Elopement Timeline Tips

Today we’re sharing our elopement timeline tips! We’ll be the first to say that planning an elopement timeline doesn’t have to be complicated. Part of the reason so many couples choose to elope is to keep their wedding day stress-free and easygoing. Yet a lot of our couples still need to know how we plan out a day and what works best for photos. This blog post covers the big picture details to help you successfully plan out your elopement day! We’ve learned so much after working with lots of amazing couples. So we’re happy to share our timeline tips!

Stay till the end to see some sample elopement timelines!

ceremony in the mountains with bride and groom at sunrise
Krystle + Casey did a sunrise ceremony in Grand Teton National Park, but after grabbing brunch in Jackson, they opted to just hike in casual clothes, drink bubbly, and watch Krystle’s brother go fly-fishing at sunset.

Keep It Simple

Our best advice is to keep things simple. Once you start planning your elopement, and everything is possible. It can be really easy to start jamming the day full of exciting hikes, locations, and tons of other activities. But this often leads to a day that’s just as fast-paced as a traditional wedding. And our goal as your photographers is to help you slow down and make memories in beautiful places. So while it’s tempting to see every viewpoint or hiking trail–try to limit to 1-3 major activities throughout the day.

Pay Attention to Your Drive Time

A lot of these beautiful locations are huge. It might be 1-2 hours between locations or even from your Airbnb. I mean, they’re often some of the most stunning drives in the United States–but it does impact your day. This is why we say to limit to 1-3 major activities to cut down on drive time. These drives are often through windy mountain roads and they might be unfamiliar to you. For us, it’s just another day driving to the office! But especially if this is your first time visiting an area, you’ll probably be slower on the road. It will probably take a little extra time to get to different locations. And that’s okay!

Be Flexible

If you’re spending your wedding day mostly outdoors, you’ll have to be flexible and just go with the flow. Sometimes a rain shower will happen unexpectedly, snow will cover a trail way early in the season or anything else that Mother Nature decides to do. We recommend having the right gear + clothing to be prepared. Which you can check out our Elopement Gear Guide post for more advice on that. So be prepared with the right clothing and gear and just be flexible :). You’ll have a fantastic time exploring the outdoors! It’s important to know that you might not be able to stick to exact times. And in some cases, you might have to flip the order of your activities based on the weather. But that’s the joy of eloping! You can do whatever you want!

Buffer Extra Time in Your Elopement Timeline

Planning an elopement or wedding day, it can be easy to think that times will be exact. This is why we don’t use times in any of the timelines below! A lot of things happen that you might not plan for: such as 10-15 minutes for changing into hiking clothes at the trailhead, running late because of road construction (one-lane roads in these areas happens a lot for construction), gathering people for family photos or in any parking lot will usually take 20-30 minutes, water and snack break for your doggo, someone will run late, hair and makeup might take an extra 30 minutes, needing to get gas for your rental car…and so on. You get the point. And this is usually the sneaky culprit of a relaxed day turned into a busy day. So just plan to buffer time throughout the day to keep things relaxed!

bride and groom eloping in Telluride, Colorado
Sarah + William flew out to Telluride, Colorado to elope in the San Juans with us. The only plan we had was to pick them up at 3:45 am for a sunrise hike. They exchanged vows at 13,000 ft before we all got hungry and went to go find the nearest tacos.

Planning Your Hikes

Hiking at Sunrise

If you’re like us, you’d like to wake up at a reasonable hour, grab some coffee, head out on a short hike, and get amazing views. Which is what the 330 million National Park visitors do every year. Most tourists and other hikers will start to get out and hike between 8:00 am – 9:30 am. So we try to create more intimate moments in these landscapes. We like to hike up to a viewpoint to have private vow exchanges, first looks, or actual ceremonies right before sunrise. This is often the quietest and most beautiful way to experience some of these landscapes. And while it can be tough to wake up early, your body will start to adjust when we see the sun! There are exceptions to doing sunrise hikes though. If we’re in grizzly bear country, it’s often much safer to hike in daylight hours. And in the Redwoods, the lighting is often best when the sun is higher in the sky. Which hopefully helps to get those epic rays of sunshine through the trees!

Hiking at Sunset

We often like to have a “backup” plan to hike at sunset. Or just have a second hike planned for sunset already. Often sunset lasts longer than sunrise and has more colors in the sky on a clear day. This tends to be a busier time of day in some locations. So we usually opt for a longer hike to get some privacy.

bride and groom on elopement day near an alpine lake in the mountains
Some mountain areas have more shade and protection from the sun such as this basin (left) and this lake (right) for photos in the late morning. But most mountain locations are more exposed than this. We’ll be sure to let ya know what you can expect from your location!

Hiking in The Late Morning or Afternoon

Usually mid-day is the worst lighting for photos and has the least amount of privacy. So we tend to save the mid-day for brunch, lunch, taking a nap, or other activities you might plan. However, the Pacific-Northwest has a lot of overcast and moody days. And this is when hiking in the afternoon will look the same as if we hiked for sunrise or sunset. So if you plan a flexible elopement day where you can change things around, we might see that your elopement day is overcast and be able to move things around to avoid hiking in the dark. There are also locations that look great in the afternoon, like shaded coves, rainforests, and other places that don’t have direct harsh light.

elopement timeline sample based on daylight

Planning Your Ceremony

We typically recommend having your ceremony (or a private vow-exchange) at sunrise or in the early morning when possible. Most couples are pretty nervous about exchanging vows. So doing it first thing in the morning is just such a good feeling. It lets you have that sense of relief and you can finally say YOU’RE MARRIED!!! If you need to wait until the afternoon to do the official ceremony, just exchanging vows privately lets you get out some jitters. And it’s totally okay to repeat your vows later with family. This just klets you have those emotional moments first just the two of you. And don’t worry, those butterflies will build up in your tummy before your ceremony with family later too!

Working With an Officiant

If you are hiring an officiant, they usually do a great job of walking you through their planning process. If you’re eloping just the two of you without an officiant, there’s no right or wrong way of doing your ceremony. It just tends to be a shorter ceremony. You can check out our extensive article on how to write wedding vows for this part of the planning process!

Most ceremonies with us have lasted about 15 minutes total. However, we have seen ceremonies last up to 30 minutes with officiants or loved ones who spend time guiding you through the ceremony. No matter what you do, it’s going to be beautiful!

family ceremony with officiant in Colorado
Kerra + Jesse had an afternoon ceremony at their Airbnb with family before heading out for sunset photos with us!

Planning An Elopement Timeline With Guests

When you’re planning for just the two of you, it’s incredibly easy to keep your day flexible, be spontaneous, and plan around the weather. However, bringing family or loved ones along can make your wedding day an incredible experience too. A lot of our couples who bring guests really want to share these important landscapes with their families to show them why they’re such avid adventurers! But bringing guests, especially guests who only have experienced traditional weddings, will inherently want to have more things planned and your day won’t have as much flexibility. So we have some helpful tips to make sure you get the outdoor experience you want while allowing yourself time to celebrate with loved ones.

Plan for adventure and family separately

If you want to have a stress-free day and maximize time on the trail and with family, we recommend splitting your day between hiking and time with family–rather than bouncing back and forth. For example, an early morning ceremony with family, a brunch, and maybe even some toasts before an afternoon nap. And then meeting up with us for the evening and hiking out for sunset. This keeps your time split between the two, rather than having to leave family multiple times throughout the day.

Catering & other planned activities

We love catering and all the fancy dinners and planned activities. Eloping means doing what makes you happy! And if that means fancy BBQ or 10 different kinds of tacos–we’re all about it! The only downside to having planned activities like catering is that we won’t have flexibility with your timeline. So if we have a cloudy or foggy sunrise, we wouldn’t be able to switch to a sunset hike because catering is expected to show up at 4:30 pm, and usually you can’t move things around on the actual day (totally reasonable). So just understand that the more planned activities you have, the less room you’ll have for being spontaneous or adapting to the weather. Pro-tip: plan for catering or planned activities in late morning or early afternoon when it’s typically not the best time for taking photos. That way you won’t have to compromise on hikes if the weather has us changing up plans!

Keep your evening stress-free by choosing either a sunset hike or spending time with family

A lot of couples with guests want to have a dinner or evening reception because that’s pretty typical with bigger weddings and what family expects. However, sunset in the summer is often 8-9:00 pm and there’s usually a decent drive from your Airbnb back out to the trail, plus the time we need to actually hike. So it’s usually challenging to plan for a dinner, which inevitably includes toasts or unwrapping gifts, and to also sneak away in time to go hike for sunset. And even after sunset, we usually stay taking photos for an extra 20-45 minutes: meaning that you won’t be back for s’mores or bonfire activities until 10:30 pm (on average). So what do you do? The best solution is to either host an afternoon brunch and get all family celebrations done in the late-afternoon before sneaking away, or opting for a sunrise hike so you can casually spend the rest of the evening celebrating with family. Until you start planning a timeline though, you usually don’t see this challenge. So we wanted to point it out now!

desert elopement ceremony with officiant
Melissa + Steve had their ceremony in the morning after exploring at sunrise with us. Later they had lunch with their guests before heading out for sunset photos!

Where to host your ceremony

A lot of your guests probably want to sleep in until a reasonable hour (totally understandable!), but the earlier you can host a ceremony at designated ceremony sites within a National Park (or other beautiful areas)–the better. Even at 9:00 am on the trail, you can expect other hikers to be walking by during your ceremony. Most of the time they’re respectful and quiet, but it’s best to have an expectation that other hikers will be around. A special-use permit gives you permission to host a ceremony, but it doesn’t reserve the site for only you and it’s still considered a public space. The higher your guest count, the more restrictions you’ll have for available ceremony sites too. So larger groups tend to work best at viewpoints or other super accessible areas. Usually, that means they’re less private, but it also makes it a lot more comfortable for your loved ones to get to your ceremony site.

Hosting Your Ceremony at an Airbnb

A “backup” plan or great option to begin with is to host your ceremony at an Airbnb. You won’t have to gather folks and wait for people to find you, you can rent out a 100% private space, and you’ll have more freedom to decorate or run back inside for flowers or anything you might forget. While it isn’t the dreamy backdrop that a National Park site may offer, an Airbnb ceremony can be a lot less work and easier to manage. Remember, you can still set aside as many hours as you’d like to go hiking for beautiful views and photos even if you host your ceremony at an Airbnb. Nothing wrong with that!

bride and groom for adventure wedding ceremony in Breckenridge, Colorado
Nicole + Aaron did a private vow exchange on a short hike before hosting a family ceremony in the late-afternoon at their Airbnb in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Set expectations early

As time passes in your planning process, the more likely your loved ones will want to start planning more traditional activities for your elopement. There’s nothing wrong with this if you love traditional wedding activities! Again, we’re here to plan a day that speaks to the two of you. However, it’s a good idea to make sure family knows how much time you plan on spending out on the trail and how traditional/non-traditional you want your elopement to be. If you don’t set boundaries, your loved ones will definitely start planning a traditional wedding. That’s all they know! So if they’re involved in the process and you don’t explain how you envision the day, you might end up with a significant amount of traditional activities–and less time for the things that might matter more to you, celebrating your marriage!

Despite telling family you’re eloping, they might still have expectations that you will be with them all day. Again, most people have only seen traditional weddings where the bride and groom sneak away for 30 minutes or so for photos. Working with us or any adventure elopement photographer, you’ll most likely be spending 4-6 hours away from family to explore. Pro-tip: It’s important to convey that you would LOVE to hike on your elopement day and that this isn’t just a photo session. Family can easily forget that hiking is actually something couples want to do on their day since it most likely isn’t something they’ve seen before.

Hiking for Sunrise

We find it easiest to set aside sunrise, for just the two of you, before most loved ones would want to even wake up, let alone start getting ready or celebrating. This can mean having a longer elopement day, but it is also probably the best way to have an adventure and still celebrate with family. You can optionally flip this and plan all of your family activities in the morning and afternoon while sneaking away with us in the late afternoon to go celebrate for sunset!

We love elopements where our couples bring their special people. It’s such a magical experience to share with the people closest to you. But you have to remember, they’ve most likely never seen an elopement. So it will take work to set boundaries, educate them on what your unique elopement day looks like to you, and finding a way to adventure in these stunning landscapes while still having plenty of time to celebrate with family!

bride and groom exchanging vows in the mountains at sunrise
Liz + Landon did a sunrise hike for a private vow exchange before heading to their Airbnb with family for a mid-morning ceremony!

Timeline Examples

You’re probably wondering what an average full-day elopement looks like. So we’ve put together some general timelines below for a few different situations. These are rough timelines with just a few ideas sprinkled in. Although you can customize things to better fit the experience you want! However, one of these timelines is probably a great starting point for you.

Two Person Elopement

When it’s just the two of you, we have significantly more time to explore and hike. And while you’re waking up super early, you also have ample time in the afternoon for more relaxing activities. Or you could even take a short nap! Also, you could replace the sunset hike with something less adventurous. Like opting for a shorter hike or going fly-fishing, paddle-boarding, hop in your Airbnb’s hot tub, or anything else! Or you could make the morning less adventurous and cut the sunrise hike and choose to do something more relaxing. Like doing yoga to start the day, making each other breakfast, then heading out for a paddle-board session! You can also plan for a bonfire or other activities to end the day!

two person sample elopement timeline

Elopement With Guests

We’ve outlined many tips above about how to maximize time on the trail and with family. So these are the timelines to accompany those tips. If we start early, we like to leave a break in the afternoon to relax and be in the moment. If we have a later start to the day, it’s best to just keep things going until sunset. Again, these timelines are a great starting point. You might have more ideas to customize it to better fit your day!

Sunrise Hike with Afternoon Ceremony

sunrise hike elopement timeline

Morning Ceremony with Sunset Hike

morning ceremony timeline for an elopement

Full Day With Family + Hiking

When you’re eloping with family, you usually have two really important things in mind: adventure and family. With both things taking priority, your day can easily get jam-packed with exciting ideas and plans. You’ll want to add on an epic hike that’s longer but has amazing views. Your family will want to add on catering, lawn games, or other activities to fill the day. And before you know it, you’ll have an elopement day that looks a lot like the timeline below. During the planning process, it’s very easy to say “Yes” to all of the exciting ideas. But it’s really important to keep the bigger picture in mind. This day below is just as busy as a traditional wedding day. But it also includes probably 2-3 hours of driving and 5+ miles of hiking. If you want to have a relaxed flow of your day, you’ll want to be more selective in your planning process to keep your day relaxed and easygoing.

full day elopement timeline example

However, if your reaction is, “I want ALL of that! It sounds amazing. Is there any way to do these awesome hikes and still keep all of my family activities?” In that case, having a wedding weekend might be a better plan for you. This allows you to get everything you want (and probably more) without the stress of fitting everything into one day. You can have a whole day dedicated to family and another day dedicated to hiking! This keeps everything separate and allows family to plan more traditional things. While also not compromising on any hikes or outdoor adventures with us. Sounds pretty great, right?

What about hours of coverage for an elopement timeline?

Great question! As you can see, your timeline will shrink, expand, or totally change depending on a lot of variables. We average about 8 hours of coverage with our couples. But it totally depends on the hikes, activities you plan, and other factors. Our packages are not based on hourly coverage since so many things can change. We’d rather focus on the exciting details–rather than making sure it fits into one of our packages. We prefer life to be simple like that. Makes sense, right?

Final Thoughts

If there’s one thing we would recommend, it’s to avoid over planning and to keep your day simple. One of the major reasons people elope is to avoid stress and to get away from all of the planning. It can be tempting to make sure you find the “best” hike. But we encourage our couples to slow down, keep things simple, and allow themselves room for spontaneity. We’ve had timelines with lots of amazing things planned. We’ve also had timelines that were: meet at the trailhead at 4:30 am. The rest of their day was a spontaneous adventure! We’d rather you focus on beautiful views and the fact that the two of you are GETTING MARRIED!

Hopefully, this blog post gave you a better idea of what to expect when it comes to a typical elopement timeline. Our best advice is to plan the most epic, intentional weekend getaway. And whatever that looks like for you is probably the best timeline you could ever make!