East Coast Sunsets over Water

On November 16, 2008 · 12 Comments

We all have visions of the romantic Hollywood movie with a classic California scene: the vibrant sunset over calm Pacific waters. I recall a conversation I had a number of years ago with a west coast native who raved about those sunsets, and with an air of superiority remarked upon the deprived and empty lives of people from the east coast who could only experience sunsets over land. “Oh yeh,” I replied, “what about this?”

Virginia Eastern Shore

This is a scene from Silver Beach, in Northampton County, Virginia. It’s located on Virginia’s eastern shore, the narrow sandy strip that is physically separated from the remainder of the Commonwealth by the Chesapeake Bay to form the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. I went there each summer for a number of years to visit with some friends and enjoy a relaxing beach weekend. As anyone can plainly see, this is a sunset completely over water with absolutely no land visible out to the horizon. What’s more, someone with the proper ambition could wake up the next morning, drive to the other side of this narrow peninsula, and watch the sun rise over water too. Take that, west coasties!

View Larger Map

The Chesapeake Bay is about 15 miles wide at this spot, which is clearly further than anyone sitting along the shoreline can see. Line of sight distance is described by formulas involving elevation and the curvature of the earth, as limited by atmospherics, individual eyesight and other factors. Frankly it’s described a whole lot better on Wikipedia’s Horizon page than what I want to cover here. Suffice it to say, someone sitting along the shore, maybe on a little sand dune for some added elevation, can see out perhaps 3 to 5 miles on a clear day. Result: sunset over water.

That’s not a particularly high bar when you think about it. There must be dozens of places in the Eastern United States where this phenomenon can be experienced. I pulled out a map and came up with some candidates that are part of the mainland (offshore islands are already natural choices). I’m sure there are many more.

Big duh for obviousness

  • The entire western coast of the Florida peninsula along the Gulf of Mexico.

Other fairly obvious spots

  • The upper end of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
  • Cape May, New Jersey (I’ve been on the other side of Delaware Bay and I couldn’t see across so I imagine the reverse must be true)
  • Many locations along the Virginia and Maryland eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay in addition to the example above, assuming it’s a spot out of the line of sight of the mid-bay islands
  • Cape Hatteras and other portions of the North Carolina outer banks
  • The eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, Florida
  • Numerous spots along the Great Lakes, including almost the entire western edge of the Michigan mitten. Bunches of spots in Ontario too, if you want to include Canada in this game.


  • Portions of the North Carolina mainland facing Albemarle Sound.
  • The bump on the Florida panhandle south of Panama City.
  • The eastern shore of some of the larger lakes in Minnesota (e.g., Mille Lacs Lake; Red Lake)

UPDATE: You might also be interested in the later entry made for the opposite condition, West Coast Sunrises over Water.

On November 16, 2008 · 12 Comments

12 Responses to “East Coast Sunsets over Water”

  1. Matthew says:

    Nice article. This made me wonder whether there is a point on the west coast of the USA where one can see a sunrise over water (other than, say, Hilo, HI)? Might make a good companion article to this one.

  2. Good suggestion, Matthew. Off the top of my head I’d think the Kenai Peninsula and perhaps points along Puget Sound. My favorite geo-weird spot in the Western U.S. might also make the cut. I’ll have to pull out my old photos and check. If you’d like a hint, check here.

  3. Puget Sound wouldn’t work, it’s not wide enough. Plus there are mountains on the other side, which means you need a lot more than 3-5 miles before the opposite shore would disappear. Even on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island you can easily see the mainland.

    Although at the right time of year you probably could go to the northwest corner of the Olympic Peninsula, and line up the sunrise right down the center of the Strait of Juan De Fuca.

  4. Scott, you’re absolutely right. I pulled out some old photos from a clear day, and sure enough, mountains all over the background. Even up the Strait of Georgia at Point Roberts we’re likely to have the same backdrop with Mt. Baker topping out above 10,000 feet. Blame it on my east coast “everything is flat” mentality. The NW Olympic Peninsula idea seems promising. Maybe California’s Channel Islands. This one’s going to be a lot tougher than I thought.

  5. Great catch, Scott. Our proof that someone in Port Angeles can see an over-the-water sunrise during at least some portion of the year! The little nob with the town of Dungeness due east of Port Angeles might also be outside of their line of sight, which could add to the number of days with water sunrises. It’s right on the cusp though; about 12-15 miles away with an elevation of about 100-150 feet.

  6. Josephine Westenberger says:

    You’re absolutely correct about the Delaware Bay. I live in a little town called Villas, New Jersey which is on the Delaware Bay. The sunsets here are breathtaking. Completely over water and outstanding!!!!

  7. […] been having great fun with comments posted on my recent entry, East Coast Sunsets over Water. Matthew[1] kicked things off when he wondered whether the opposite condition might exist anywhere […]

  8. east coast beaches says:

    Think about it. People on the eastern side of any landmass don’t have many opportunities to view sunsets over water. Sure, they’re offered opportunities to observe sunrises over water just about anywhere but sunsets are another matter entirely. Those places do exist in a few lucky spots under optimal geographic conditions, and we had lots of fun exploring them vicariously.

  9. BuffaloJerseyGirl says:

    As someone who grew up in Buffalo, NY, I can tell you with certainty that we have a popular party spot, appropriately called Sunset Bay where we you can watch the sun set over Lake Erie every night, without any visible land in view.

  10. Peter Todenhagen says:

    Buffalo, NY has some of the nicest sunsets in the World looking out into Lake Erie. No land is visable, just like being at the ocean.

  11. Aaron of Minneapolis says:

    I can confirm Mille Lacs in MN — sort of. I’ve been by it many times since babyhood on the way up to the family cabin, and it is too big to see across completely, even with the extra 10 feet or so of elevation in places from Hwy 169 (which runs along the west shore). The shore curves toward the horizon, getting smaller and smaller until the trees disappear over it — but you don’t have to turn your head very far to see where, so it doesn’t seem quite as endless as the Great Lakes or the ocean.

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