by Barry Osman
Maui Spectacular: Haleakala National Park at Sunrise
Haleakala, Hawaiian for “house of the sun,” is the home of the world’s largest slumbering volcano (222 years since the last activity). It is the centerpiece of the 30,058-acre Haleakala National Park protected by the park service on the island of Maui.
Over a million people make the 38-mile, winding trek up to the Haleakala summit every year to experience the Haleakala sunrise at the ethereal elevation of 10,023 feet, literally above (and in) the clouds. Be proud when you arrive at the summit, for you will have claimed the world record for driving to the highest elevation in the shortest distance.
Thinking big, the crater is over 3,000 feet deep, 7.5 miles long , 2.5 miles wide and home to the largest collection of rare and endangered species in any national park.
Haleakala’s Plants & Animals
Biological diversity is the theme for this uniquely quiet and peaceful corner of the world. In the 1950s, the Hawaiian Goose – Nene in Hawaiian – (Branta sandvicensis) was reintroduced, and remains the world’s most endangered goose; less than 300 can be found within the park’s boundaries, primarily in the meadows and short grasses.
Blooming only once in its 50-year lifespan, the Haleakala Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. Macrocephalum) has been thriving for over 100 years under the protection of the park service, with long silvery, spiky leaves reflecting the unfiltered rays of high-altitude sunlight and catching fine water vapor. The flowers, which appear between May and September, eventually die, dry and disperse their seeds to Haleakala’s winds.
How to Get to Haleakala Summit
The actual driving directions are fairly simple: From Hana Highway, take Haleakala Highway to Old Haleakala Highway for 38 miles of winding narrow, well paved roads. The signage is clearly understandable, and you will most likely be following a fellow sunrise seeker (although on our trip we saw very few cars because we started at 2:45am from Wailea).
The night sky was amazing (even for this 12-year resident) and the bird’s eye view of the distant city lights and multiple coastlines thousands of feet below were one of the highlights of our ascent to the summit.
Choosing to arrive a little earlier will provide many advantages when it comes to parking and viewing spots at the summit. A park ranger will be there to greet you, collect $10 per carload and issue a pass good for three days.
There are Two Main Haleakala Parking Areas
If you arrive in time, you can park at the summit and walk up 4 short sets of stairs to the building. It will be dark so you may want to use your flashlight app climbing the stairs and walking around prior to sunrise.
For the complete experience, plan to spend some time outside the round building facing the sunrise. Of course, being outside you will have the full force of the weather, and your wardrobe will play a major role in your enjoyment of this very special experience.
If coffee and snacks are the things that you will really want before hitting the summit (plus a restroom) don’t despair. Crater Coffee, in the parking lot of the Kula Lodge (about 3,400 feet) is the solution between 3am and 7am on the way up to the crater. And yes, it is the LAST (and only) STOP for coffee before the sunrise, so be forewarned.
Haleakala Summit Weather
During the drive you will be passing through 5 different climate zones, but the most dramatic will be at the summit; during my experience we registered 44° F with wind gusts of over 35 miles per hour. After living in tropical climates for over 35 years, this dramatic weather was thrilling to experience so close to home.
It is always suggested to check with the automated weather information line provided by the National Weather Service (866-944-5025), but it is ALWAYS very cold, much colder than you would anticipate, so be prepared, the rapidly changing winds and mists are almost surreal and you will really enjoy them if you are warmly protected.
During our visit, we spotted people fending off the cold winds with a variety of bedspreads, spa robes and towels. Snuggling tightly together enhances the moments spent at the summit and allows you to more comfortably experience as Mark Twain called it, “the healing solitudes of the crater” at sunrise.
You may be tempted to run up the stairs to the summit; but due to the extreme altitude, caution for pregnant women, seniors and those with respiratory problems is advised.
The glass-walled round building at the summit offers protection from the constantly changing weather, but sometimes the mist (and crowds of people standing outside in front of you) will cloud (literally) your view, so best to get a spot outside for as long as you can take the wind. When I was there, the least windy spot was at the beginning of the north wall and curve of the building.
My Journey to the Top of Haleakala
After having visited the Hawaiian islands for the past 25 years (and living here full-time for the last 12), I couldn’t contain my excitement about my planned trip to view the sunrise. “Intensely spiritual.” “Life changing,” “Truly memorable” and other comments by the millions of visitors who have preceded me to the summit, drove my anticipation.
I started the afternoon before, gathering winter clothes from various closets, folding blankets, searching out gloves (I only found one, but was happy that I brought it!) and looking for thermos jugs for the coffee that I planned to bring.
Binoculars, cameras, water, oatmeal, bananas — I felt like I was planning an expedition off of the planet — and packed the trunk full. At 1:45am we awoke to a glorious moon, got dressed and left at 2:45am to pick up our friend, Don, who would end up doing all of the driving as I sat in the back, so happy with nothing but the endless night vistas to concentrate on. Imagine booking a room on the 1000th floor! The clarity of the night sky and the brilliance of the lights below gave me a rare (and new) perspective of Maui.
The three of us arrived at the summit at a little before 5am. Sunrise at Haleakala was scheduled for 5:53am so it was still very dark. Yet just a few parking spaces remained. Upon exiting the car (even though the thermometer read 45° F), we all screamed in surprise and delight, as did all of the other arrivals, as the crisp cold wind whipped around us.
We dashed back into the car and promptly lowered the convertible top to get the best vantage of a clear night sky teeming with shooting stars; the constellations were clearly visible in a way that none of us had ever experienced before.
At the first sign of any light in the sky (around 5:15am) we left the car for the walk up to the summit and into the stronger wind gusts. The sky was clear, we were actually looking down onto the clouds, and the colors were starting to swirl. The moment was arriving, a little peek through the pink, then several gasps were heard as the first ray arrived .
Hawaiian legend goes that when demigod Maui learned that his mother’s tapa cloth would not dry quickly enough, he hid in the crater and waited for the sun to rise, then lassooed the sun and refused to let it go until it agreed to travel more slowly through the sky.
At 5:53am, just as the first rising edge of the sun was visible, we all huddled on the summit in absolute awe, absolute silence, everyone involved in their own thoughts, hopes and wishes while nature played out its 3D kaleidescope . We stayed on the summit for another 30 minutes, and as the colors and the shapes in the sky changed, the sun continued its climb once again in this most beautiful place in the world.
Amazing, dueling rainbows and sparkling a sun accompanied us (along with a rainbow of bikers ) on the ride down, as the mist cleared. The daytime vistas of the rolling green cliffsides to the water below are mesmerizing, and Haleakala bikers (and drivers) are advised to keep focused on the road.
What to Do on the Way Down from Mt. Haleakala
For me, the singular experience of driving up and down a 10,000-foot volcano for the sunrise at the summit was enough for this one trip and we arrived back home mid morning, exhilarated but ready for a nap. If you feel that you’d like to extend your morning (remember, you will probably (at least advisedly) have gone to sleep at 7-8pm the night before and awoken around 2am or earlier) there are several fun adventures on the return trip, amongst them:
- Breakfast at the Kula Lodge with an amazing multi coastline view
- Exploring the Lavender Farm
- Exploring The Surfing Goat Dairy
- Walking through the gardens at Kula Botanical Garden
- Wandering through Maui’s “Cowboy Town”— Makawao, and visiting with the many artists in residence at their galleries
- Visiting Paia Town, Maui’s “Surfing Hippie Town,” for an eclectic mix of cafes, boutiques and Mana Foods, Maui’s original natural food store.
- Exploring Maui’s Sugar History at the Sugar Museum
Returning to Haleakala National Park
My Maui Haleakala Summit at Sunrise experience was memorable and unexpected. I hope that you too, will decide to wake up early and take advantage of your opportunity to attempt to lasso the sun. I am already planning my daytime return to explore more of Haleakala National Park and another trip up the volcano for the sunset. (Remember, your pass is good for three days!)