There’s something inspirational about sunrises and sunsets. The golden amber hues, ever-changing, and no two the same, connect us to nature and remind us to slow down, take in, and appreciate our surroundings. In the North Carolina Mountains of Jackson County, when the sun comes up or settles in for the day, we watch in awe, witnessing the beauty of our surroundings in the best light, what we refer to as the “golden hour.”
Golden hour is the period of daytime shortly after sunrise or before sunset, when daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is higher in the sky, making for some of the best viewing experiences. Jackson County’s elevation and peaks make it a favorite for visitors to enjoy this unmatched part of the day. At our overlooks, it is possible to see for miles, taking in the endless valleys and peaks that seem to await endlessly in the distance.
Time Check: Make sure to check the time of sunrise or sunset before heading out. As the sun sets behind a mountain, you can gauge how much more daylight is left with your hand. To do so, outstretch your hand in front of your body. Every fingertip between the sun and the top of the mountain range is about 15 minutes left of daylight.
When trying to figure out when the sun will set, view the sunrise and sunset times through your phone’s weather app.
What to Wear: Although picture-perfect, our elevations do vary in temperature. Higher elevation areas such as Cashiers, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, remain around 10 degrees cooler year-round. You’ll always want to check the weather before planning your golden hour adventure so that you dress accordingly.
Don’t be Hangry for Adventure: Packing a picnic, especially for a sunset, is the way to go! Our unique non-chain restaurants offer delicious carryout options for you to take along to make the most out of your sunset chasing.
Eight Great Golden Hour Spots
Beloved Blue Ridge Parkway
Best of Both: Waterrock Knob
Located along the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) at mile marker 451.2, Waterrock Knob is known for stunning views of the mountains below, and for being an ideal spot to witness a golden hour sunrise or sunset. Easily accessible off of the BRP, you’ll find a sizeable parking lot along with convenient amenities including picnic benches and restrooms. If you’re looking to capture a sunrise and get in a morning workout, take on the Waterrock Knob Trail. Ascending 412 feet in a 1.2-mile roundtrip, this morning hike is well worth the hype, as you may find yourself above the clouds if atmospheric conditions are ideal.
The parking lot fills up quickly around sunset, but there is usually room if you arrive a bit earlier. Peak weekends in leaf season will always be packed, so pick a weekday for the best sunset viewing.
Out of this world bonus: Enjoy a starry night in the NC Mountains. With its ease of access, make sure to pack up the telescope as Waterrock Knob’s remote location has little light pollution. Visitors can often witness meteor showers along with capturing long exposure photos of the Milky Way.
Sunset Over Three States: Devil’s Courthouse
Take the Parkway north and you’ll find another sunset chaser’s favorite. Devil’s Courthouse is located at mile marker 422.4 and is the perfect spot for ending the day with a sunset. The best view has to be earned, as hikers will take on the relatively steep, yet short mostly paved trail that elevates to the summit. At the top, hikers are greeted with a magnificent view and can watch the day come to an end in three states- North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. here’s limited space, so get there before sunset for the best experience. Be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp along as the sun sets rather quickly, and there is no lighting back to the parking area. Not looking to take a hike? No problem! Motorists can witness a sunset from the parking lot as well.
Full Panoramic Experience: Cowee Mountain Overlook
Offering a 180-degree panoramic sunset spot, Cowee Mountain Overlook is one of the best and most iconic places to catch a golden hour sunset along the 469 miles of the Parkway. Located at mile marker 430.7, this overlook offers the perfect view with no hiking required. You’ll want to make sure to bring a chair and your camera along to properly enjoy the show and take home some memories, as some of the best photos of Jackson County have been captured here.
For the Adventurous in Spirit
Oldest Mountain, Timeless Views: Whiteside Mountain
If the idea of simply driving to your glimpse of golden hour bores you, and a mountainous hiking adventure is more your style, then an early sunrise hike up Whiteside Mountain is ideal! Located in Cashiers, Whiteside is one of the oldest mountains in the world, known by some geologists to be around 490 million years old.
More timeless than the mountain itself are the sunrise views that await the early birds chipper enough to hike the two-mile loop trail before daybreak. Not only will you enjoy the golden sunrise rays, but you’ll also likely have the trail to yourself. There is a $3 parking fee, so carry some cash to place in the kiosk at the beginning of the trail. Don’t forget your trail essentials like your flashlight/headlamp, water bottle, and snack, and watch your footing, as the trail is rocky going up and down. Always pack out what you bring in to snack on and leave our trails clean and green for others.
Sleep Under the Stars: Pinnacle Park
Ascending 2,200 feet in a little over 3.5 miles, Pinnacle Park golden hours are reserved for those who prefer sleeping under the stars. Although a difficult hike, it is well worth the effort as you’ll be able to witness a golden goodbye of a day well spent from the summit, along with the magnificent welcoming of a new day, all in one trip. Never attempt this hike before sunset. The 3.5-mile descent is dangerous to navigate in the dark, even with a flashlight.
Those who do pack it in will need to make sure to do so accordingly, as fall temperatures can be 60 degrees at sunset and only 30 degrees in the morning. Ready to tackle the Pinnacle? Make sure to nab a camping permit on your way up. Permits are free and available on-site in the parking lot. Designated campsites are close to the summit, so you can easily trek out to the Pinnacle in under 20 minutes before daybreak.
Best of the Great Smokies
Two States Converge: Newfound Gap
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park shares the best of two states, North Carolina and Tennessee. Right on the state line is Newfound Gap, where folks commonly enjoy a serene sunset. The warm glow of golden rays dancing along the mountain tops will make you feel a sense of calm and completion. Visitors enjoy ample parking and convenient restroom access along with the views. Allow about an hour’s drive from Sylva, but it’s well worth it for this magnificent view!
View Worth Pulling Over For: Oconaluftee Valley Overlook
Have you ever been driving along and suddenly had to stop because of a view so magnificent that you couldn’t miss it? That rationale is what led to the development of the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook. Easily accessible parking leads to a paved and relatively flat walking trail with sweeping sunset views behind the backdrop for the Great Smokies. You won’t want to forget your camera for this perfect family vacation photo-op.
Gem of the Smokies: Clingmans Dome
One of the Great Smokies’ most cherished views, Clingmans Dome, requires a steep, half-mile climb to the highest point in the Smokies. If you’re not looking to take a sunset hike, the parking lot itself offers a view much easier to achieve, though equally stunning. Located across from the Newfound Gap parking lot, the road leading to Clingmans Dome is roughly 7-miles long and well worth the drive. There are restrooms on-site as well as the terminus for several trails including the Appalachian, Clingmans Dome, and Andrew’s Bald Trails. In the winter the road to Clingmans Dome shuts down due to ice, so check road closures before going.
Never end the day on an empty stomach; pack a picnic instead! Many of these golden hour spots offer picnic benches, so you can relax and enjoy a carryout meal from one of our unique non-chain restaurants. The best way to prepare for an early sunrise or relax after sunset is with a good night’s rest. Jackson County offers excellent lodging at great rates from cozy cabins to vacation rentals, hotels, and more. Plan your golden hour getaway by using our Trip Planner or request our FREE Visitor Guide.