Haleakala National Park lies in the center of Maui Island. It is a mere one-hour drive from the island’s famed Wailea resort district on the western shore to Mt. Haleakala’s summit. The most famous way to view the volcano’s crater is at sunrise. As the crow flies, the journey would be considerably shorter, but in reality, the only road (Highway 378) takes visitors around the base of the volcano and then ascends to the summit via seemingly endless switchbacks. Standing on porous lava rock and cinders that are thousands, if not millions of years old can be a spiritual experience. The best part is that mountaineering skills are not required.
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Admission & Facilities
Visitor centers with public restrooms are accessible at the base, at 7,000 feet and at 9700 feet. The volcano’s summit rests at just over 10,000 feet and here is where the magic happens. The most famous way to view the volcano’s crater is at sunrise. Visitors should be aware that this requires reservations at least one week in advance. The cost to buy a sunrise permit at Haleakala is $1.00 per car in addition to the regular park entrance fee of $30 per private vehicle. This fee covers park admission for three days and there are lesser fees available for other vehicle types (i.e., motorcycle or bicycle). Haleakala sunrise permits allow visitors entrance between 3:00am and 7:00am.
I opted to visit the summit at mid-morning rather than at sunrise and I was no less awed by the experience for having made that choice. Visitors are wise to layer their clothing because the weather at the top is fickle. Depending on the season, the temperature at the summit could be 30 degrees or 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I visited in February and the temperatures were in the low 60’s. On the tallest overlooks, it can feel colder, but the unobstructed sun makes a huge difference. Just remember that if you are hiking in the warmer months, there is very little shade. Bring water, sunblock and a head covering.
While the goal for many, is to see the volcano’s crater, often clouds obstruct the view. Fear not, stand still and watch as the wind shifts the clouds. The view is ever-changing. My favorite part of the morning was standing, utterly dumbstruck, as I looked down at the clouds. I could not shake the feeling that I was standing, quite literally, on top of the world.
There are several cliffs and viewing platforms where tourists can get different views of the chameleon-like landscape. The Haleakala High Altitude Observatory is Hawaii’s first astronomical observatory, and in fact, there were times where I stood contemplating my tiny place in the universe from a peak above the observatory.
The park also includes 30 miles of hiking trails that encompass a variety of landscapes, lengths and difficulty levels. There are short walks of only 10 minutes and trails that allow for multi-day overnight adventures. Few things will inspire you to beef up your fitness level more than the allure of hiking all the landscapes that Mt. Haleakala offers.
In one morning, I experienced red rocks and spiny vegetation that reminded me of a martian landscape, fine black cinders as soft as beach sand, and hip-high shrubland vegetation. Many of the hiking trails and paths are rugged and not wheelchair accessible, but the parking area at the summit does have paved sidewalks and some packed-earth paths. Visitors who need ADA accommodations should call ahead and speak with Park Rangers for more detailed information.
While on the trails, keep your eyes open for the Nēnē Goose, which is Hawaii’s state bird. They were once endangered and are now listed as vulnerable by the Federal government. Their breeding season runs from November until June. During my day in the park, several Nene waddled boldly past me at no more than ten feet away. It was my responsibility to move back, and so I did. They were not very interested in me but they are friendly. Visitors are asked to keep their distance and to drive with special care during breeding season.
Experiencing the summit of Mt. Haleakala may seem like a daunting task, but it is a more attainable goal than most travelers expect. It is also a life-changing experience that should not be missed if you are visiting the island of Maui. Haleakala National Park is primitive, astonishing and spiritual.
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