We woke up at 6:00 AM the morning of our journey up Haleakalā, the 10,023 foot peak that engulfs the southeastern part of Maui. We were going to do the Sliding Sands Trail, which is approximately 4.7 miles round trip.
Seeing the sunrise at Haleakalā is one of the most popular attractions. We debated doing so, but eventually decided that because of where we were coming from (Waiʻānapanapa State Park), it would take us over two hours to reach the top. In addition, there is heavy traffic to get up to the summit in time to see sunrise. You’ll then spend at least 30 minutes shivering in the dark before the sunrise hits, so it is recommended to dress appropriately for the cold and bring blankets (you’re up at 10,023 feet after all).
Our car trip took us up the Hana Highway, which was very uncrowded since we were going back toward the west. However, we used Google Maps to see when to turn up this side road that takes you to Makawao. It is recommended to fill up with gas here if you’ll need it—otherwise the last gas station will be Pukalani Town. We then began a long switch-backing journey up the peak’s face. There were flocks of birds here and there, and we looked closely to see if one of them was the rare nēnē goose, Hawaii’s endangered state bird.
Eventually the ground turned to red rock, and we saw the white dome of an observation tower on the summit. We had arrived on the face of the moon a little after 8:00 AM. We stumbled out in the parking lot and took some time to adjust to the altitude before approaching the lookout to catch our first glimpse of the gigantic crater. It was super impressive. I could have stared for hours—but then I got cold.
There are fees to get into the park. The most current information is here. You can also buy permits for cabins that are far out in the vastness of the crater. It will feel like there is no limit to how far you can hike while you are inside, and eventually you will reach a lush jungle, which is really trippy against the vivid rainbow colored cliffs and red soil.
We were doing a day trip: the Sliding Sands Trail. It was a thoroughly enjoyable hike. Going down was the easy part. Make sure you stay on the trail—a ranger was quick to appear when we looked like we were straying off. This is because there are many underground nēnē nests, and if you step on the wrong spot, you could collapse their burrows. In addition, there is a lot of endangered species growing within the vibrant vermillion soil, the most striking of which was the ʻahinahina, or silver sword. The sight of this glittering silver plant really made me feel like I was on a completely different planet.
We saw a trail that led around an extinct cinder cone halfway down, but the ranger (I swear, this lady was an expert at appearing out of nowhere) appeared again and told us that was a sacred place for those of Hawaiian heritage to visit.
She eventually out-distanced us, and we were able to make our way to a crossroads shaded by bushes. There, different trails branched out to the three cabins that are spread across the crater. Unfortunately that was as far as we could go for the day. We rested and enjoyed our lunch (even though the ranger did show up again briefly, but her attention was fixated on another group of hikers). There were plenty of chukar partridges to keep us company, but the elusive nēnē remained a mystery.
The hike up was pretty brutal. The sun had hit its high point, so any lovely coolness had fled. Plus, we were going, well, straight up in some areas for 2,800 feet. We rationed our water bottles to last—we had two water bottles each. Also, I think the altitude was affecting us at this point. We were in a strange, hiking zone, and our minds definitely drifted, while our conversations started to sound increasingly like we were high. By the time we reached the parking lot, our delirious state was evident by the fact that Scott* partridges around the parking lot.
All in all, we made it out around early afternoon, which was crucial because we still had to drive all the way out, stop to gorge our faces, and then drive all the way back to Waiʻānapanapa State Park to avoid nightfall. Again: plan for how much gasoline you’re going to use.
One the way down, we have looked for any sign of the Brocken Spectre, which is this insanely cool phenomenon where you can see your shadow enlarged and encircled in a rainbow halo. It requires a whole bunch of conditions for it to happen, including the sun to be low in the sky, high altitude, rainclouds to split the white light into a rainbow, and then you standing in position on the mountain with the sun and clouds behind you. As you might imagine, the image is very surreal and spiritually beautiful.
We didn’t see this on Haleakalā, but actually a couple months later, I did witness this aboard an airplane flying in to Honolulu. I looked out the window, and there was the giant, shadow specter of the airplane illuminated by a rainbow halo against the clouds. It was pretty majestic.
For our trip down, we cruised our way to Paia and then chowed down on some deliciously gooey pizza from the Flatbread Company. It was growing dark by the time we hit the Hana Highway. I definitely don’t recommend driving this at night. There was a dog in the middle of the road around one blind turn, and a random man walking down the road around another. Locals speed down the road in giant trucks with no mercy. As such, if you ever do find yourself in such a situation, you better be wide awake and however much caution you think you’re using, use more.
We made it back safe and sound to our cabin in Waiʻānapanapa and passed out. I had hiked in a number of different mountain ranges in countries like Switzerland, South Korea, and of course, amongst the mighty peaks of the Cascades in Washington, but I really had never seen anything quite like Haleakalā before. Highly recommended to visit this extinct volcano and see that it is as still as alive and powerful as the days when it was spewing ash.
Upcoming Day 7: Northern Maui: Hana and the Red Sand Beach
Read more in the Hawaiian Travel Series:
(0) Intro: Welcome to Maui
(1) Day 1: Northwest Maui: Lahaina
(3)Day 3: Central Maui: Paia and Makawao
Disclaimer: the above is presented as fiction, not fact. *Names have been changed for the sake of privacy.