Where to Watch the Sunrise in Shenandoah National Park

sunrise shenandoah national park

Sunrise, Shenandoah National Park is a highlight of any trip to the Appalachians. It’s also a fantastic way to start off the day’s adventures while you visit the park. 

There are a few different ways you can enjoy what might be the most spectacular sunrise you’ll experience: you can drive to one of the park’s many overlooks or get ambitious and head out for an early hike. Below are the best spots to watch the sun rise from a parking area or a mountain summit.

Watch the Sunrise from a Road Lookout

This, obviously, is the sensible option. You can sleep in later, drink your coffee and in some cases, sit on the hood of your car looking out over some of the most majestic scenery Virginia has to offer.

Many travellers feel like roadside lookouts are overdone, and that you can only get a really spectacular view if you scale a cliff or go off-roading somewhere, but that’s absolutely not true in Shenandoah.

Skyline Drive, the main road through the park, is your best bet for a sunrise-watching spot. It runs the length of the park from north to south along the ridge, and many of its beautiful roadside turnouts face east over the mountains. There are 75 overlooks to choose from and they all take in magnificent views, so you’re really spoiled for choice.

The central and northern parts of Skyline Drive are the best vantage points for mountain scenery. Farther south, the views become less showstopping, although it’s also less crowded, which might be a draw for you depending on how much of a morning person you are. 

The spots we highlight below are all in the Central District, between the Thornton Gap Entrance, east of Luray, and the Swift Run Gap Entrance, east of Elkton. 

Note that the mileposts start at zero at the Front Royal Entrance Station at the north end of the park and go up to 105 at the southern end. 

These, for our money, are the best scenic lookouts for a sunrise:

Buck Hollow Overlook

Buck Hollow is a smaller overlook with world-class views of forested mountain ranges stretching into the distance. It only has room for half a dozen vehicles, go early to get a spot. It faces east-northeast at an elevation of 2,710 feet.

Find it at Mile 32.8 

Hazel Mountain Overlook

A few minutes’ drive further on is Hazel Mountain Overlook. It’s blessed with a large outcropping of rock that gives the views of Hazel Mountain an especially rugged feel. This turnout looks southeast and sits at an elevation of 2,770 feet.

Find it at Mile 33 

Hemlock Springs Overlook

An east-facing turnout at an elevation of 3,380 feet, Hemlock Springs Overlook encompasses Nicholson Hollow and Pinnacle Ridge, with Hazel Mountain in the background. The overlook gets its name from the Eastern hemlock trees that were once abundant in the park, and you can still spot a few on the ridge.

Find it at Mile 39.7 

Spitler Knoll Overlook

This is a sweeping overlook that faces west-northwest at a 3,285-foot elevation. While you won’t see the sun rise over the Blue Ridge, you will see a wide swath of sunrise in the mountains, thanks to the bend in the road at this location. You’ll also see fewer crowds at this spot.

Find it at Mile 48

Thorofare Mountain Overlook

Thorofare Mountain Overlook is the highest in the park, at 3,595 feet. Located close to Skyland Resort, this east-facing turnout is a convenient sunrise-watching spot for guests. Its convenience makes it popular, so if you want a little solitude with your sunrise, skip this lookout and head to one of the quieter options.

Find it at Mile 40.5

Tunnel Parking Overlook

This overlook takes in incredible views of Oventop Mountain, as well as Skinner Ridge. It faces east and sits at 2,510 feet. Tunnel Parking is a large turnout. There’s plenty of parking, which makes it a great option if you’re off to a late start.

Find it at Mile 32.5

Watch the Sunrise from a Mountain Trail

shenandoah national park sunrise

If you want to get up even earlier, there are many hikes in the park that will take you to phenomenal viewpoints where you can watch the sun crest the ridges. Not all summits are great candidates for a pre-dawn hike, but there are two in particular that are bucket-list level experiences.

Bearfence Mountain 

This is a short hike, which is nice first thing in the morning, but it’s a tough uphill climb, which is less than ideal in the dark. The panoramic, 360-degree vista is its own reward, however, and since it’s less well-known than hikes like Old Rag and Hawksbill, you might even have the summit to yourself. 

The trail is a mile total, out and back, with a 350-foot elevation gain. Although it’s short, there’s quite a precarious scramble, so it’s not considered suitable for children.

Start at the Bearfence Mountain Trailhead at Mile 56.4, north of Lewis Cabins.

Hawksbill Mountain

The highest peak in the park, Hawksbill is the best place to take in the wide, sweeping views that have made Shenandoah so beloved. There are a few ways to ascend the mountain. There’s a moderately challenging 2.1-mile (total) trek, a longer 2.8-mile loop trail or a more intense 1.7-mile out-and-back trip, with an elevation gain of 690 feet.

From the top, you can enjoy a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Virginia Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. It’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Start from the parking area at Hawksbill Gap at Mile 45.5 for the challenging hike and the loop or from the Upper Hawksbill lot at Mile 46.7 for the easier, 2.1-mile route.

Top Tips for Seeing the Sunrise in Shenandoah National Park

You probably don’t need to be told this but be sure you know what time sunrise is. In the summer, it might be earlier than you think. Check a reliable weather service beforehand. 

Give yourself plenty of time to get to your chosen spot. Keep in mind that the most dramatic moments often come right before the sun breaks over the horizon. And after all, you’ve made the effort to get there—you don’t want to miss a second of it.

If you’re driving, bring a blanket. The mornings are cold in the mountains, even in the summer, and it can detract from the magic if you’re shivering while you wait for it.

If you’re hiking, carry your bear spray—Shenandoah has a thriving population of black bears. Also bring a flashlight or headlamp; water; a compass, in case you stray from the trail in the dark; a physical trail map, in case your phone doesn’t work; sensible hiking boots; a phone or watch so you can keep an eye on the time; trekking poles; a phone or camera, obviously, and a delicious beverage to enjoy at the top. You will have earned it.

Keep an eye out for wildlife. Deer, wild turkey and black bear are the most spotted animals in the park, and dawn is one of the best times to spot them. Keep your distance from all wildlife, but especially bears.

For hikers, check up-to-the-minute weather forecasts, regardless of the season—weather can play havoc with trail conditions.

Be kind and courteous to other early risers. As with other national parks, viewing the sunrise is a popular attraction in Shenandoah, and you might have to contend with people walking into your pictures or with having to execute complicated manoeuvres  to stay out of other people’s shots. Try to stay in a good humour, even if you haven’t finished your coffee.

Best Time to Go

Any season is lovely, but fall is a prime time of year to visit the park, especially for sunrise watching. The weather is cooler, but the views of the sunlight coming over the colourful trees are unparalleled. 

Feature image: Taylor Wright; Image 1: sally9258

Written by: Anne Elliot

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