How to Catch the Moonrise AND Sunset from the Summit of Mt. Sopris

For a few rare evenings each cycle, you can watch the moon rise as the sun sets. Time your ascent just right to take in this celestial event from a classic summit.

It was about early September that we found ourselves in the Carbondale area, following the change of season, seeking out the hillsides of golden aspen that pocketed the greater part of the state this time of year. Drifting north from Aspen with the leaves needing time to ripen, we considered what we could do that wouldn't be as foliage-dependent. 

From anywhere in the surrounding valleys, Mt. Sopris is hard to miss. Standing nearly 13,000' tall (12,966 ft exactly) it sweeps up slowly towards a pair of summits a half mile apart and exactly the same height. When considering where to watch sunset that coming evening, the choice seemed exciting and obvious. 

I've noticed that as the full moon approaches (in Colorado), the time of moonrise is very close to the time of sunset. Fun fact: every day, the moon rises 50 minutes later than the previous day. This would be my first attempt at trying to time it, but looking at the calendar I thought we might stand a good chance of catching moonrise-sunset from one of the highest points around.

Mike Fennell did a nice write up on summiting Sopris and at 13 miles roundtrip and 4,400 feet of elevation gain it's best done as an overnight backpacking trip. Camping about 4 miles into the trek at Thomas Lakes, it's only 3.25ish miles to the east summit. Sopris is not a mountain to be taken lightly. Those 3.25 miles from the lake to the summit pack in 2,800 feet of elevation gain, so leave plenty of time to get there because sunset won't wait up!

Luck was on our side and we summited just before sunset and the blustery winds that come with the bookends of the day up at altitude. Not knowing what we would find up there but planning to spend a bit of time, I thought it would be fun to pack a tent with us to the summit instead of leaving it all alone back at camp by the lake. That Montbell tent turned out to be the one thing that made it all feel survivable up there (besides the extra warm layers we brought). 

As the winds increased and with no way to stake down a tent on top of scree, we anchored it with as many rocks as we could tie those guy lines around and even carefully tucked a few in the corners of the tent for good measure. 

The celestial timing couldn't have worked out better. As we got our temporary mountain top shelter situated, the moon began to make its appearance. Glancing towards the fleeting sun, the skies held onto their faint amber glow, and looking in the complete opposite direction the moon popped up off the horizon with surprising quickness and then seemed to hold, giving just enough time to capture one full panorama stacked with stars, scree, tents, sunset, moonrise, and the smallest hint of town just behind the mountain.

While a GPS app or device is really helpful for tracking your route or keeping to it, when I'm traveling there are a few phone apps that I regularly to keep track of the sun and moon for wherever I am. Sun Seeker and Moon Seeker by ozPDA are great iPhone apps that not only give you rise and set times for the current day, but you can also flip through a calendar to check future dates, and one of its best features is that it displays the path of the sun or moon in 2d or 3d (where you can hold the phone to the sky and see the full path along with current position).

For where we were when the timing struck, we landed on a high peak as our destination of choice but given fair enough conditions this event can be seen from the top of a mountain, the bottom of a valley, or the middle of the desert. As mentioned before, the timing keeps changing throughout the moon cycle, and seeing how things lined up that evening we could have caught it the previous night or even two nights prior. 

The photogs out there can probably appreciate how neat of a scene this is to capture, with a full 180+ degree view of action in the skies. To shoot this type of scene requires exposures of a few seconds depending on your settings, so if were hoping to avoid carrying a tripod with you and just snap the panorama handheld, the long exposure times may leave you searching for the nearest big rock to rest your camera on. 

Regardless of your setup, shoot to your hearts content. I found that moonrise is a lot like sunrise in that once it's up a good ways in the sky, the interest of the scene tends to decrease, though that's certainly up to interpretation, and a bit of cloud cover can sustain the interest as well. 

Either way, the only thing that could make your adventure to capture a mountain-top moonrise-sunset more adventurous is the moonlit descent awaiting you. In this case our summit was well above tree line, so as long as the weather is playing nice (you checked the weather before you left, didn't you?) the full moon can be a great supplement to illuminating your path with a headlamp. 

Happy adventuring!

Published: October 5, 2016

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John Lloyd

Boulder

A road tripping spirit with a camera, seeking to inspire others through vivid imagery.