Haleakala, a massive shield volcano that rises 10,023 feet above Maui’s coastal areas, is an enormously popular and easily accessible visitor destination. It has become almost a ritual, in fact, for visitors to rise before dawn and trek to the mountaintop to watch the sun come up from the “House of the Sun,” as it was named by early Hawaiians. (Reservations required between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.)
Located in Haleakala National Park, the volcano, which has not erupted for more than 200 years, is a place of legends and intriguing biological diversity that annually attracts more than 1 million visitors.
Haleakala Sunrise Experience
When visiting Haleakala volcano, the first thing visitors will notice is the drive that winds its way up towards the top. Considering the road gains 10,000 feet in only 38 miles, it’s believed to be the world’s steepest route from sea level to 10,000 feet. The air is cooler up here at the summit — as much as 30°F from sea level — and temperatures dip below freezing in winter with ice and occasional snow.
Given the frosty mountaintop chill, visitors planning to summit for sunrise should pack a jacket or three, especially since the sunrise, in all of its phases, can last for up to an hour. The morning begins with the serpentine climb up the mountain in inky black darkness, where the Milky Way stretches across the sky in all of its nebulous glory. After paying the National Park entrance fee of $20/vehicle, it’s still another 20 minutes to the sunrise perch at the top, and a faint red glow is just beginning to tickle the eastern horizon. By the time you’ve parked and made it to the overlook, ribbons of orange wage war with a darkness that’s slowly relenting to light, and only the largest planets and stars still twinkle high overhead. Off in the distance, south and east, the lofty summits of the Big Island of Hawaii rise silently up toward the sky, and seem to float on a sea of clouds that often begin to creep in the crater just moments after first light.
Finally, with anticipation running high and fingertips already numb, sunlight bursts from the eastern horizon and bathes the crater in light—illuminating the colorful cinder cones that rise from the crater floor.
Exploring Haleakala Volcano
As poetically beautiful and unforgettable as the moment can be, however, watching the sunrise at Haleakala is far from the only outdoor adventure you’ll find on the dormant volcano. A network of hiking trails winds its way across the crater floor, where ahinahina, or silversword plants, rise up from the reddish brown cinder, and flocks of nene geese — Hawaii’s state bird — honk as they stroll through the grass. For avid hikers who are well prepared and equipped to stay overnight, two backcountry wilderness campgrounds offer the chance to spend the day hiking across the crater floor, and fall asleep beneath the mists, the silence, the moon, and the stars.
Haleakala Downhill Bike
While riding a bike down Haleakala volcano was once a popular activity, recent changes in regulation have forced the commercial bike tour operators to no longer ride through the park. Should you choose to bike down Haleakala volcano, you’ll still see the sunrise atop the summit, and then drive back down to the National Park entrance to bike from 6,800 feet. If you want the thrill of conquering a 10,000 ft. descent on two wheels, it’s possible to hire a bike for the day and arrange your own ride to the top, and then feel the freedom of coasting a road that disappears down toward the clouds.
Haleakala for Sunset
Lastly, if the idea of waking at 3 a.m. for sunrise isn’t your thing, watching the sunset from Haleakala is an equally magical event, and free of the choking sunrise crowds that can number into the hundreds. Unlike sunrise at Haleakala — which is better viewed from the crater overlook at 9,800 feet—sunset is best from the lava rock ridge right next to the summit parking lot, where the view looks west toward the island of Lanai and Pacific Ocean below.
Tips for Visiting Haleakala
- Reservations are required to enter the park between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. Book online at recreation.gov.
- To avoid being disappointed, call the National Weather Service (877-5111) for Maui’s weather forecast.
- Dress accordingly, multiple layers recommended.
- No food or gas is available in the park. Fuel up beforehand and pack provisions.
- The drive, on paved roads from the island’s coastal areas, will take about two hours.