Countless stars glittered overhead as we began our hike up Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. The forest was dark and silent, the birds still sleeping.
The goal? Reach the summit before sunrise.
On that particular morning, I was operating as a guide to two people who were fairly new to hiking. So I wanted to give us plenty of time to reach the top. Based on previous hikes up the 2.2-mile Cadillac North Ridge Trail, I estimated we’d need about two hours. Sunrise was at 5:30-ish, so that gave us a buffer of 30 minutes.
Topping off at 1,530 feet above sea level, Cadillac Mountain is the tallest peak on the eastern seaboard. It’s also known as the first place in the United States to bask in the sun’s rays each morning for part of the year.
Actually, Cadillac shares that distinction with two other Maine locations: Mars Hill and Lubec. It depends on the time of year. But that little detail didn’t dissuade the dozens of hikers we met on the way up Cadillac in August.
It was a balmy night. Well, I guess it was technically morning. Very early in the morning. We began our hike at 3 a.m. To get there in time, I’d set my alarm for 12:30 a.m. And even though I’d gone to bed early, my brain ached in protest.
As we huffed and puffed up the mountain, we paused a couple of times to turn off our headlamps and stare up at the Milky Way. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see more and more stars winking in the velvety black sky.
Acadia is known for its beautiful, clear night skies. In fact, they’re formally celebrated. The 13th Acadia Night Sky Festival is scheduled for Sept. 21-25.
More than an hour before sunrise, the sky began to lighten. Crimson, pink, orange and yellow bled from the horizon, highlighting wispy gray clouds. The ocean, previously cloaked in darkness, glowed silvery blue. That pre-sunrise show of shifting color and light lasted far longer than the actual sunrise, and it was arguably more beautiful.
When hiking Cadillac Mountain for sunrise, timing is everything. It worked out perfectly. But if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Much of the North Ridge Trail features open views of the ocean, where the sun rises up over the Porcupine Islands.
Some people prefer to stop hiking just shy of the summit so they can view the sunrise in an area with a little more elbow room. The top of Cadillac is often crowded for sunrise. It’s just a popular place to be.
Four hiking trails climb the mountain, but that’s not all. A winding road leads to the summit, to a parking lot of 150 spots. Those require a reservation and on the morning of our hike, the lot was full. People carrying fold-out chairs, bulky blankets and steaming cups of coffee joined the sweaty hikers at the top.
Left to right, The sky starts to lighten and fill with colors before sunrise on Aug. 3, 2022, as seen from the North Ridge Trail of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. People sit on bedrock and boulders as they watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain on Aug. 7, 2022, in Acadia National Park. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
After hiking for two hours through the quiet woods, that bustling scene can be jarring, even if you expect it. Fortunately, there’s a lot of room for people to spread out and find a seat on the rosy pink granite.
A wide, smooth path that’s about a half-mile long explores the summit area, leading to educational displays and overlooks along the way. Whoever designed it is pretty clever. It prevents people from flocking to one spot, like a traditional summit sign.
Each sunrise is different. You never know what colors will bleed across the sky, or what size or color the sun will appear. The clouds play a part, as does the fog rising from the ocean. But I’m sure there are many factors I don’t understand, like the quality of the air and the tilt of the planet.
That day, the sun emerged as a giant, shimmering, red ball. As the minutes ticked by, it morphed to orange, then yellow. At the same time, it appeared to shrink as it rose into the sky.
While that was certainly a sight to see, the experience wasn’t all about the sun.
Of course it all depends on the weather. On a previous sunrise hike up Cadillac with my mother and mother-in-law, low clouds swept over the summit. As we hiked through the clouds, the rising sun bathed the foggy landscape in an orange glow. For a few minutes, the world looked like it was on fire.
I’ve saved perhaps the most important advice for the end because it’s a dull topic: parking. It’s a problem, at least for the Cadillac North Ridge Trail. The parking area at the trailhead is located along a one-way portion of the Park Loop Road. So, if you arrive to find that it’s full, you just have to keep driving. The next parking area is about a half-mile down the road. This limited parking situation is another good reason to arrive early.
Three other trails lead up Cadillac Mountain: the Gorge Path, South Ridge Trail and West Face Trail. I’ve hiked all three, but never for sunrise.
If this column gives you inspiration to hike Cadillac for sunrise, please be careful. It’s a challenging hike. You’ll need a headlamp and extra batteries, on top of all the other typical hiking gear and clothing. Pack plenty of water and snacks for fuel. A thermos of coffee or cocoa might be nice, too. And a park pass is required.
I hope you enjoy the show.