The memories of some of my favorite hikes over the years are beginning to either fade or turn negative with the growth and popularity of others discovering them. My after work therapy session on trail with relative solitude has now turned into a battle for a parking spot and constant stops to either pass or let people pass. The sounds of nature are slowly turning to conversations of news or problems back in society rather than the creek nearby or the birds.

Depression slowly snuck in thinking the days of the past are now behind with little to no hope for future silence unless I call in sick to dodge the rush of the after work hikers. But it dawned on me, no pun intended, that the trail is always there, but the people aren’t given the time of day you choose.

The alarm goes off and the first doubt of hiking in the dark arises. The darkness outside the window looms both in the air and in my head, steering me gently back to the pillow to dream of that sunrise rather than see it. But the anticipation of greeting the arriving sun with a cup of coffee while getting a stunning photograph is usually the first thought that gets me out of bed and into my hiking kit shortly before coffee.

The pack is ready the night before, with the usual items stuffed inside including a base layer, down jacket, at least a liter of water, camera equipment and tripod, headlamp with an extra set of batteries, and my Jetboil for coffee at the summit or viewpoint. Arriving at the trailhead, the doubt still lingers as the darkness shows no grip of releasing and the clock on the dashboard tells me it is way too early to be awake. But I have made it this far and the distance has all been mapped out with my average hiking speed set to arrive me at the summit a half hour before sunrise. I step out of the car to be blasted by the cool crisp air as breath can be seen in the headlamp glow. But shoes are laced, pack is shouldered, and with the headlamp illuminating the path ahead, the sunrise adventure begins.

The first half-mile or so is a hike of high doubt and full alertness. Adjusting to the darkness and slowly acclimatizing yourself to the shadow game your headlamp creates and the crackles in the forest heightened by the grip of darkness takes its toll. I have only done one sunrise summit with a partner, so most endeavors are solo therefore making the experience of seeing a deer up close a horrifying, blood pressure raising event. But after the first mile, things begin to settle down. I find a groove on trail where the goal becomes even more attainable, more wanted then at the start. You’re invested now. The headlamp keeps glowing its way around every turn of forested trail and my legs take each step, as they should.

With each animal spotted or unidentified sound in the woods, the realization of the solitude of your endeavor takes over. The fear associated with that are good bed fellows in the scenario, but the sheer beauty of being alone in nature while most of the world is still soundly asleep grants you a power and a privilege many are too afraid to try. Take value in that and let that help you to the viewpoint. Know you aren’t alone as the squirrel’s scurry about, birds begin to awaken themselves, and the sight of anything not normally seen during the daytime enhances the experience.

At times during the hike, the fear becomes overwhelming. The sounds are so great, you become a believer in Bigfoot, the bloodthirsty human bear killer, or even something worse. But I take a breath and hope it passes. If not, I bust out the phone and play music out loud to silence the brainwash and stay focused on the task at hand. With my timing working like a charm, the turn off for the summit is ahead and the stars above begin to slowly fade with each minute the sun gets closer to the horizon. The wind begins slightly as the elevation of your hike increases. The music at this point is turned off and the sound of wind blowing through the landscape with birds chirping to greet that same sunrise fill the ears with the beauty of the endeavor. No, a sunrise summit is not just a heightened sense of the visual, but of smell, touch, sound, and soul.

With each step closer and closer, the sun gets brighter and brighter just below the horizon. I turn the headlamp off to fully engage with the welcoming world and be the first to see it crest. The summit is achieved and the view of orange, yellow, and blue blast your eyesight as you crest the summit and wind blows fresh air into your face to say good morning. Despite the effort it took to summit, the breathlessness lasts longer as the view needs some of your oxygen as your brain is fully soaking in what you accomplished. At this point the camera is busted out and is to remain on for the next hour, staging photos, shooting the horizon, even set up on the tripod to shoot some long exposure of the remaining stars above, twinkling their last sparkles to say goodnight to your morning.

I set up a spot to sit with coffee and let the sun say good morning as the stars, wind, and birds all have. I take in the struggles of the hike and the doubt of the start, frustrated at the thought of potentially passing this up. The endorphins play a role in the relaxation as the first sip of coffee coincides with the first ray of yellow sun to crest on the horizon. The orange and yellow paint your face unlike any artist or selfie taken. The cool morning breeze and air slowly release their grip as the warmth of the sun soothes the mind, body, and soul. I pause momentarily to close my eyes and feel that sunrise. Almost feeling the colors in a way as the world says good morning by painting light on the foreground, now paving your path back unlike any headlamp could muster.

In this moment, like clock work, I flash back to past sunrise summits both from a trailhead or in the depths of a backpacking trip. Each and every one is unique in its own way, yet the sheer solitude and peaceful sounds of morning remain the same. The sounds of birds are always present, but they have been coupled by other curious creatures. Mountain goats wander around the alpine of Montana, sniffing and scratching the ground. The sounds of salmon swimming up a channel in Washington before the rays of the sun expose them as prey to eagles or osprey. A javelina snorts and cracks branches through the landscape of Texas. Or the sounds of crashing waves on a beach that is away from people and undisturbed by anyone’s footprints but your own.

The altitude differs depending on your desires. From the extreme heights of granite splendor in the Sierra with my tent as a dot in the foreground to only a thousand feet above sea level with a view of the wide, expansive ocean. The golden hour of a crestless desert landscape to rays of light blasting high alpine peaks with color no high beams on a car could replicate. But the rays of light and the warmth the sun offers with a cup of coffee in hand always makes every doubt and effort reconsidered worth it. For it is almost guaranteed that you will be unbothered, companied only by the wild creatures that call it home while you simply visit for a few hours.

The solitude of the experience may be the hidden treasure of all the gifts that a sunrise bid offers. Whether it is a simple hour or two hike from your parked car or a 20 mile backpacking trip that turned into waking early one morning to tag a peak, the quiet and even lonely existence of being somewhere for sunrise is a reward only granted through pride and persistence. You have to want that cup of coffee on the summit or that photograph with all the hues of the rainbow. You have to want the sounds of silence in the morning or the symphony of Mother Nature’s orchestra. The fear of falling or becoming injured in the depths of nature before most of the world is awake is always present, but part of the adventure of the solo altitude achievement. Take it all in for no two sunrise are the same and no mindset can be re-created perfectly as before. And with our time only be limited in this environment, it is just a small window to take it all in before it gets rolled up or the blinds pulled down until tomorrow.

There is only so much coffee I can make until the jitters of the caffeine sadly remind me of my time up here. The sun is now at its height where most of the world is awake, checking their phones, making their coffee, eating breakfast and going to work. I revel in the fact that I have been awake for hours, didn’t check my phone beyond the alarm it awoke me from, and the work I did gave me endorphins, exercise, and a sunrise view no one else on the planet got to see. The solitude of the sunrise is more addicting than even the most shared experience at sunset and because of that, I thrive in this darkness for I know there is always a light at the end of that trail tunnel leading me to a heavenly view unseen until tomorrow.

The path back is different than the path in. The headlamp painted the way in darkness, but now the sun illuminates the trail, forcing all the sinister shadows to hide until the engulfment of darkness once again returns. Happy thoughts take over on the hike down, proud of the accomplishment and excited to see if any of the photos turned out. The way back does seem to be shorter and before long the car is spotted. Getting home and plugging in the camera to see the sunrise once again blasts the memory banks of both your mind and hard drive. But a photo never does it justice. You see the colors and the landscape in the images, but have to daydream of the wind blowing in your face, the smells engulfing your nostrils, and the birds chirping their harmony into your ears. Yes, the visuals are there in the images now saved on your desktop or posted on your social media, but because of the impossibility of capturing the soul of the moment, the next sunrise is tomorrow, waiting to be hiked.

As Seen in: Trailgroove