3 tips for an amazing hiking by moonlight experience

When most hikers plan their route, they usually want to be off the trail before the sun goes down. In Arizona, some hikers like to hit the trail as day gives way to night; especially around the time of full moon. Doing so generally offers a trifecta for the senses: cooler temperatures, a gorgeous sunset and a moonlit trail.

Full moon rising over desert hills
Full moon rises up from eastern horizon of Arizona as viewed from Bursera Trail in Phoenix South Mountain Park

Watch a one hour sunset/moonrise time lapse in 15 seconds:

While night hikes are a beautiful way to enjoy the outdoors, they also come with some risks. Getting lost or suffering an injury are two of the most obvious concerns about hiking at night. But the benefits of night hiking far outweigh the risks if you practice three key tips:

  • Know the trail
  • Time it right
  • Be prepared

Important: Plan your hike in an area where you can see the eastern horizon.

Three key tips for hiking by moonlight:

Know the trail

So you’ve figured out which trail you want to hike to watch the sun fade and the moon light up the sky – that’s great! But don’t wait until the night of the full moon to hike the trail for the first time.

Go out and hike it during daylight hours at least once to familiarize yourself with the trail.Trail maps don’t always prepare you for some of the twists and turns you’ll experience on the trail. And trail maps aren’t much good at night anyway if you can’t see the map or the terrain around you very well.

By hiking the trail while it’s light out a few times, you’ll reduce the chances of getting lost or injured.

Time it right

What days of the month are best for hiking by moonlight?
To get the most out of the full moon hiking experience, you’ll need to plan ahead to know when the full moon happens. Do a web search for “When is next full moon?”

Generally, the actual technical full moon happens in the wee hours of the morning. As a result, the evening before and after technical full moon are the best days of the month to hike by moonlight.

Helpful to know: You can usually enjoy near full moon light for about three evenings before and after the official full moon. This can work to your advantage if your schedule or weather patterns don’t allow you to hike on the actual night of full moon.

What time of day is best for full moon hiking?
Once you know the full moon date(s), find out what time the sun sets and moon rises. From my experience, the best day for a sunset/moonrise hike is the day when those two times are less than 30 minutes apart. This way you have more daylight guiding your steps until virtually the minute the moon rises. That’s because we still have some twilight in the sky for approximately 30 minutes after official sunset time.

Look at the far right column of the highlighted row in each of the screen captures below. Notice how close the sunset and moonrise times are together? Setting out on a hike just before the sunset time would allow you to watch both the sunset and moon rise.

Data table showing dates and time for sunrise and sunset
Sample of sunrise/sunset table on timeanddate.com
Screen shot of moonset/moonrise table
Sample of moonset/moonrise table on timeanddate.com

Be prepared

If you’re hiking a short trail and one that you’re very familiar with, there’s probably not much risk in getting lost. However, if you’re venturing into territory that’s fairly new to you, it’s a good idea to have a few extra items with you. Nobody likes to carry more than is necessary out on the trail, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Extra items to have for a night hike:

– Flashlight or headlamp (make sure batteries aren’t dead or corroded)
– Extra snacks and water in case you lose your way
– Emergency blanket or extra clothing to keep you warm and dry if you end up having to stay all night out there

There’s hardly any bad time to go for a hike in Arizona’s desert but some experiences are better than others. If you want to treat yourself to cooler temperatures with a beautiful sunset and moon rise, try planning an evening hike during a full moon.

Silhouette of a mountain with sunset in the background
Stunning sunsets are an added bonus of taking to the trail for a full moon hike.
desert trail lit by flashlight
Often times the moonlight is all you need to see your way on the trail but a flashlight or headlamp is good to have just in case.


  1. I am humbled at how little I know about moonrise/moonset and when I can hike by moonlight. Thanks for the tips. This webpage has already helped me plan my moonlight Half Dome Hike 🙂

  2. Great photos!

    I lived next to a river and ocean in No. CA, with a small forest and meadow 1/2 block away. I taught myself to walk completely in the dark, feeling the path underneath my feet. It was a very freeing experience. I could make it through the forest and across the meadow, without light 🙂

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