Maybe you’ve noticed that Colorado’s Front Range gets some pretty spectacular sunsets and sunrises; it turns out this is a sweet spot thanks to how the mountains and plains meet up.

“We are truly blessed with a great geography and meteorology for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, particularly in the late fall and winter months,” said Michael Kavulich, Jr., Associate Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

Yes, there’s some science — and a season — behind catching an exceptionally colorful and awesome sunrise, along with a willingness to be hiking in the cold and dark.

“The main ingredient for the best sunrises is, somewhat counter-intuitively, getting the right clouds,” Kavulich, Jr. said. “Clearly you don’t want thick overcast skies horizon to horizon, but if skies are perfectly clear, the sunrise tends to be quite plain; the immediate horizon might be brilliant colors, but most of the sky will just be blue, with all that red, orange, and pink light shooting straight overhead past you into space.”

Ready? Here are some tips for watching the sun come up and catching the brilliant reds, oranges, pinks and golds.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

A runner enjoys the sunrise at Boulder Reservoir as they try to stay warm before taking part in the inaugural Boulderthon on Oct. 10, 2021, in Boulder.

You’ll need a mostly clear view to the east

“For a really good sunrise, you want to have a clear eastern horizon,” Kavulich, Jr. advised. “But aside from that, it’s best to have plenty of clouds, preferably high, thin ones that are all at around the same height, and will catch the sun’s rays long after, to bounce some of that light back to your eyes from all directions.”

Pack a headlamp

You will need to get up when it’s still dark out and do a portion of your hike in the dark. Although the sky is progressively getting lighter, you may need to hike through some tree-filled areas with less light.

Prepare for winter hiking conditions

It can be dry on the eastern plains, but there may be snow and ice on mountain trails. Dress in warm layers and bring traction devices for your boots.

Get there early

Aim to be at your ideal viewing spot at least 15 minutes before the predicted sunrise time. Once the sun is up, the colors tend to dissipate quickly.

Leash your dogs

Even if it seems like you’re the only one on the trail, for your pet’s safety and to protect the fragile environment, obey local leash laws and keep them close.

Alas, a lot is up to chance when trying to catch those brief atmospheric colors.

“There’s unfortunately no magic formula for looking at a weather forecast and translating that to a sunrise forecast,” said Kavulich, Jr., “If the weather forecast calls for snow in the mountains, but clear skies over the plains, there’s a good chance that will be a great sunrise.”

It can simply feel enchanting to be up and out on the trails before many others and with the anticipation of watching a natural phenomenon. Or, you will likely enjoy the benefits of easily getting a trailhead parking spot before the late arrivals.

Consider these trails for your next sunrise hike:

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Young kids run down the trails at North Table Mountain Park as they enjoy a brisk walk and the setting sun on Nov. 18, 2018 in Golden.

North Table Mountain

This popular foothills destination in Golden offers a selection of trails of varying distances, but my favorite is an easy 3.2-mile loop that starts on a steep southwestern incline. You will be looking out over the city of Denver and also have views to the west as the sun turns the normally blue-ish mountains and hogbacks to pink or gold. Aim to be about 1.5 miles into the hike for the best views, or add one of the trails that takes you to the east side of the mountain.

Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post

MORRISON, CO – AUGUST 17: Jackie and Jocelyn Martinez watch as the Denver skyline emerges from the smog looming over the city during sunrise seen from Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado on August 17, 2021. (Photo by Rebecca Slezak/The Denver Post)

Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre

Along with being quite close to Denver, Red Rocks has a few trails to choose from, but you can also watch the sunrise from the amphitheater seats after a walk up the steps. Try the Trading Post Trail, a 1.5-mile loop that will have views to the east as well as wind you through the namesake rocks.

A view from Mount Falcon. (Jon Murray, The Denver Post)

Mount Falcon Park

Mount Falcon Park has both east side and west side entrances with parking and trailheads and no matter which one you choose, you will be able to catch the sunrise if you time it correctly.

From the east side (also called Mount Falcon Park Morrison), you can take the 1.3 mile-Castle Trail up to the intersection with Walker’s Dream Trail and head right where you’ll catch grander views to the east after a couple of switchbacks and before you get to the Summer White House spot at the end of the trail. Note that the east side trail can sometimes be closed for muddy conditions, so check ahead of time.

Or, hike in from the west side just over a mile which does not have the incline that the east side does and plan to be on the Walker’s Dream Trail (take a left from this entry point) in time for sunrise colors.

David Zalubowski, The Associated Press

In this Sunday, April 14, 2019 file photo, clouds loom over a lake at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Commerce City, Colo.

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

For this hike, head east toward the sunrise you are hoping to see — and you will have lakes to capture that glowing sky reflection.

You can do an easy 1.5-mile loop that takes you across and along the edges of Lake Mary, then out on the plains before bringing you close to the larger Lake Ladora. Each lake has a loop trail of its own, but I like doing this combination of trails.

Note: entrance gates to the arsenal do not open until sunrise. The morning light, the frosted native grasses, sightings of white-tailed deer and even bison in the distance, along with views to the west make for a special early morning.

Mount Sanitas

Mount Sanitas in Boulder is a good spot to view the sunrise during a 3.4-mile loop hike, but Kavulich, Jr. recommends the slightly less popular 2.6-mile Dakota Ridge Trail adjacent to Sanitas for just as much sunrise viewing.

This trail has steep spots that can be tricky with snow on the ground, so traction devices are a must.

Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

The iconic Flatirons rock formations are covered in snow as cold and lightly falling snow continue to fall on Oct. 27, 2019 in Boulder.

First and Second Flatirons

The First and Second Flatirons Trail in Boulder will also give you a look to the east at sunrise. This 2.5-mile roundtrip trail starts at the Chautauqua Trailhead and can be shaded in portions (in winter this means icy spots) and requires some light scrambling over rocks.

“Both are fantastic hikes with sweeping vistas to the east,” Kavulich, Jr. said of Sanitas and the Flatirons hikes.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Hunter Balch fly fishes on Brainard Lake in the Roosvelt National Forest, Sept. 25, 2014.

Brainard Lake Recreation Area

The area in the Indian Peaks Wilderness has the potential to capture the sky’s reflection in lake water (or ice), but know that during the winter, the road to many of the popular trails is closed so you will need to plan for a longer hike in before the sun comes up.

From the Gateway Trailhead (aka winter parking area before the closed gate to the main road), take the snowshoe trail two miles one-way to Brainard Lake to watch the sunrise (note that it won’t be a clear eastern view). You can skip this scenic route and just walk up the road (with enough snow, you can snowshoe, winter hike, or cross-country ski on this road). Check the wind forecast before heading up as this spot can be pretty gusty.

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Arthur’s Rock Trail

This trail west of Fort Collins in Lory State Park gives an expansive view north and east from this vantage point. The 3.6-mile roundtrip out-and-back trail does include a $9 fee at the entrance. The final ascent is over rock and while not super steep, can be tricky in winter with spikes on your boots (but then those spikes are necessary for the icy patches). You’ll be overlooking Horsetooth Reservoir and Fort Collins from up here.

Mount Herman

If the Forest Service road is passable above Monument, trail # 716 on Mount Herman is a mere mile one-way to the summit with clear eastern views. After an initial relatively easy switchback, the trail becomes an incline of loose gravel and that can be tricky. Veer right when you reach the old rockslide (ignore rock cairns directing you left) where the dirt trail disappears.

Mindy Sink is the author of “60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Denver and Boulder” and “Walking Denver.”

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