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House of the Sun: Haleakala National Park ★★★

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 (see “Hiking” and “Camping”). 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 $1.50 (on top of the park entrance fee) applies. You’ll need to show your reservation receipt and photo I.D. to enter the park.

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 (808/572-4400) or the National Weather Service (866/944-5025, option 4).

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.

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 (808/572-4400), 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.

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.

Silversword

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.

Go with the Friends

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.

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.

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.