By Michael Lanza
The June evening was more than a few hours old when, without warning, the sky suddenly caught fire. The kids, teenagers and ’tweeners, and some of the adults in our group scrambled up onto a nearby rock formation at least 50 feet tall to observe the sunset from high off the ground. Like a wildfire swept forward by wind, hues of yellow, orange, and red leapt across bands of clouds suspended above the western horizon, their ragged bottoms edges, appropriately, resembling dancing flames.
For a span of just minutes that felt timeless, the light painted and repainted the clouds in ever-shifting, warm colors starkly contrasted against the cool, deepening blue of the sky—as if a vast lake had ignited. We stood hypnotized and enchanted on that evening during a long weekend of camping at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve, until the last, dying flames of the celestial conflagration faded and were extinguished. For that brief time, the sunset had us all, adults and kids, completely in its thrall.
I follow a simple rule whenever I’m in the wilderness or any natural setting like the surroundings in the primitive campground at the City of Rocks (the sunset described above is shown in the lead photo at the top of this story): I never miss any dramatic sunset. And I almost never miss a similar sunrise. The reason is simple: These are often the most sublime and inspiring times of the day. Passing on them is essentially depriving yourself of one of the best reasons to be out there.
Catching a great sunset occurs with the serendipity of meeting the person who becomes your spouse (although, thankfully, far more frequently)—it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and not blowing the opportunity. The sky conjures a universe of color and emotion in fleeting moments, rushing headlong to a grand finale, after which many observers stop paying attention. But I’ve always enjoyed taking in the slow, quiet onset of dusk, spreading out like a ground fog before rising to overtake the sky. Night then settles in for its long watch, the stars emerging in a flutter of eyes popping open—a few tentatively at first, building to a visual crescendo of hundreds of thousands of specks of light.
From the buildup to sunset through nightfall, it’s the best silent film ever made. I could watch it over and over for a lifetime without ever feeling like its magical spell has diminished in power. The sky’s myriad personality changes across the span of hours from sunset through sunrise make me think that nocturnal animals have it right, and we humans sleep away the sky’s most fascinating hours.
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Sunset in the Everglades
At our campsite on a wilderness beach at Tiger Key in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park, which we had to ourselves for two nights on a canoeing trip, our kids, then age 10 and almost eight, abruptly forgot about their sand castles as the enormous, blood-red ball of fire that is the sub-tropical sun appeared to swell and burn with greater intensity and slipped toward the horizon. My entire family stood spellbound as that flaming orb slowly lowered itself into the vast bathtub of the Gulf of Mexico.
Witnessing the dawn comes with the challenge of rising earlier than many people prefer. But after you’ve made the effort to reach a uniquely beautiful and remote corner of the backcountry, trading a dawn that may hold the most precious moments of an entire trip for another hour or two of slumber strikes me as a lost opportunity.
When I’m sleeping outside, the first light of predawn usually awakens me, and I’m glad for that: I want to be awake. I invariably look up to see what the sky has in store. Any signal of an imminent dawn worth observing—like wispy clouds hovering above the eastern horizon, or puffy cotton balls dabbed across the blue dome—will prod me to dress and step outside the tent. If I had slept out under the stars—my default choice if the night promises to stay dry and not buggy, because why sleep inside nylon walls when I can sleep beneath a starry sky?—then all the better: I can watch it from my warm bag.
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Dawn on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit
I have many times begun hiking before or at first light, often because I had many miles to cover, but also partly because it grants me the great privilege of watching the birth of another day. I’ve watched a carpet of crimson light unroll across mountains and canyons deep in the backcountry of places like Yosemite, the Wind River Range, below the magnificent east face of Mount Whitney, on the crest of the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, from the canyon rim high above the Green River in Canyonlands National Park, in Evolution Basin on the John Muir Trail, and countless other places.
On a fiercely chilly November morning, our last on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, my wife, our new Slovenian friend Gorazd, and I joined a procession of hikers and headlamp beams on a 45-minute walk up Poon Hill—a ritual for Annapurna trekkers. On its open summit, at over 9,000 feet, we gazed at a Himalayan night sky riddled with stars twinkling above the milky silhouettes of five snowy giants glowing faintly in the moonless hour before dawn—including one of the planet’s highest peaks, Dhaulagiri.
The mountains appeared to float above valleys still black with night. Slowly, rich bands of red, orange, and yellow ignited on the eastern horizon. As dawn bled across the sky, flashes of golden light struck the white crown of the first peak, and then hopped across the tops of the others. Within a few minutes, the rising sun turned the world’s greatest mountains blindingly white.
Hitting the trail early usually rewards me with solitude unknown in many places during the daytime hours, and wildlife encounters that are far rarer between mid-morning and early evening. I’ve strolled past bighorn sheep lounging casually beside the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park; heard elk bugling in the Tetons, Yellowstone, Olympic Mountains, and elsewhere; and watched a big bull moose emerge from the pond where it had been feeding on plants in Maine’s Baxter State Park.
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Sunset at Delicate Arch
Science provides a simple explanation for the beautiful light that captivates us at sunset and dawn. When the sun hovers near the horizon, its light passes through more atmosphere before reaching our eyes than it does when it’s directly overhead. That much atmosphere effectively erases the shorter, blue and purple rays of the visible light spectrum from our vision, while the longer red, orange, and yellow light rays remain visible but get more widely scattered across the sky.
But that explanation comes nowhere near sparking the depth of feeling of the actual event—which makes witnessing each possible wild sunrise and sunset a difficult pleasure for me to give up, no matter what obstacle stands in the way.
On the last afternoon of a three-family, spring-break trip to southeastern Utah, where we’d backpacked and dayhiked in Canyonlands and Arches national parks, I could barely muster the energy to lift myself out of the bed where I’d slept most of the day, sicker than I’d felt in recent memory. I willed myself to stand up—it felt like a mountain climb—and to go through with our plans to hike to Delicate Arch in Arches to watch the sunset that evening.
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Just four of us went: my friend, Vince, his 13-year-old daughter, Sofi, my 11-year-old daughter, Alex, and me. It’s possible I’ve never hiked a trail more slowly than that evening. Shuffling along, I watched one person after another pass me, even the slowest, oldest, littlest, and least-fit hikers; watching sunset at Delicate Arch is a popular ritual, so there may have been more than a hundred people out there that evening. We gave ourselves more than an hour to hike the mile-and-a-half-long trail, and thanks to my torpid pace, we arrived only minutes before sunset.
We watched that striking natural sculpture of red and orange rock appear, for several minutes, to glow against the backdrop of deepening blue sky and the gleaming, snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the distance. And even though the return walk took even longer because I was so sick—our car was one of the last to leave the parking lot that night—not one step along the way made me regret the effort to watch that sunset.
We don’t get enough of them in a lifetime as it is; I can’t afford to miss any good ones.