For most who are generally unfamiliar with Maui (and the Hawaiian islands on the whole for that matter), images that come to mind include turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, palm trees, grass skirts, and tropical drinks with brightly colored umbrellas. While accurate, this is a seriously one-dimensional portrait of an island teeming with life—one that’s home to an astounding array of endemic plant and animal life, a remarkable number of ecological habitats, and one of the most beautiful national parks in the country (in our humble opinion), Haleakalā National Park.
Haleakalā is a colossal shield volcano, and its exposed summit, rambling shoulders, and green, rainforested feet make up the lion’s share of this 34,294-acre national park (of which 19,270 acres are wilderness and therefore only accessible on foot). The road to the summit is quite likely among the world's steepest gradients passable by car, and travelers are able to travel a short, windy 38 miles from nearly sea level to 10,023 feet at the summit. As if the sweeping summit views and the jaw-dropping sunrises weren’t enough, climbing from a stream or riparian zone through rainforest, dry forest, and subalpine shrublands to reach the alpine aeolian zone at the summit is a marvel. The changes can feel incredibly sudden, and it’s one of the few places in the world where you can actually see turbulence rather than just feeling it—the stark changes in temperature can send clouds rippling and reverberating like a boiling eddy line in a river. It’s for these reasons among others that Haleakalā is recognized as a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve. Likewise, the sudden and sometimes unexpected change in climate can surprise tourists who find themselves waiting for a famed Haleakalā sunrise armed with a light sweater and a beach towel.
Legend has it that the gods have dealt with this predicament before, as well. Haleakalā translates to "house of the sun," because, as the story goes, the demigod Maui trapped the sun here until the sun promised to move slower on his route through the sky so Maui’s mother could have more time to dry her laundry in the day.
Long before humans found themselves shivering at the top of Haleakalā’s summit—we’re talking about two million years, here—there existed nothing but deep, blue ocean. Then, the slow-moving Pacific Plate hit a volcanic “hot spot” within the Earth’s mantle. As the mass moved, new islands sprouted up, forming the chain of landmasses that includes Maui and the Haleakalā volcano. Still, even to this day, the “hot spot” is active, and there is a new island being formed as we speak. Thanks to its tumultuous beginnings and the unique nature of the lava flow from Haleakalā, the park is the only one in the country that is fully fenced and contains an entire lava flow within it—from the tip of the mountain to the shore, five different flows are visible or partially visible and are all purported to have occurred within the last century.
The islands are unique in that they were never attached to any other landmass—at birth, they were completely “sterile,” so there is nary a species of plant or animal that is native to the islands. Over the nearly two million years since their formation, before human beings first visited, each species came by air or by sea and evolved to fit its habitat. That’s why many of them have been devastated by invasive species brought over by humans—they never evolved to defend themselves against dogs, rats, and other species that have wrought havoc on the delicate species. The silversword (‘ahinahina) is the one you’ll likely get the most personal encounter with at the Haleakalā summit. The fleshy, silvery leaves and low-growing form help it to survive. The plant can live to be 90 years old, but once it flowers, shooting up a spectacular stalk dotted with deep purple flowers, it scatters its seeds to the wind and dies. Even amid coveting tourists, munching herbivores and invasive species, the plant has endured. One threat the hard working park service will not be able to combat, though, is climate change. Hotter temperatures and lower rainfall may threaten even the hardy silversword, and researchers are working tirelessly to devise a solution.
Enter: shameless plug for Leave No Trace. Regardless of whether you’re traveling by car, by foot, or by kayak, it’s imperative that you diligently practice the seven principles.
There’s a good chance that once you take the 378 turnoff from the 377, you’ll look up and see a giant doughnut-shaped ring of clouds shrouding the summit. Don’t fret. More often than not, the clouds don’t reach the summit, and on your twisting, winding way up, you’ll emerge through the clouds to get a spectacular view from above.
Be wary of the rambling cows along the highway that graze on an open ranch that neighbors the park. Far too many tourists have come around a corner too quickly only to be surprised by a massive bovine. This hazard ceases at the 10-mile marker when you hit the entrance gate to pay your $10.
As you climb, slowly gaining altitude, the stark change in climate will become readily apparent—especially as you hit the visitor center. We suggest that you make this your first stop. From there, keep climbing.
For some higher-speed thrills, try mountain biking Haleakalā’s spine. Drop a shuttle vehicle at Kula Lavender Farm, drive up Crater Road, and follow signs for Skyline Trail (Mamane Trail splits off, then rejoins, and is a better challenge for a more seasoned mountain biker). This is mostly all downhill. Don’t forget a spare tube!
Rallying to watch the sunrise within the park is a legendary experience, one that many go far out of their way to experience. The short version of the story: Do it. Go out of your way to figure out the logistics, get out of bed at an ungodly hour, and make it happen.
If you’re able to catch it on a clear day (the weather can be highly unpredictable), expect to see a lethargic, sherbet orange sun slowly emerge from a low-hanging cloud cover—it’s like you’re able to get a secret peek into an artist’s studio as the sun paints its white, billowing canvas. It’s as amazing as it’s talked up to be.
In recent years, the amount of traffic has dramatically increased, prompting the park service to devise a way to lessen the traffic and the impact on the park. As such, they’re now requiring visitors to make sunrise reservations. You can reserve your spot online; tickets cost $1.50 per car, and this is in addition to the $10 entrance fee. For the best experience, be sure to arrive at least an hour before sunrise (ration about two hours if you’re coming from Kihei, and a bit more if you’re coming from Ka’anapali), and bring just about every piece of warm clothing you have with you. To get information on time of sunrise and weather specific to the area, call 808.877.5111. While most will naturally make for the summit, consider instead heading to Kalahaku Overlook—the views are just as spectacular and oftentimes you’ll have a bit easier of a time finding parking.
Truly, it’s nearly impossible to take in all of the awesome beauty within Haleakalā National Park even if you have a lifetime with which to do it. So swinging in for a sunrise, poking around the summit, then hitting the visitor center before you head out hardly even scratches the surface. For a more fruitful look at the magic contained within the park, we highly recommend that you stay the night or plan to return for a day (or two!) beyond your first visit.
There are three incredibly coveted cabins that are situated within the Haleakalā Crater. Everyone wants to stay in one—many book a trip to Maui simply after they’ve discovered that they’ve been able to secure reservations. Like many other popular national sites, reservations operate on a lottery system that includes a fairly lengthy application. This all is unsurprising given the allure of these all-but-magical cabins. Wood is provided for the wood burning stove, each sleeps 12, and there’s only one party allowed per cabin. The cost is $75/night with a $60 cancellation fee. Call 808.572.4400 for information on how to apply.
If your trip sadly won’t involve a stay in a cabin inside the Haleakalā Crater, there are other great (albeit crowded) overnight options:
As mentioned earlier in this article, especially during the sunrise spectacle, you’ll spot far too many tourists shivering in light layers and a kidnapped hotel beach towel. Don’t be one of those tourists. The rare climate at the summit is most extreme, characterized as a cold-summer subtype of Mediterranean climate which is relatively common in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest (think high in the Olympic, Cascade, Klamath and Sierra Nevada ranges), but extremely rare in the tropics. Here, fewer than four months a year see an average temperature above 50 degrees, and no winter month has an average temperature below 32 degrees. That said, it’s not all-too unusual for the Haleakalā summit and surrounding higher temperatures to get a dusting of snow in the winter. Yes—you read that right—snow in the Hawaiian islands. As you might expect, the park service at Haleakalā harbors no snow clearing capabilities, so if the roads do experience snowfall, the summit will likely be closed until it melts and dries out.
Elsewhere, prepare for a wide range of temperatures, especially if you’re camping. And as always, sun protection is obligatory.
You’ll probably not be surprised to find that, as is the case in most national parks, pets are only allowed in developed areas like roadways, parking lots, and the Hosmer/Kīpahulu Campgrounds, and they must be leashed at all time. Pets are also not allowed on any trails, and they cannot be left unattended in vehicles. If you are visiting the island with a pet, it may be a good idea to check with surrounding communities to find local boarding services. Park officials actively manage the area to preserve local species of flora and fauna, and a restricted pet policy is part of that management plan.