Haleakala volcano looms over south and east Maui, creating a jungle on one side and a desert on the other. Within the span of recorded history, it erupted spilling a massive lava flow into La Perouse Bay in about 1790, though some questions have been raised about that date. Rest easy. It’s considered a dormant volcano.
Haleakala is the first thing you see from the airplane as you land at Kahului; the mountain forms more than half of the island of Maui. It also weighs heavily in Hawaiian myth. It was from Haleakala’s (house of sun) summit that the demi-god Maui lassoed the sun to make it slow down over this salubrious island.
And so, many travelers make the trek to the top of the mountain, which is a national park. Sunrise is traditional, but you don’t have to do it at this time of the day. Sunset can provide the same vivid light show. From West Maui, it’s about a 2-hour drive to the summit, from South Maui, slightly less. Some people spend the night Upcountry in Kula or Makawao, so they don’t have to get up quite as early. In summer, the sun rises at about 5:30 a.m. and in winter, about 6:45 a.m. Wear a jacket and bring cap and gloves. Temperatures can be at or near freezing in the dawn hours. Some people huddle under hotel blankets.
That said, he mountain’s most dreamlike time may be at the summit after dark. You’ll see more stars, comets and spiral nebulae than you dreamed possible. Maui Stargazing offers Haleakala telescope tours that take in sunset.
Haleakala Highway starts at sea level just outside of Kahului. For now, you’ll start through sugar cane fields, though they may be gone later in 2016. Where the road begins to twist and rise, and ghostly eucalyptus groves scent the air as they do in California. Follow the signs as you drive. You’re basically going to Upcountry Kula and then turning left, though the highway numbers will change several times.
As you climb higher, vegetation becomes more sparse and the mountain more massive. Haleakala National Park covers the crater and a good bit of the slopes. The visitor center is at almost 7,000 feet and the summit almost 3,000 feet beyond, at 9.740 feet. Stop at the park headquarters visitor center to see the rare silverswords up close and the jaw-dropping views. You may also see nene, the state bird strutting around the road.
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There are two ways to experience Haleakala Crater, as a spectator – just stand and watch the majestic sunrise when the crater changes from a massive black void to a jumble of blood-red rocks. (Just remember to reserve in advance, a requirement added in early 2017.) Or you can be an adventurer. Some people bike down the mountain, now from 6,500 feet just outside the visitor center. Several companies offer this service, including Maui Downhill, Haleakala Bike Company, Maui Sunriders, and Cruiser Phil’s Volcan Riders. Another way to explore the crater is on foot, with a ranger or on your own on Sliding Sands Trail. Horseback riding is on the mountain’s flanks at about half way up with Pony Express, Pi‘iholo Ranch, Thompson Ranch and Makena Stables. Riding into the crater is no longer allowed.
Those who drive to the top and back may want to stop for breakfast or lunch at Kula Lodge or backtrack to Grandma’s Coffee House. At Makawao, Casanova Deli and Makawao Garden Café are great for salads and sandwiches.