and pink across the expansive horizon.
#4: Petrified Forest National Park, Chambers, AZ
The ancient petrified-wood and mineral formations along the 28-mile drive through this national park range in color from reds, oranges, yellows, and greens to purples, blues, grays, and whites. Twilight only sharpens this heady palette. Set out from the Painted Desert Visitors Center in time for sunrise, if possible, at one of the eight viewpoints overlooking the multihued strata of the buttes and mesas. Pace yourself right—factoring in stops at museums, archaeological sites, and still more overlooks—and you’ll reach the park’s southwest corner by sunset.
#5: Haleakala National Park, HI
Haleakala, the name of Maui’s active 10,023-foot volcano, translates to House of the Sun. Although many people travel up to the crater, considered sacred by locals, for sunrise and a return trip by bike, timing your visit for sunset has its advantages: thinner crowds and better views among them. At first light, the crater is basically in shadow, and, later in the morning, clouds tend to roll in. Afternoons can be clearer, plus the sun’s rays illuminate the dark volcanic landscape, making it downright stunning, particularly at sunset. Stay to watch the moon rise, followed by some spectacular stargazing.
#6: Carmel, CA
Its full name is Carmel-by-the-Sea, and its main performing-arts venue is the Sunset Center. So it’s no surprise that sunset on its sugary-sand Carmel River State Beach—or the 2-mile round-trip trail between it and Monastery Beach—is spectacular. It’s also the perfect ending to a day of shopping, gallery hopping, indulging in a spa treatment or a wine-tasting tour, and sampling California’s farm-fresh contemporary cuisine. You might even spot a celebrity or two. Don’t worry if you get caught up and miss twilight on the beach. The 90-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur country runs south from here to San Simeon. Along it are many other amazing beaches, coves, and bluffs from which to snap the sun rising or setting over the Pacific.
#7: The Last Sunset, Cape Alava, WA
To see the nation’s last sunset, you have to be a bit intrepid. It requires a 3-plus-mile one-way hike through misty Pacific maritime forest to the beach at Cape Alava in Olympic National Park. But no worries: the trail is mostly covered by cedar-planked boardwalks, which means an easy walk—important on the flashlight-illuminated return trip. Or you can get a permit to pitch a tent at one of the nearby sites and stay for the sunrise, perhaps followed by a 3-mile beach hike to the 3-mile Sand Point Trail, completing the 9-plus-mile Ozette Triangle Loop.