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At once forbidding and compelling, Haleakala (House of the Sun) National Park is Maui's main natural attraction. More than 1.3 million people a year ascend the 10,023-foot-high mountain to peer down into the crater of the world's largest dormant volcano. (Haleakala is officially considered active, even though it has not rumbled since 1790.) That hole would hold Manhattan: 3,000 feet deep, 7 1/2 miles long by 2 1/2 miles wide, and encompassing 19 square miles.

The Hawaiians recognize the mountain as a sacred site. Ancient chants tell of Pele, the volcano goddess, and one of her siblings doing battle on the crater floor where Kawilinau (Bottomless Pit) now stands. Commoners in ancient Hawaii didn't spend much time here, though. The only people allowed into this sacred area were the kahuna, who took their apprentices to live for periods of time in this intensely spiritual place. Today, New Agers also revere Haleakala as one of the earth's powerful energy points, and even the U.S. Air Force has a not-very-well-explained presence here.

But there's more to do here than simply stare into a big black hole: Just going up the mountain is an experience in itself. Where else on the planet can you climb from sea level to 10,000 feet in just 37 miles, or a 2-hour drive? The snaky road passes through big, puffy cumulus clouds to offer magnificent views of the isthmus of Maui, the West Maui Mountains, and the Pacific Ocean.

Many drive up to the summit in predawn darkness to watch the sunrise over Haleakala; writer Mark Twain called it "the sublimest spectacle" of his life. Others take a trail ride inside the bleak lunar landscape of the wilderness inside the crater or coast down the 37-mile road from the summit on a bicycle with special brakes. Hardy adventurers hike and camp inside the crater's wilderness. Those bound for the interior should bring their survival gear, for the terrain is raw, rugged, and punishing -- not unlike the moon. However, if you choose to experience Haleakala National Park, it will prove memorable -- guaranteed.

Just the Facts

Haleakala National Park extends from the summit of Mount Haleakala into the crater, down the volcano's southeast flank to Maui's eastern coast, beyond Hana. There are actually two separate and distinct destinations within the park: Haleakala Summit and the Kipahulu coast. The summit gets all the publicity, but Kipahulu draws crowds, too -- it's lush, green, and tropical, and home to Oheo Gulch (also known as Seven Sacred Pools). No road links the summit and the coast; you have to approach them separately, and you need at least a day to see each place.

When to Go -- At the 10,023-foot summit, weather changes fast. With wind chill, temperatures can be freezing any time of year. Summer can be dry and warm; winter can be wet, windy, and cold. Before you go, get current weather conditions from the park (tel. 808/572-4400) or the National Weather Service (tel. 866/944-5025; www.prh.noaa.gov/hnl).

From sunrise to noon, the light is weak, but the view is usually free of clouds. The best time for photos is in the afternoon, when the sun lights the crater and clouds are few. Go on full-moon nights for spectacular viewing. However, even when the forecast is promising, the weather at Haleakala can change in an instant -- be prepared.

Access Points -- Haleakala Summit is 37 miles, or a 1 1/2- to 2-hour drive, from Kahului. To get here, take Hwy. 37 to Hwy. 377 to Hwy. 378. Pukalani is the last town for water, food, and gas.

The Kipahulu section of Haleakala National Park is on Maui's east end near Hana, 60 miles from Kahului on Hwy. 36 (Hana Hwy.). Due to traffic and rough road conditions, plan on 4 hours for the one-way drive from Kahului. Hana is the only nearby town for services, water, gas, food, and overnight lodging; some facilities may not be open after dark.

At both entrances to the park, the admission fee is $5 per person or $10 per car, good for a week of unlimited entry.

Information, Visitor Centers, and Ranger Programs -- For information before you go, contact Haleakala National Park, PO Box 369, Makawao, HI 96768 (tel. 808/572-4400; www.nps.gov/hale).

One mile from the park entrance, at 7,000 feet, is Haleakala National Park Headquarters (tel. 808/572-4400), open daily from 6:30am to 4pm. Stop here to pick up information on park programs and activities, get camping permits, and, occasionally, see a nene (Hawaiian goose) -- one or more are often here to greet visitors. Restrooms, a pay phone, and drinking water are also available.

The Haleakala Visitor Center, open daily from sunrise to 3pm, is near the summit, 11 miles past the park entrance. It offers a panoramic view of the volcanic landscape, with photos identifying the various features, and exhibits that explain the area's history, ecology, geology, and volcanology. Park staff members are often on hand to answer questions. Restrooms and water are available.

Rangers offer excellent, informative, and free Citizen Scientists talks from 9am to 2pm daily in the summit building.

Experiencing Haleakala National Park

Dominating the east side of Maui is the 10,000-foot summit of Mount Haleakala, long recognized by Hawaiians as a sacred site. The volcano and its surrounding wilderness, extending down the volcano's southeast flank to Maui's eastern coast, offer spectacular treats for the senses. At the summit, you'll encounter dry alpine air, multihued volcanic landscapes, dramatic mists and clouds, and views of three other islands on a clear day; near the sea, the lush green of a subtropical rainforest takes over. You'll find freshwater pools, towering ohia and koa trees, ginger and ti plants, kukui, mango, guava, and bamboo.

The "House of the Sun" -- According to ancient legend, Haleakala got its name from a clever trick that the demigod Maui pulled on the sun. Maui's mother, the goddess Hina, complained one day that the sun sped across the sky so quickly that her tapa cloth couldn't dry. Maui, known as a trickster, devised a plan. The next morning he went to the top of the great mountain and waited for the sun to poke its head above the horizon. Quickly, Maui lassoed the sun, bringing its path across the sky to an abrupt halt. The sun begged Maui to let go, and Maui said he would on one condition: that the sun slow its trip across the sky to give the island more sunlight. The sun assented. In honor of this agreement, the Hawaiians call the mountain Haleakala, or "House of the Sun." To this day, the top of Haleakala has about 15 minutes more sunlight than the communities on the coastline below.

The Lay of the Land -- Scientists believe that the Haleakala volcano began its growth on the ocean floor about 2 million years ago, as magma from below the Pacific Ocean floor erupted through cracks in the Pacific Plate. The volcano has erupted numerous times over the past 10,000 years. Though the most recent eruption is thought to have occurred about 1790, Haleakala is still considered an active volcano. You'll pass through as many ecological zones on a two-hour drive from the humid coast to the harsh summit of the mountain as you would on a journey from Mexico to Canada, and the temperature can vary 30 degrees from sea level to summit. Haleakala is home to more endangered species than any other national park in the U.S., and the park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. Among the rare birds and animals you may see here:

Nene (Hawaiian goose) [Branta sandwichensis]: A relative of the Canada goose, the nene is Hawaii's state bird, standing about 2 feet high with a black head and yellow cheeks. The wild nene on Haleakala number fewer than 250, and the species remains endangered.

'U'au (Hawaiian petrel) [Pterodroma sandwichensis]: These large, dark grey-brown and white birds travel as far as Alaska and Japan on two-week feeding trips. Their status is listed as vulnerable; it's estimated that fewer than 1,000 birds are nesting on the Haleakala crater.

Kike koa (Maui parrotbill) [Pseudonestor xanthophrys]: One of Hawaii's rarest birds, it has an olive green body and yellow chest. Its strong, hooked, parrot-like bill is used to pry chunks of koa bark as it searches for food.

'Akohekohe (Crested honeycreeper) [Palmeria dolei]: Listed as a critically endangered species, this bird is native only to a 22-mile-square area on the northeastern slope of Haleakala. It has primarily black plumage, with bright-orange surrounding the eyes and nape, and a furl of white feathers sprouting over the beak.

The Drive to the Summit

If you look on a Maui map, almost in the middle of the part that resembles a torso, there's a black wiggly line that looks like this: WWWWW. That's Hwy. 378, also known as Haleakala Crater Road -- one of the fastest-ascending roads in the world. This grand corniche has at least 33 switchbacks; passes through numerous climate zones; goes under, in, and out of clouds; takes you past rare silversword plants and endangered Hawaiian geese sailing through the clear, thin air; and offers a view that extends for more than 100 miles.

Going to the summit takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours from Kahului. No matter where you start out, you'll follow Hwy. 37 (Haleakala Hwy.) to Pukalani, where you'll pick up Hwy. 377 (which is also Haleakala Hwy.), which you'll take to Hwy. 378. Along the way, expect fog, rain, and wind. You may encounter stray cattle and downhill bicyclists. Fill up your gas tank before you go -- the only gas available is 27 miles below the summit at Pukalani. There are no facilities beyond the ranger stations, so bring your own food and water.

Remember, you're entering a high-altitude wilderness area. Some people get dizzy due to the lack of oxygen; you might also suffer lightheadedness, shortness of breath, nausea, severe headaches, flatulence, or dehydration. People with asthma, pregnant women, heavy smokers, and those with heart conditions should be especially careful in the rarefied air. Bring water and a jacket or a blanket, especially if you go up for sunrise. Or you might want to go up to the summit for sunset, which is also spectacular.

As you go up the slopes, the temperature drops about 3° every 1,000 feet, so the temperature at the top can be 30° cooler than it was at sea level. Come prepared with sweaters, jackets, and rain gear.

At the park entrance, you'll pay an entrance fee of $10 per car (or $5 per person without a vehicle). About a mile from the entrance is park headquarters, where an endangered nene, or Hawaiian goose, may greet you with its unique call. With its black face, buff cheeks, and partially webbed feet, the gray-brown bird looks like a small Canada goose with zebra stripes; it brays out "nay-nay" (thus its name), doesn't migrate, and prefers lava beds to lakes. The unusual goose clings to a precarious existence on these alpine slopes. Vast populations of more than 25,000 once inhabited Hawaii, but hunters, pigs, feral cats and dogs, and mongooses preyed on the nene; coupled with habitat destruction, these predators nearly caused its extinction. By 1951, there were only 30 left. Now protected as Hawaii's state bird, the wild nene on Haleakala number fewer than 250 -- and the species remains endangered.

Beyond headquarters are two scenic overlooks on the way to the summit; stop at Leleiwi on the way up and Kalahaku on the way back down, if only to get out, stretch, and get accustomed to the heights. Take a deep breath, look around, and pop your ears. If you feel dizzy or drowsy, or get a sudden headache, consider turning around and going back down.

Leleiwi Overlook is just beyond mile marker 17. From the parking area, a short trail leads you to a panoramic view of the lunarlike crater. When the clouds are low and the sun is in the right place, usually around sunset, you may experience a phenomenon known as the "Specter of the Brocken" -- you can see a reflection of your shadow, ringed by a rainbow, in the clouds below. It's an optical illusion caused by a rare combination of sun, shadow, and fog that occurs in only three places on the planet: Haleakala, Scotland, and Germany.

Two miles farther along is Kalahaku Overlook, the best place to see a rare silversword. You can turn into this overlook only when you are descending from the top. The silversword is the punk of the plant world, its silvery bayonets displaying tiny purple bouquets -- like a spacey artichoke with attitude. This botanical wonder proved irresistible to humans, who gathered them in gunnysacks for Chinese potions and British specimen collections, and just for the sheer thrill of having something so rare. Silverswords grow only in Hawaii, take from 4 to 50 years to bloom, and then, usually between May and October, send up a 1- to 6-foot stalk with a purple bouquet of sunflower-like blooms. They're very rare, so don't even think about taking one home.

Continue on, and you'll quickly reach the Haleakala Visitor Center, which offers spectacular views. You'll feel as if you're at the edge of the earth. But don't turn around here: The actual summit's a little farther on, at Puu Ulaula Overlook (also known as Red Hill), the volcano's highest point, where you'll find a mysterious cluster of buildings officially known as Haleakala Observatories, but unofficially called Science City. If you go up for sunrise, the building at Puu Ulaula Overlook, a triangle of glass that serves as a windbreak, is the best viewing spot. After the daily miracle of sunrise -- the sun seems to rise out of the vast crater (hence the name "House of the Sun") -- you can see all the way across Alenuihaha Channel to the often-snowcapped summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

Making Your Descent -- When driving down the Haleakala Crater Road, be sure to put your car in low gear. That way, you won't destroy your brakes by riding them the whole way down.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.