The Best Places to Watch Sunrises and Sunsets in the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg
Everyone loves sunrises and sunsets. The light is perfect and the views are more inspiring than ever. Better yet, the Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg are an incredible place to see the first and last light of day!
A Quick Primer on Sunrises and Sunsets
While you can see sunrise or sunset on any clear day (if you're awake), not all day breaks and twilights are created equal. What makes some so spectacular?
The really vibrant color that makes morning and evening so gorgeous are caused different wavelength light passing through the atmosphere. Longer light wavelengths that appear orange, yellow and red become more visible at sunrises and sunsets.
As a result, the more atmosphere that sunlight passes through, the more stunning your sunrise or sunset in the Smoky Mountains will be. This is why sunsets on the ocean are especially gorgeous. The horizon is unobstructed in the distance, so only the deepest oranges, reds, and yellows can be seen.
Challenges of Gatlinburg Sunrises
This creates a problem for sunrises in Gatlinburg. Because the Smoky Mountains are just east of Gatlinburg, the high peaks of the Smokies block the early morning light of the sunrise.
By the time direct sunlight is visible in Downtown Gatlinburg, some of the early morning beauty of the sunrise has vanished since the sun is higher in the sky. Simply put, Mt. LeConte gets in the way of the golden hour for much of the year.
This leaves one question: where are the best places to watch the sunrise in Gatlinburg?
Where to Find the Best Sunrises in Gatlinburg
While popular destinations like Cades Cove, Tremont, and Elkmont are beautiful in the early morning, these spots won't give you a proper view of sunrise. Since the Smoky Mountains are in the way of the best daybreak views, we can't wait for the sunrise to come to us. Instead, we have to meet the sunrise where it is best visible: from the mountain tops.
Newfound Gap Parking area is the midway point of the Newfound Gap Road that connects Gatlinburg, TN with Cherokee, NC. This parking area is also a great place to watch sunrises or sunsets since it offers open views of both the east and west.
The highest peak in the national park is an even better place to see the sunrise. At 6,644 FT, Clingman's Dome parking lot highest point accessible by road in the Smoky Mountains. Better yet, this parking area faces to the east and has open views of the sunrise for much of the year. If you visit for a sunrise, don't be surprised to see several photographers snapping photos of daybreak from this mountain peak. With a short hike up to the Clingman's Dome Observation Tower, visitors can also see a sunset as well – just be sure to bring a flashlight for your walk back!
Oconaluftee Valley Overlook
Drive about half a mile from Newfound Gap towards Cherokee and you'll find this overlook on the right of the road. This pull-off faces to the east and is ideal for watching the sunrise over the mountains.
The third highest peak in the national park is not accessible by roads, but it does have several overlooks that are perfect for watching sunrises and sunsets. The shortest trail for reaching the summit of Mt. LeConte is the Alum Cave trail which is 5 miles in length. As a result, these overlooks are can only be enjoyed if you are willing to hike in the dark for several hours or if you camp at a national park shelter or stay overnight at the LeConte Lodge.
Where to Find the Best Sunsets in Gatlinburg
Many of the same rules apply for finding sunsets in Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Great sunsets spots are easier to find because there are fewer large mountains in the way.
This overlook is located on the Tennessee side of Newfound Gap Road less than a mile from the parking area. This popular pull off features a beautiful set of mountain ridges that make an incredible frame for sunsets.
The Foothills Parkway
A section of the foothills parkway near Townsend offers beautiful views of the Tennessee valley. The western facing overlooks are especially prime places for watching the sunset. From here, you can watch the sun dip below the Cumberland Plateau in the distance.
The summit of the Chimney Tops hiking trail is known for having beautiful sunsets. From this narrow rocky mountain ridge, you can see Mt. LeConte, Newfound Gap Road, and the Tennessee Valley. In the evening, you can also see the lights of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the distance. Unfortunately, if you stick around for the sunset, you'll have to hike back 1.9 miles in the dark. Officially, there are no national park rules that forbid nighttime hiking, but visitors should know that this is activity entails risks. If you'd like to see the sunset from Chimney Tops or any other western-facing viewpoint in the park, it's necessary to bring a flashlight, extra batteries, and trekking poles for added stability.
More Sunrise and Sunset Tips
Here's a quick guide to help you estimate where the sun will rise and set in Gatlinburg as well as a sunrise calculator tool to let you know when the sunrise will be.
Sunrise and Sunset Directions At Different Seasons
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More tips on experiencing the best Smoky Mountain sunrises and sunsets:
- Minimize Haze - The Smoky Mountains are well-known for being a bit smoky. Some of this haze is pollution that makes views less crisp. The best times to find clear views are after rain storms that help to clear the air of pollution. Cooler weather sometimes creates cleaner air for appreciating sunrises and sunsets.
- Check the Weather – Sometimes, heavy cloud cover can ruin a sunrise or sunset. Checking the weather can help you avoid wasting an early morning trip to a sunrise spot. On the other hand, the right amount of clouds can create a beautiful backdrop as the sun rises or sets.
- Wake Up Early – Depending on the time of year, sunrises can be very early in the morning – so be sure to set your alarm and have your coffee thermos ready.
- Bring Your Camera – Daybreak and twilight are favorite times for photographers to capture the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Be sure to bring your camera so you can share the gorgeous view with friends and family back home!
If you don't want to go through the trouble of waking up early or staying out late on a mountain overlook to watch a sunrise or sunset there are other great options for beautiful views. Simply book a log cabin with a mountain view in Gatlinburg! Our cabins on mountain tops are wonderful places to watch the sunrise or sunset. Better yet, you won't have to venture far away from your comfortable cabin retreat to see beautiful vistas in the Smokies!
Written by Hayden Brown