What creates Arizona’s stunning sunrises and sunsets?

Salt River (Source: Len Catalanotto)
Salt River (Source: Len Catalanotto)(Len Catalanotto)

I am a huge sky-gazer. Shocking, right?

In full disclosure, my iPhone albums have more photos of Arizona’s clouds, storms, sunsets and sunrises than anything else. Frankly, it’s hard not to snap at least one photo a day when we arguably have some of the most jaw-dropping views in the world.

But what exactly creates a gorgeous pallet of color in the sky during our sunrises and sunsets?


(Source: IG @photographybysaija)
(Source: IG @photographybysaija)(IG @photographybysaija)

This is probably one of the biggest factors. Especially over the past week, we have been inundated with sunrises showcasing vibrant reds, pinks, purples, oranges and golds. We’ve also had a lot of clouds hanging around each morning.

To get those stunner sunrises and sunsets, high and mid level clouds are the best to reflect and redirect the sunlight into these shades. During the monsoon, isolated thunderheads can reach heights of 20,000 to 40,000 feet, which will also do a great job of scattering sunlight and showcasing color.

On the flip-side, low clouds, overcast skies or rainy conditions will create those not-so-memorable sunrises or sunsets.

The thickness of clouds also plays a role. Too thick and too full of a cloud deck won’t scatter sunlight as well, but thin, wispy clouds will.

Another factor of color vibrancy is the ratio of cloud cover to clearness that is actually overhead. When you look at a forecast, or when you’re looking outside before sunset, anywhere from 30 to 70 percent cloud cover is ideal for colors to show through.


The more “stuff” you have in the lower and middle atmosphere, which can include dust particles, wildfire smoke and water droplets in the form of higher humidity, the less depth you’ll have to your sunsets and sunrises. With that said, you’ll still have a good opportunity to see hues of pinks, purples and golds refracted from the sunlight, they’ll just be more so softened and blended.


A change in wind direction can also create patterns to clouds which will give those sunsets and sunrises more of an eye-candy appeal with ripples and streaks. In addition, winds from a passing weather front before sunset or before sunrise will clear out the air in the lower atmosphere, and allow more vivid colors to be seen.


(Source: IG @len_catalanotto_photography)
(Source: IG @len_catalanotto_photography)(IG @len_catalanotto_photography)

Lastly, mountain ranges will also help reflect colors into the sky. Pinks, purples and golds can be pretty vibrant at sunrise and sunset from places like Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak.

A lot of this information came from my own observations and research, but for other helpful resources on predicting pretty sunrises and sunsets, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s website or go to sunsetwx.com.

Piestewa Peak (Source: Instagram @brookscrandellphoto)
Piestewa Peak (Source: Instagram @brookscrandellphoto)(Instagram @brookscrandellphoto)