Say Hello to the Sun at Haleakala National Park
The Big Island may have Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth, but Maui is home to a quieter, gentler volcano that also offers one of the best views of a sunrise or sunset on the planet. While many visitors endure the 3 a.m. wake up call and long drive to Haleakala’s summit to meet the sun, Haleakala National Park has much more to offer than just a spectacular sunrise including picturesque hiking trails, camping, and a host of rare flora and fauna.
In Hawaiian, Haleakala translates to “the house of the sun,” and according to Hawaiian legend, it is where the demi-god Maui captured the sun to slow its journey and allow his mother’s kapa (cloth) to dry. Haleakala was also home to the volcano goddess Pele before she moved to the Big Island and settled into her current home at Kilauea. With so much mana (spiritual energy) here it isn’t surprising that in ancient times only the kahuna (priests) were allowed to the summit of Haleakala, and that this special place remains a very sacred and spiritual site to this day.
Worried about an eruption? You needn’t be. Haleakala is a dormant shield volcano, which last erupted hundreds of years between 1480 and 1780 when it sent lava down to La Perouse Bay.
Though not many visitors venture into the crater itself, those who do will likely be surprised when they first see it from the visitor center at the summit. Unlike the forests and beaches that Hawaii is known for, Haleakala’s crater has been compared to a Martian landscape – a desert-like, barren plot of land.
If you’re planning to hike it on over to Haleakala, here are a few activities to do and tips to look out for:
Sunrise at the summit
Though you can watch a beautiful sunset from Haleakala’s summit which towers more than 10,000 feet above sea level, most visitors choose to wake up early to catch the sunrise. While the chance to greet the sun at “the house of the sun” is a breathtaking experience, the wind chill may freeze your spirits if you don’t come prepared. It is typically very cold and windy at the summit — even during Hawai‘i’s hot summer days — so be sure to pack a warm jacket and long pants if you don’t want your chattering teeth to distract you from the amazing view.
Take a hike
After the sun is up there’s still lots to see and do at the 30,000-acre Haleakala National Park. Haleakala offers more than 37 miles of trails that can take from a few minutes to a few days to hike with difficulties of all levels. Those feeling a little more adventurous can also reserve one of the park’s wilderness cabins that are only accessible by trail. For those who want to experience the outdoors but want their car nearby, the park also offers two car-accessible campgrounds — one near sea level and the other closer to Haleakala’s summit.
The Kipahulu area of the park leads down to the ocean and offers more tropical environments to explore. You can take a brief walk to see the coastline or do a half-day hike to the bamboo forests and waterfalls. Or cool off by taking a dip in the freshwater pools at Ohe’o Gulch – just be sure to check the water and weather conditions at the visitor center before wading in.
Spot some stars
Visitors who choose to watch the sunset from the summit should stay a little longer and do some stargazing. While Mauna Kea may be the best known mountain in Hawaii for stargazing, Haleakala still offers one of the best, and most easily accessible places to watch the planets, moons, and stars. Maybe you’ll even catch a shooting star (if you do, you can wish for your Hawaiian vacation to last a little longer).
Sights to see
While you’re heading up or down the volcano, drivers should be especially cautious and on the look out for nene goose, the Hawaiian goose, which nests on Haleakala as well as throughout Hawaii Island. The nene is Hawaii’s official state bird and is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. This rare bird came close to extinction at one point and is still one of the most threatened of all water birds, so a sighting in the wild is always cause for excitement.
Haleakala visitors will also want to keep an eye out for the silversword, known as ahinahina in Hawaiian, this plant is typically associated with Haleakala National Park, though there are a few of these plants on Hawaii Island. A silversword sighting is especially rare – there are less of the plant than the endangered nene goose. If you do spot one, the silversword lights up against the dark cinders of Haleakala with its rosette shape of pointed silver leaves.
This rare plant blooms just once in its lifetime before it dies and one of the reasons this plant has subspecies on the endangered and threatened lists is because of its appeal to visitors. Travelers captivated by its beauty would take them home as keepsakes, so while this silvery ball may look like an excellent addition to your home garden, please remember not to pick or disturb them.