Hiking Cadillac d’Acadie mountain in the dark is the best way to see the sunrise

Countless stars twinkled above our heads as we began our hike up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. The forest was dark and silent, the birds were still sleeping.

The goal? Reach the summit before sunrise.

That morning, I was guiding two people who were new to hiking. So I wanted to give us enough time to reach the top. Based on previous hikes on the 2.2 mile Cadillac North Ridge Trail, I estimated it would take us about two hours. Sunrise was at 5:30, which gave us a 30 minute buffer.

Rising to 1,530 feet above sea level, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak on the east coast. It is also known as the first place in the United States to bask in the sun every morning for part of the year.

In fact, Cadillac shares this distinction with two other Maine locations: Mars Hill and Lubec. It depends on the time of year. But this small detail did not deter the dozens of hikers encountered during the Cadillac climb in August.

The twisted branches of jack pines that line the North Ridge Trail are illuminated by a headlamp while hiking on Cadillac Mountain Aug. 2, 2022, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

It was a sweet night. Well, I guess it was technically morning. Early in the morning. We started our hike at 3am. To get there in time, I set my alarm clock at 00:30. And even though I had gone to bed early, my brain ached in protest.

As we huffed and puffed up the mountain, we stopped several times to turn off our headlamps and look out at the Milky Way. As our eyes got used to the darkness, we could see more and more stars twinkling in the velvety black sky.

Acadia is known for its beautiful clear night skies. In fact, they are officially celebrated. The 13th Acadia Night Sky Festival is scheduled for September 21-25.

More than an hour before sunrise, the sky began to clear. Crimson, pink, orange and yellow bled from the horizon, highlighting wispy gray clouds. The ocean, previously shrouded in darkness, shone a silvery blue. This spectacle of changing color and light before sunrise lasted much longer than sunrise, and it was arguably more beautiful.

When hiking Cadillac Mountain for sunrise, timing is everything. It worked perfectly. But if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Much of the North Ridge Trail offers unobstructed views of the ocean, where the sun rises over the Porcupine Islands.

Some people prefer to stop the hike just short of the summit so they can see the sunrise in an area with a bit more wiggle room. The top of Cadillac is often crowded for sunrise. It’s just a popular place.

Four hiking trails climb the mountain, but that’s not all. A winding road leads to the top, to a parking lot with 150 spaces. These require a reservation and the morning of our hike the field was full. People carrying folding chairs, bulky blankets and steaming cups of coffee joined the sweaty hikers at the summit.

From left to right, the sky begins to clear and fill with color before sunrise on August 3, 2022, as seen from the North Ridge Trail of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. People sit on bedrock and boulders watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain Aug. 7, 2022, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

After a two-hour hike through the quiet woods, this bustling scene can be shocking, even if you expect it. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for people to spread out and find a seat on the rosy pink granite.

A wide, smooth path about half a mile long explores the summit area, leading to educational exhibits and lookout points along the way. Whoever designed it is pretty smart. It keeps people from congregating in one place, like a traditional pinnacle sign.

Every sunrise is different. You never know what colors will bleed into the sky, or what size or color the sun will appear. Clouds play a role, as does fog rising from the ocean. But I’m sure there are many factors that I don’t understand, like the air quality and the tilt of the planet.

That day, the sun emerged as a giant glittering red ball. Over the minutes, it turned orange, then yellow. At the same time, it seemed to shrink as it rose into the sky.

While it’s certainly a sight to behold, the experience wasn’t all about the sun.

Of course it all depends on the weather. On a previous sunrise hike on Cadillac with my mother and mother-in-law, low clouds swept over the summit. As we walked through the clouds, the rising sun bathed the misty landscape in an orange glow. For a few minutes, the world seemed to be on fire.

I may have saved the most important tip for last because it’s such a boring topic: parking. That’s a problem, at least for the Cadillac North Ridge Trail. The trailhead parking area is located along a one-way portion of the Park Loop Road. So if you happen to find that it is full, just keep driving. The next parking lot is about half a mile up the road. This limited parking situation is another good reason to arrive early.

The landscape is bathed in orange on Aug. 3, 2022, as the sun rises and filters through a cloud over Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Three other trails lead to Cadillac Mountain: the Gorge Path, the South Ridge Trail and the West Face Trail. I hiked all three of them, but never for sunrise.

If this column gives you inspiration to take a Cadillac ride for the sunrise, beware. It’s a tough hike. You will need a headlamp and extra batteries, in addition to all other typical hiking gear and clothing. Pack plenty of water and snacks for fuel. A thermos of coffee or cocoa might also be nice. And a park pass is required.

Hope you enjoy the show.

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