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.

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The summit of Haleakala, the House of the Sun, is a spectacular natural phenomenon. More than 1.3 million people a year ascend the 10,023-foot-high mountain to peer into the world’s largest dormant volcano. Haleakala has not rumbled for at least 100 years, but it’s still officially considered active. The lunar-like volcanic landscape is a national park, home to numerous rare and endangered plants, birds, and insects. Hardy adventurers hike and camp inside the crater’s wilderness. Those bound for the interior should bring survival gear, for the terrain is raw and rugged—not unlike the moon. Haleakala’s interior is one of the world’s quietest places—so silent that it exceeds the technical capacity of microphones.

Haleakala National Park extends from the volcano’s summit down its southeast flank to Maui’s eastern coast, beyond Hana. There are actually two separate districts within the park: Haleakala Summit and Kipahulu (see “Tropical Haleakala: Oheo Gulch at Kipahulu). No roads link the summit and the coast; you have to approach them separately, and you need at least a day to see each place.

Before You go

You need reservations to view sunrise from the summit. The National Park Service now limits how many cars can access the summit between 3 and 7am. Book your spot up to 60 days in advance at www.recreation.gov. A fee of $1 (on top of the park entrance fee) applies, on top of the $25 entry fee for cars ($20 for motorcycles). You’ll need to show your reservation receipt and photo I.D. to enter the park.

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Watching the sun’s first golden rays break through the clouds is spectacular, though I recommend sunset instead. It’s equally beautiful—and warmer! Plus, you’re more likely to explore the rest of the park when you’re not sleep-deprived and hungry for breakfast. Full-moon nights can be ethereal, too. No matter when you go, realize that weather is extreme at the summit, ranging from blazing sun to sudden snow flurries. As you ascend the slopes, the temperature drops about 3 degrees every 1,000 feet (305m), so the top can be 30 degrees cooler than it was at sea level. But it’s the alpine wind that really stings. Come prepared with warm layers and rain gear. For sunrise, bring every warm thing you can swaddle yourself with—blankets and sleeping bags included! And remember, glorious views aren’t guaranteed; the summit may be misty or overcast at any time of day. Before you head up the mountain, get current weather conditions from the park.

The Drive to the Summit

Just driving up the mountain is an experience. Haleakala Crater Road (Hwy. 378) is one of the fastest-ascending roads in the world. Its 33 switchbacks travel through numerous climate zones, passing in and out of clouds to finally deliver a view that extends for more than 100 miles. The trip takes 1 1/2 to 2 hours from Kahului. No matter where you start out, follow Highway 37 (Haleakala Hwy.) to Pukalani, where you’ll pick up Highway 377 (also called Haleakala Hwy.), which you take to Highway 378. Fill up your gas tank before you go—Pukalani is the last stop for fuel. Along the way, expect fog, rain, and wind. Be on the lookout for downhill bicyclists, stray cattle, and naïve nēnē, the native Hawaiian geese.

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Remember, you’re entering a high-altitude wilderness area; some people get dizzy from lack of oxygen. Bring water, a jacket, and, if you go up for sunrise, every scrap of warmth you can find. There are no concessions in the park—not a coffee urn in sight. If you plan to hike, bring extra water and snacks.

At the park entrance, you’ll pay a fee of $25 per car or $20 per motorcycle. It’s good for 3 days and includes access to the Kipahulu district on the east side of the island. Immediately after the park entrance, take a left turn into Hosmer’s Grove. A small campground abuts a beautiful evergreen forest. During Hawaii’s territorial days, forester Ralph Hosmer planted experimental groves, hoping to launch a timber industry. It failed, but a few of his sweet-smelling cedars and pines remain. Birders should make a beeline here. A half-mile loop trail snakes from the parking lot through the evergreens to a picturesque gulch, where rare Hawaiian honeycreepers flit above native ‘ōhi‘a and sandalwood trees. The charismatic birds are best spotted in the early morning hours.

One mile from the park entrance, at 7,000 feet, is Haleakala National Park Headquarters, open daily from 7am to 3:45pm. Stop here to pick up park information and camping permits, use the restroom, fill your water bottle, and purchase park swag. Keep an eye out for the native Hawaiian goose. With its black face, buff cheeks, and partially webbed feet, the gray-brown nēnē looks its cousin, the Canada goose; but the Hawaiian bird doesn’t migrate and prefers lava beds to lakes. Nēnē once flourished throughout Hawaii, but habitat destruction and introduced predators (rats, cats, dogs, and mongooses) nearly caused their extinction. By 1951, there were only 30 left. The Boy Scouts helped reintroduce captive-raised birds into the park. The species remains endangered, but is now protected as Hawaii’s state bird.

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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 get a sudden headache, consider turning around and going back down.

The Leleiwi Overlook is just beyond mile marker 17. From the parking area, a short trail leads to a spectacular view of the colorful volcanic crater. When the clouds are low and the sun is in the right place (usually around sunset), you may witness the “Brocken Spectre”—a reflection of your shadow, ringed by a rainbow, in the clouds below. This optical illusion—caused by a rare combination of sun, shadow, and fog—occurs in just three places: Haleakala, Scotland, and Germany.

Continue on to the Haleakala Visitor Center, open daily at sunrise (5:45am–3pm). It offers panoramic views, 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. The actual summit is a little farther on, at Puu Ulaula Overlook (also known as Red Hill), the volcano’s highest point, where you’ll see Haleakala Observatories’ cluster of buildings—known unofficially as Science City. The Puu Ulaula Overlook, with its glass-enclosed windbreak, is a prime viewing spot, crowded with shivering folks at sunrise. It’s also the best place to see a rare silversword. This botanical wonder is the punk of the plant world—like a spacey artichoke with attitude. Silverswords grow only in Hawaii, take from 4 to 30 years to bloom, and then, usually between May and October, send up a 1- to 6-foot stalk covered in multitudes of reddish, sunflower-like blooms. Don’t walk too close to silversword plants, as footfalls can damage their roots.

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On your way back down, stop at the Kalahaku Overlook. On a clear day you can see all the way across Alenuihaha Channel to the often snowcapped summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Tip: Put your car in low gear when driving down the Haleakala Crater Road, so you don’t destroy your brakes by riding them the whole way down.

Service trips

The Friends of Haleakala National Park is a volunteer organization that leads three-day service trips into crater’s wilderness. Backpack into the heart of Haleakala, spend a few hours pull weeds or painting cabins, and gain a deeper appreciation for this magnificent terrain in the company of likeminded volunteers. Trip leaders take care of renting the cabins and supervising rides and meals—which can be hard to do from afar. The trip is free, though you will pitch in for shared meals. Be prepared for 4-10 miles of hiking in inclement weather. Sign up at ww.fhnp.org.

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Hiking into the Wilderness Area: Sliding Sands & Halemauu Trails

Hiking into Maui’s dormant volcano is the best way to see it. The terrain inside the wilderness area of the volcano, which ranges from burnt-red cinder cones to ebony-black lava flows, is astonishing. There are some 27 miles of hiking trails, two camping sites, and three cabins.

Entrance to Haleakala National Park is $25 per car. The rangers offer free guided hikes (usually Mon and Thurs), a great way to learn about the unusual flora and geological formations here. Wear sturdy shoes and be prepared for wind, rain, and intense sun. Bring water, snacks, and a hat. Additional options include full-moon hikes and star-program hikes. The hikes and briefing sessions may be canceled, so check first (see above for contact info).

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Try to arrange to stay at least 1 night in the park; 2 or 3 nights will allow you more time to explore the fascinating interior of the volcano (for details on the cabins and campgrounds in the wilderness area of the valley). If you want to venture out on your own, the best route takes in two trails: into the crater along Sliding Sands Trail, which begins on the rim at 9,800 feet and descends to the valley floor at 6,600 feet, and back out along Halemauu Trail. Before you set out, stop at park headquarters to get trail updates.

The trail head for Sliding Sands is well marked and the trail easy to follow over lava flows and cinders. As you descend, look around: The view is breathtaking. In the afternoon, waves of clouds flow into the Kaupo and Koolau gaps. Vegetation is spare to nonexistent at the top, but the closer you get to the valley floor, the more growth you’ll see: bracken ferns, pili grass, shrubs, even flowers. On the floor, the trail travels across rough lava flows, passing by rare silversword plants, volcanic vents, and multicolored cinder cones.

The Halemauu Trail goes over red and black lava and past native ohelo berries and ohia trees as it ascends up the valley wall. Occasionally, riders on horseback use this trail. The proper etiquette is to step aside and stand quietly next to the trail as the horses pass.

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Some shorter and easier hiking options include the .5-mile walk down the Hosmer Grove Nature Trail, or just the first mile or two down Sliding Sands Trail. (Even this short hike is exhausting at the high altitude.) A good day hike is Halemauu Trail to Holua Cabin and back, an 8-mile, half-day trip.

Kipahulu

One section of Haleakala National Park is not accessible from the summit: Lush and rainy Kipahulu is all the way out in Hana. From the ranger station just off of Hana Highway, it’s a short hike above the famous Oheo Gulch (aka the Seven Sacred Pools) to two spectacular waterfalls. The first, Makahiku Falls, is easily reached from the central parking area; the trail head begins near the ranger station. Pipiwai Trail leads you up to the road and beyond for .5 miles to the overlook. Continue on another 1.5 miles across two bridges and through a magical bamboo forest to Waimoku Falls. It’s a challenging uphill hike, but mostly shaded and sweetened by the sounds of clattering bamboo canes. In times of hard rain, streams swell quickly. Never attempt to cross flooding waters.

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For more information on the natural history of the park, and the lore surrounding it, click here.