Hiking into the Wilderness: 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 simply spectacular. Inside the crater there are some 27 miles of hiking trails, two camping sites, and three cabins.

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. If you want to venture out on your own, the best route includes two trails: into the crater along Sliding Sands Trail, which begins on the rim at 9,800 feet and descends into the belly of the beast, to the valley floor at 6,600 feet; and back out along Halemauu Trail. Hardy hikers can consider making the 11-mile one-way descent, which takes 9 hours, and the equally long return ascent in a day. The rest of us will need to extend this steep but wonderful hike to 2 days. The descending and ascending trails aren't loops; the trail heads are miles (and several thousand feet in elevation) apart, so you'll need to make advance transportation arrangements to get back to your car, which you'll leave at the beginning of the hike, about a 30- to 45-minute drive from where the Halemauu Trail ends. You either arrange with someone to pick you up, hitchhike back up to your car, or hook up with other people doing the same thing and drop off one car at each trail head. Before you set out, stop at park headquarters to get camping and hiking updates. There is no registration for day hikers.

A Word of Warning About the Weather -- The weather at nearly 10,000 feet can change suddenly and without warning. Come prepared for cold, high winds, rain, and even snow in winter. Temperatures can range from 77°F (25°C) down to 26°F (-3°C), and high winds (which make it feel even colder) are frequent. Rainfall varies from 40 inches a year on the west end of the crater to more than 200 inches on the eastern side. Bring boots, waterproof gear, warm clothes, extra layers, and lots of sunscreen -- the sun shines very brightly up here.

The trail head for Sliding Sands is well marked, and the trail is 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 sparse to nonexistent at the top, but the closer you get to the crater 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 vegetation such as evening primrose as it begins its ascent up the crater wall. Occasionally, riders on horseback use this trail as an entry and exit from the park. The proper etiquette is to step aside and stand quietly next to the trail as the horses pass.

Day Hikes from the Main Entrance

In addition to the difficult hike into the crater, the park has a few shorter and easier options. Anyone can take a .5-mile walk down the Hosmer Grove Nature Trail, or you can start down Sliding Sands Trail for a mile or two to get a hint of what lies ahead (even this short hike can be exhausting at the high altitude). A good day hike is Halemauu Trail to Holua Cabin and back, an 8-mile, half-day trip.

A 20-minute orientation presentation is given daily in the Summit Building at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30am. The park rangers offer a 3-hour, 3-mile Waikamoi Cloud Forest Hike that leaves every Monday and Thursday at 8:45am; it starts at the Hosmer Grove, just inside the park entrance, and traverses through the Nature Conservancy's Waikamoi Preserve. Always call in advance: The hikes and briefing sessions may be canceled, so check first. For details, call the park at tel. 808/572-4400 or visit www.nps.gov/hale.

Camping Near the Main Entrance

Most people stay at one of two tent campgrounds; for more information, contact Haleakala National Park (tel. 808/572-4400; www.nps.gov/hale).

Cabins -- It can get really cold and windy down in the valley, so try for a cabin. They're warm, provide protection from the elements, and are reasonably priced. Each has 12 padded bunks (but no bedding; bring your own), a table, chairs, cooking utensils, a two-burner propane stove, and a wood-burning stove with firewood (you might also have a few cockroaches). The cabins are spaced so that each one is an easy walk from the other: Holua Cabin is on the Halemauu Trail, Kapalaoa Cabin on Sliding Sands Trail, and Paliku Cabin on the eastern end by the Kaupo Gap.

The cabins are so popular, requests for cabins must be made 3 months in advance (be sure to request alternate dates). You can request all three cabins at once; you're limited to 2 nights in one cabin and 3 nights total within the wilderness per month. Visit www.fhnp.org/wcr for complete rules and regulations, as well as an online application.

Campgrounds -- If you can't get a cabin for the dates you want, all is not lost -- there are three tent-camping sites that can accommodate you: two in the wilderness area, and one just outside at Hosmer Grove. There is no charge for tent camping.

Hosmer Grove, located at 6,800 feet, is a small, open, grassy area surrounded by a forest. Trees protect campers from the winds, but nights still get quite cold -- sometimes there's ice on the ground up here. This is the best place to spend the night in a tent if you want to see the Haleakala sunrise. Come up the day before, enjoy the park, take a day hike, and then turn in early. The enclosed-glass Summit Building opens at sunrise for those who come to greet the dawn -- a welcome windbreak. Facilities at Hosmer Grove include a covered pavilion with picnic tables and grills, chemical toilets, and drinking water. No permits are needed, and there's no charge -- but you can stay for only 3 nights in a 30-day period.

The two tent-camping areas inside the volcano are Holua, just off Halemauu at 6,920 feet; and Paliku, just before the Kaupo Gap at the eastern end of the valley, at 6,380 feet. Facilities at both campgrounds are limited to pit toilets and nonpotable catchment water. Water at Holua is limited, especially in summer. No open fires are allowed inside the volcano, so bring a stove if you plan to cook. Tent camping is restricted to the signed area. No camping is allowed in the horse pasture. The inviting grassy lawn in front of the cabin is off-limits. Camping is free but limited to 2 consecutive nights, and no more than 3 nights a month inside the volcano. Permits are issued at park headquarters daily from 8am to 3pm on a first-come, first-served basis on the day you plan to camp. Occupancy is limited to 25 people in each campground.

Hiking & Camping at Kipahulu (Near Hana)

In the east Maui section of Haleakala National Park, you can set up at Oheo Campground, a first-come, first-served, drive-in campground with tent sites for 100 near the ocean. It has a few tables, barbecue grills, and chemical toilets. No permit is required, but there's a 3-night limit. No food or drinking water is available, so bring your own. Bring a tent as well -- it rains 75 inches a year here. Contact Kipahulu Ranger Station, Haleakala National Park (tel. 808/248-7375; www.nps.gov/hale/planyourvisit/wilderness-camping.htm) for information.

Hiking from the Summit -- If you hike from the crater rim down Kaupo Gap to the ocean, more than 20 miles away, you'll pass through climate zones ranging from arctic to tropical. On a clear day, you can see every island except Kauai on the trip down.

Approaching Kipahulu from Hana -- If you drive to Kipahulu, you'll have to approach it from the Hana Highway -- it's not accessible from the summit. Always check in at the ranger station before you begin your hike; the staff can inform you of current conditions and share their wonderful stories about the history, culture, flora, and fauna of the area. The entry fee is $10 a car, the same as for the summit atop Haleakala.

There are two hikes you can take here. The first is a short, easy .5-mile loop along the Kaloa Point Trail (Kaloa Point is a windy bluff overlooking Oheo Gulch), which leads toward the ocean along pools and waterfalls and back to the ranger station. The clearly marked path leaves the parking area and rambles along the flat, grassy peninsula. Along the way you'll see the remnants of an ancient fishing shrine, a house site, and a lauhala-thatched building depicting an earlier time. The pools are above and below the bridge; the best for swimming are usually above the bridge.

The second hike is for the hardier. Although just a 4-mile round-trip, the trail is steep and you'll want to stop and swim in the pools, so allow 3 hours. You'll be climbing over rocks and up steep trails, so wear hiking boots. Take water, snacks, swim gear, and insect repellent. Always be on the lookout for flash-flood conditions. This walk will pass two magnificent waterfalls, the 181-foot Makahiku Falls and the even bigger 400-foot Waimoku Falls. The trail starts at the ranger station, where you'll walk uphill for .5 mile to a fence overlook at the thundering Makahiku Falls. If you're tired, you can turn around here; true adventurers should press on. Behind the lookout, the well-worn trail picks up again and goes directly to a pool on the top of the Makahiku Falls. The pool is safe to swim in as long as the waters aren't rising; if they are, get out and head back to the ranger station. The rest of the trail takes you through a meadow and bamboo forest to Waimoku Falls.

Guided Hikes -- The rangers at Kipahulu conduct a 1-mile hike to the Bamboo Forest at 9:30am daily and a 4-mile round-trip hike to Waimoku Falls on Saturday at 9:30am. All programs and hikes begin at the ranger station; they may be canceled, so check in advance by contacting the Kipahulu Ranger Station, Haleakala National Park (tel. 808/248-7375; www.nps.gov/hale).

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.