Haleakalā National Park: Trip Recap
"A growing warmth suffused the horizon, and soon the sun emerged and looked out over the cloud-waste, flinging bars of ruddy light across it, staining its folds and billow-caps with blushes, purpling the shaded troughs between, and glorifying the massy vapor- palaces and cathedrals with a wasteful splendor of all blendings and combinations of rich coloring.
It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always.” - Mark Twain in Roughing It, referring to his sunrise experience at Haleakalā Crater. (1)
This was a special trip for Katie and me for many reasons, but most significantly because it was part of our honeymoon. We didn’t spend the entire honeymoon backpacking but we couldn’t visit Maui without putting a few more miles on our hiking boots. Haleakalā National Park was one of the more unique places we have ever visited and we were thrilled to spend some time at this beautiful park.
About the Park
Haleakalā, which translates to “house of the sun,” is a sacred place for Native Hawaiian peoples. They refer to the summit as wao akua, which means “the wilderness of the gods.” (2) With nearly 60% of the park’s 33,000 acres designated as wilderness, the native sentiment holds as true today as it did in ancient times.
Haleakalā is one of two volcanoes on the island of Maui. It has a summit just over 10,000ft. The National Park is divided into two sections: the summit area, where we did an overnight backpacking trip, and the Kipahulu section, which we day-hiked.
The summit area includes Haleakalā Crater, which is nearly 7 miles across and nearly 3,000ft deep. This is where Katie and I did our overnight trip. The Kipahulu area is located on the side of the mountain and includes a biological preserve.
Our trip started in Chicago, where we boarded American Airlines for the long 14-hr flight to Maui. Katie and I battled jet-lag at a beautiful cottage on the ocean for our first night on the island.
Sunrise on Haleakalā
The most famous asset of the Haleakalā summit is its amazing sunrise experience. This is where the crater get’s its name, “house of the sun.” It is a popular tourist activity, so reservations are required on www.recreation.gov. The cost is only $1.50 per vehicle.
In order to get to the summit in time for sunrise, we had to leave our cottage at about 3:00 AM. It was a pleasant 71 degrees by the ocean but less than 40 degrees at the summit with the wind chill. Luckily we had prepared for such weather. We joked that we were the only people we knew that brought winter gear to Hawaii, but it was well worth it. We watched the sun come up over the crater among under-dressed, shivering onlookers who had apparently not done their research. The wind is intense at the summit and we recommend going as early as possible to get a spot on the enclosed observation deck.
After sunrise we drove our rental car to our ending trailhead where we had breakfast and watched a couple of nēnēs, which are endangered Hawaiian geese, foraging in the grass.
The nēnē is Hawaii’s state bird and were reduced to under 30 individuals in the 1950’s. Conservation efforts have brought the nēnē population back to approximately 500 birds on Maui. We would see many nēnēs in the crater during our trip.
The only way for us to get from our car back to the summit trailhead was to hitchhike. While I would never recommend hitchhiking under normal circumstances, this is actually what the park recommends doing. We caught a ride with a man named Julian from California. He was happy to drop us off back at the summit where we started our hike on the Sliding Sands Trail.
We began hiking at about 8:00 AM with barely any other hikers around and no other backpackers. The scenery here is beautiful: tropical but obviously volcanic. You can see almost the entire crater from here and much of our day’s hike.
While many species call Haleakalā crater home, none of them seem to make a lot of noise. The quiet is almost overwhelming. Here above the clouds, the only sounds are the wind, our footsteps, and the periodic helicopter tour in the distance. It is a very peaceful place.
We passed through several miles of volcanic remnants and Cabin #1, which is available to rent for a fee. There are several cabins in the crater and we would be camping near Cabin #2.
We met only one other backpacker this day: a solo hiker coming back from Cabin #2 heading towards the summit. The scenery continued to be other-worldly. Hardened lava flows from the 1700’s crisscrossed the trails.
After another several miles of relatively flat trail, we arrived at Palikū, our campsite for the night.
Palikū was a stark contrast to the rest of the crater. The towering walls were covered in jungle and tropical birds were singing everywhere.
We noticed a dramatic difference in perceived temperatures between sunlight and shade. The sun was very intense here. The sites for tents were in a grassy area with bees everywhere. They did not sting us but did pose for some photos.
The campsite had a ranger station, a rentable cabin (Cabin #2), and an outhouse that hadn’t been well maintained. Overall, it was a beautiful campsite.
At this elevation, we were actually in the clouds. During the day we would see clouds roll in over the crater’s jungly edge and towards our campsite.
Palikū is known for its rain, and it did not disappoint this evening. With each cloud that rolled in like a wall of fog, we anticipated a rainstorm. Finally, it started, and the downpour did not stop until the next day. Now we could see why this area is so lush.
Today we would be hiking out of the crater and back to our rental car. At our campsite, the clouds were constantly pouring over the crater’s walls and towards our tent. It was quite a site to see.
Everything was soaked because of the many hours of rain we had just received, but a couple hours of intense sunlight dried our gear up quickly.
We left camp around 11:00 AM in hot sunshine.
We hiked through more volcanic terrain to the next cabin and campsite where we had lunch accompanied by several nēnēs.
The final four miles of our hike took us through fields and up the crater’s edge back to the vehicle.
We gained about 1600ft of elevation in the last couple of miles of our hike. The views were incredible.
Several days after our initial overnight trip to the summit area of Haleakalā, we did the famous “Road to Hana” day trip. There are plenty of resources online and even a phone app to help you with that trip. During the drive, we had an opportunity to explore the lower Kipahulu section of the park, which was located just over the crater’s edge at Palikū, where we stayed the night inside the crater.
This section of the park was very different from the crater. The entire ecosystem was a stark contrast to the volcanic environment higher up the mountain. And the most notable difference is that there were about 100x more visitors in this section of the park.
We did a day hike through the forest viewing waterfalls, pools, and a Giant Banyan Tree. We continued our hike to a bamboo forest before turning around and heading back to the vehicle.