I’ve been very fortunate in my life to experience a plethora of beautiful moments and gorgeous sunsets. Yet even among all the wonderful evening light shows I’ve seen over the years, a handful of them stand out from the rest. Here are the five sunsets so brilliant they’ve burned themselves permanently into my brain.

Number 5: Sunset at Hole in the Wall Beach, Santa Cruz

Hole in the Wall Beach sunset, Santa Cruz, California

Winter tends to bring Santa Cruz its fair share of nice sunsets. But this one on December 7th, 2010 was a real doozy. As if the pink and purple mackerel sky wasn’t enough, as the sun sank below the horizon it sent out two laser-like crepuscular rays to irradiate the clouds with an insane yellow. This was a Santa Cruz sunset for the books, and even my non-photographer friends were calling me about it: “Holy crap, did you see the sunset last night???” Why yes, yes I did.

Number 4: Sunset at Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Natural Bridges State Beach sunset, Santa Cruz, California

The most iconic feature along the Santa Cruz coast is the remaining arch at Natural Bridges State Beach. You don’t earn your stripes as a Bay Area shooter until you have a pic of it in your portfolio. And that goes for out-of-towners as well. When German photographer David Richter spent the summer living in the Bay Area he tried numerous times to score a keeper of this place. One afternoon, his departure from California imminent, David called me up to see how the clouds were looking over the coast. “Looks alright,” I told him, “nothing showstopping.” But alright was good enough for him so he, I, and another buddy of ours, Javier Acosta, rolled out to Natural Bridges. Even though we hit the beach 30 minutes before sunset it was immediately clear that my forecast of “alright” was way off the mark. This one was going to be a beaut. “Bro,” as Javier is fond of saying, “it’s going to blow up, bro.” To which the sunset itself replied: “Blow up? You boys have no idea. Watch this.”

Number 3: Sunset in the Great Karoo Desert, South Africa

Thunder clouds and god beams in the Great Karoo Desert, South Africa

Possibly my favorite thing about this sunset is that it was completely unexpected. I was driving through South Africa in August 2008 with my girlfriend at the time and we were winding through a mountain pass on our way from the Little Karoo to the Great Karoo. I don’t remember the skies over the mountains being particularly interesting but as we came down from the pass we rounded a hill and saw this massive UFO of a cloud shooting god rays out into the land. I don’t know if I’ve ever slammed on the brakes so fast for something that wasn’t an animal in the road. The dark-as-night cumulus clouds, the fiery beams of light, and the blue sky peeking through behind. I was all just seriously redonk, and it probably remains the overall bad-assest light show I’ve ever seen.

Number 2: Sunset at Nugget Point, New Zealand

Nugget Point sunset, The Catlins, New Zealand

Serendipity. It’s a beautiful word with a beautiful meaning. And it seems to play an unusually large role in my life. Traveling around the South Island of New Zealand in 2006 with my girlfriend at the time (yup, same one from #3), we decided to visit the less-frequented Catlins region, known for its wildlife, waterfalls, and rugged coast. Our guidebook mentioned a place called Nugget Point with some “interesting rock formations and a chance to see some unusual birds.” I thought it sounded a bit boring but my girlfriend (who was, and still is, a major bird nerd) convinced me to go so we could see albatross and yellow-eyed penguins.

When we arrived at the point I was taken aback: these weren’t interesting rocks, these were astounding rocks: wondrous nuggets, stretching off to the horizon. We went questing for penguins and albatross (and as I recall saw one of each), then returned to the point for sunset, which didn’t really occur so much as it erupted. Colors were shooting through the sky like nothing I’ve ever seen, scintillating from lava red to golden amber to dusky purple. And I don’t even know what to call the shapes of those clouds. Wagulous? Zormlier? Fibbrilicious? Who cares, they’re flippin’ awesome. And I wouldn’t have seen any of it except for a random whim. Gotta love that serendipity.

Number 1: Sunset at Lunada Bay, Palos Verdes, Los Angeles

Lunada Bay sunset, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Los Angeles seascape

This is it, the big daddy, the one I can instantly recollect when someone says “awesome sunset.” Made all the more awesome by the fact that I knew it was going to be awesome. So many times I’ve looked up at the sky, thinking the sunset was going to blow up, only to have it fizzle. But not this day back in May of 2008. I was living and working as an engineer in LA at the time and my nightly commute home looked directly out at the coast. It was a Friday and I was driving home after a long week of building space widgets and the clouds in the sky grabbed my attention like a neon sign. There were layers, textures, and shapes up the wazoo and I KNEW it was gonna be a good ‘un. So I raced home to grab my camera gear before zipping down to Palos Verdes to catch the action as it unfolded. And it unfolded like a [email protected]!#&rf#@&er. It’s possible I’ve seen prettier sunsets in my life, but this one still takes the cake for most memorable.

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