Every visitor to Maui brings home a best-of story. For many it’s about the long, winding and spectacular road to Hana. Plenty give a shout out to their day snorkeling or scuba diving off Molokini. Others brag about that whale, that birdie on the 18th at the Plantation Course, or that luau they wish never ended. But the tale I hear told the most is about that sunrise on Haleakalā.
Sunrise at the Summit of Haleakalā
Now anything that demands a 3 a.m. wake-up call followed by a 90-minute ride up steep switchbacks and a 30-degree drop in temperature needs to be better than sliced ahi. Trust me – it is!
The old cliché you have to see the darkness to appreciate the light holds oh-so-true atop Haleakalā. To fully absorb the impact of the sunrise, you need to arrive in total darkness and witness billions of white dots on the arcing black canvas above this massive seven-mile-long shield volcano, a mountain, which from ocean floor to top is actually taller than Everest.
The same conditions that convinced astronomers to build a 16-billion-dollar telescope here – no ambient light, low dust levels in the atmosphere and optimal wind flow – make it one of the best places on Earth to be awed by the night sky. When darkness fades, beyond the jagged silhouette of the volcano ridge, bands of tangerine and papaya-colored light appear above the eastern horizon. The black sky becomes gunmetal gray, then powder blue until alas, that bright orange orb makes its appearance. A new day is born, with endless possibilities ahead.
Know Before You Go:
Do you need reservations for Haleakalā Park? Sunrise at the summit requires an advanced reservation that must be made at least a week before the trip. The sunrise reservation fee does not include the park admission fee, so be prepared for that as well. However, for sunset at the summit, you do not need to buy an advanced reservation.
Hike to the Crater Floor
Most folks descend within an hour, usually returning to their resorts or favorite beaches. This, however, is the ideal time to explore the otherworldly insides of Haleakalā. From the rim into the guts of this Jupiter-esque landscape is the very inviting Sliding Sands Trail. It’s all downhill past funky shaped lava rocks into an enchanting valley of craters and crevasses but you must remember: every easy step down is a tougher one back up and there is a lot less oxygen between eight and ten thousand feet than at sea level.
The trek to the crater floor is fascinating, with more than 1.1 million years of geology revealed on the 2,600-foot descent. You’ll likely see a nene or two – the world’s rarest goose – grousing beside or flying above you. You will definitely see the indigenous silversword, a divine plant that grows, blossoms and blooms here and nowhere else on Earth. And there’s almost no doubt you will try to describe your surroundings like the surface of the planets you studied in fifth grade.
Camping Cabins & Lava Tubes
In 1937, with the help of horses and mules helping to deliver supplies, the Civilian Conservation Corps built three cabins inside Haleakalā. They are still available to rent today and are an excellent way to set up a base and explore the crater’s crannies, especially some of the accessible lava tubes. A good friend on Maui once told me, “I guarantee if you go into a lava tube, you will find the quietest place on Earth, and you will be a better person than you were when you crawl out.”
There are other ways to absorb the awe the volcano emits with less effort than tramping into the bowels of the crater or the lava tubes. Just three-tenths of a mile hike off the highway is the Leleiwi Overlook. At 8,800 feet this oft-overlooked trail offers a unique perspective as you can spy on the crater floor and the rim here.
Further down the mountain, Hosmer Grove – named after the Territory of Hawaiʻi’s first superintendent of forestry – offers an escape into a forest of conifers and Eucalyptus. It’s a short loop hike just inside the national park’s entrance and a worthy diversion showing what humans could add to an ecosystem.
Sunset at Kula Lodge
So, if one of the best experiences on Maui is the sunrise on the top of the volcano, shouldn’t the sunset be just as spectacular? Probably . . . but I know a Kula place, just 12 miles down the mountain from Hosmer Grove. It’s here, at the Kula Lodge where Venice meets Versailles. Here, you can sit inside one of nine hand-hewn gazebos that overlook the most immaculate gardens on Maui and custom order a pizza that will soon be cooked in a beautiful wood-burning old-world brick oven.
The story of the outdoor dining area is as amazing as the gorgeous lodge to which it is attached. It took three years for the artist and his construction crew to hand-place more than 450 tons of material. Every brick came from a demolished building in Honolulu, each sliver redwood for the tables from recycled wine vats. And beneath this cozy and unique setting, the floral explosion in the garden puts the rainbow to shame while the sun sets peacefully in the west behind the island of Lanai.