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AARP’s Guide to Hawaii’s Haleakalā National Park

Black cinder dunes, exotic birds and a legendary sunrise highlight this volcanic playground on Maui

Sunrise at Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii

M.M. Sweet/Getty Images

Two or three hours from the luaus and swim-up bars at Maui’s beachside resorts, one of the world’s largest dormant volcanoes looms 10,023 feet above the island’s crashing cobalt surf. Welcome to Haleakalā National Park (HNP), a 30,183-acre tract of rugged Hawaiian upcountry.

Native Hawaiian legend has it that Haleakalā, designated as a national park in 1961, was conceived when the demigod Maui captured the sun with his coconut-fiber lasso for his mother, the moon goddess Hina. As a result of its imprisonment, the sun promised to move more slowly across the sky, producing more daylight for Hina to dry her kapa-bark clothing. To honor this pact, Hawaiians named the majestic volcano Haleakalā, or “House of the Sun.”

map of hawaii with location of haleakala national park marked

Getty Images/AARP

Facts

Park location: Hawaiian island of Maui

Highest peak: Puʻuʻulaʻula Point, at 10,023 feet above sea level

Lowest valley: Sea level, at the Pacific Ocean in the Kīpahulu District

Miles of trails: Nearly 40

Main attraction: Haleakalā Crater, in the Summit District

Cost: $30 per vehicle entrance fee ($20 with the annual Senior Pass), valid for three consecutive days

Best way to see it: Driving by car to the summit and hiking its many trails

When to go: Year-round

Haleakalā’s growth began some 2 million years ago, and the volcano has erupted at least 10 times in the past millennia, most recently between the years 1480 and 1600. Although it’s not expected to awake anytime soon, east Maui’s long history suggests it could erupt again. “The summit of Haleakalā once reached 15,000 feet above sea level,” says Jin Prugsawan Harlow, HNP’s chief of interpretation, education and volunteers. “Haleakalā is so heavy that it began to sink into the crust of the Earth.” (Fun fact: Haleakalā rises more than 29,000 feet from seafloor to summit, making it taller than Mount Everest.)

Today, HNP’s heavenly landscape, which forms Maui’s eastern rampart, stretches from its above-the-clouds volcanic peak to the craggy Pacific coastline. Two dramatically distinct sections form the park: the Summit District, a rolling red desert of cinder cones and volcanic ash, and the Kīpahulu District, a seaside rain forest valley of waterfalls, pooling streams and bamboo woodlands. HNP is also home to 103 endangered species, including the nēnē goose — Hawaii’s state bird — and the Haleakalā silversword plant.

The park’s otherworldly allure has gobsmacked some of America’s finest wordsmiths, too. Mark Twain, during his 1866 voyage through the Hawaiian Islands, called Haleakalā’s sunrise “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always.” Decades later, in 1907, famed novelist and adventurer Jack London horse-packed through the terrain, rendering it “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.”

The Summit District’s Haleakalā Crater (technically, it’s an “erosional depression”) lures the bulk of HNP’s 1.2 million annual visitors. There you can access most of the park’s best viewpoints and outdoor activities in one day: sunrise and sunset viewing, bird-watching, stargazing and hiking along its more than 30 miles of trails. Named “the quietest place on Earth” by acoustic experts, HNP delivers record-book quietude, too, especially on a walk beneath the volcano’s rim.

Haleakalā Volcano

AStarphotographer/Getty Images

Haleakalā Volcano

Plan Your Trip

Any time of year is a great time to visit HNP. From the mainland or another Hawaiian island, fly to Kahului Airport in central Maui, then take highways 37, 377 and 378 to the park. The 38-mile drive to the summit, an ear-popping ascent, takes roughly two hours.  

Maui’s tropical weather all but disappears in the Summit District, where conditions are quick to change, delivering an unpredictable pattern of sunshine, rain and chilling winds. Temperatures range between 30 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to pack extra warm clothes for sunrise — a down jacket, gloves and a winter hat. For hiking one of the trails, bring raingear, plenty of water, sturdy hiking shoes and sunscreen.

You’ll find two visitor centers in the Summit District: Headquarters Visitor Center, one mile past the park entrance at 7,000 feet, and Haleakalā Visitor Center at 9,740 feet, 30 minutes farther up the mountain. At both, you can buy books and souvenirs, see cultural displays and ask park rangers questions.

The Kīpahulu District, currently open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., is 12 miles past the town of Hāna, accessed via the scenic Hāna Highway (Highway 36), which hugs Maui’s northeast coast. From the airport, allow up to 3 1/2 hours to get there (the 62-mile drive is narrow and slick, with plenty of waterfalls and photo ops along the way). Weather-wise, you’re back at the beach, so plan for both hot and rainy coastal weather. The Kīpahulu Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Due to distance and the severity of the routes, visiting both sections of the park in the same day isn’t recommended.

Bamboo forest, woman on Pipiwai Trail, Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii

Westend61/Getty Images

Pipiwai Trail

Things to Do

Watch the sunrise (or sunset): Viewing HNP’s world-famous sunrise requires a winter wardrobe and a 3 a.m. wake-up call. But first, up to 60 days in advance, you must secure a ticket ($1) at recreation.gov, valid for one designated day only. If tickets for your preferred day sell out, a limited number are released 48 hours prior to that date at 7 a.m. HST, but you must act fast.

When your day arrives, hop in your rental car, drive up the winding summit road in the ebony-dark night, bundle up (sunrise temperatures can dip into the 30s), wait at the mouth of the crater and prepare to be wowed. Haleakalā’s ethereal first light has a personality of its own, producing a breathtaking kaleidoscope of rosy-pinks, pastel-purples, peachy-oranges and a variety of other shades that transcend description. When the sun peeks above the horizon and rises over the crater’s walls, you’ll hear applause from the crowd and streams of oohs and aahs.

If you’re not an early riser, HNP’s sunsets are just as astonishing. Permits aren’t required, and temperatures are substantially warmer.

Hike: HNP is a hiker’s dream, with nearly 40 miles of marked trails that cross several microclimates and vegetation zones, from mauka to makai (mountains to sea). While much of the trail network features big elevation changes and rocky or muddy conditions, there are a few moderate paths where the less adventurous can experience the park’s grandeur, including the half-mile Hosmer Grove Trail. Located near the park entrance, the trail represents one of the only green spots in the Summit District’s barren landscape, looping visitors through native shrubland and alien forest. Here, in 1910, Ralph S. Hosmer planted tree species from around the world — Australian eucalyptus, Japanese sugi pine, Indian cedar — in hopes of launching a timber trade. His experiment failed, but it left behind a stunning canopy of verdant (and fragrant) flora. Another doable hike, also a subalpine one, is the 2.2-mile Halemau’u Trail, halfway up the summit road. It leads to the dramatic Rainbow Bridge ridgetop viewpoint.

For the ultimate challenge and a true bucket-list trek, the park’s signature Keoneheʻeheʻe Trail (also called the Sliding Sands Trail) drops more than 2,500 feet over four miles to Haleakalā Crater’s desolate sandy floor. Begin the hike at the Haleakalā Visitor Center parking lot, and plan on an early start to complete this strenuous, 11.5-mile trek. Turn around at Pele’s Paint Pot, the trail’s midway point, and expect to spend double the amount of time climbing back up the mountain.

In the Kīpahulu District, the easy half-mile Kūloa Point Trail at ‘Oheo‘o Gulch passes through a hala tree grove and an original Hawaiian settlement site, closing with an ocean view of Maui’s Seven Sacred Pools, a collection of beautiful waterfalls and freshwater pools. Prugsawan Harlow suggests downloading the NPS app on your phone beforehand. “You’ll learn about plants brought by Polynesian voyagers and observe hale built by early people,” she says. Hiking the 3.7-mile, bamboo-laden Pīpīwai Trail delivers an equally impressive reward: Waimoku Falls, a towering, 400-foot waterfall.

Stop at scenic overlooks: The Summit Observation Deck at Puʻuʻulaʻula Point is the park’s highest — and most popular — location, and accessible for those with mobility issues. On a clear day, you can see the dormant Mauna Kea and active Mauna Loa volcanoes (80 and 100 miles away) on the Island of Hawaii (the Big Island, as it’s often called). Less-busy vantage points are the Leileiwi and Kalahaku overlooks, at 8,840 and 9,324 feet, respectively. At both, you’ll “have incredible views of Haleakalā Crater all to yourself,” says Prugsawan Harlow.

Go bird-watching: Some of the largest concentrations of endemic Hawaiian birds are found in HNP, including whole populations of several endangered species, so be sure to pack a pair of binoculars. Hosmer’s Grove echoes with the songs of native honeycreepers, found nowhere else on Earth. One such variety is the ʻiʻiwi, whose hooked orange bill enables it to sip on nectar from the forest’s curved flowers. (The bird’s bright red feathers were once prized by Hawaiian royalty to decorate their capes.) Another is the critically endangered kiwikiu, also known as the Maui parrotbill. Listen for this stocky, olive green bird’s short chirp, which warbles through the trees every few seconds.

Often seen along park roads is the endangered nēnē, Hawaii’s state bird, so drive carefully. Once extinct on Maui, these geese — a descendant of the Canada goose — were successfully reintroduced in 1962. Today, HNP hosts a population of 250 Hawaiian geese (look for them near HNP’s crater area). If you’re really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a pueo, Hawaii’s short-eared owl, hunting over a meadow at dawn or dusk near the park’s entrance. In Hawaiian mythology, these ground-nesting birds of prey are considered spiritual ancestors to native families.

Where to Stay and Eat

HNP offers two front-country camping options: Hosmer Grove (six sites at $5 per night) and Kīpahulu (20 sites at $8 per night). Pit toilets, potable water and a charcoal grill are available at Hosmer Grove, while Kīpahulu features vault toilets, a grill and a water station at the visitor center, one-eighth of a mile away. Book through recreation.gov.

Outside of the park, numerous hotels are available on Maui, with most visitors making the long drive from the island’s major resort areas of Kaanapali, Kapalua, Lahaina and Wailea. To save yourself time in the car, your best bet is to overnight and dine (there is no food in the park) on Haleakalā’s northern slopes or on the North Coast.

In the Upcountry town of Kula, on the northern slopes, book one of the five rustic cottages at Kula Lodge. Each unit comes with its own fireplace and a terrace offering panoramic views (elevation: 3,200 feet) of the West Maui Mountains and the island of Lanai. For locally sourced fare, sample the juicy Maui cattle burger at the lodge’s in-house restaurant.

In charming Makawao, Upcountry’s hub, the Lumeria is a 24-room wellness retreat. At breakfast (which is included), enjoy fresh papaya and guava straight from the property’s lush fruit groves. Then, after a day on the trails or shopping in Makawao’s various art galleries, chow down at the Wooden Crate, the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant. A good menu choice: the grilled mahi-mahi plate.

Right up the road in Hali’maile, grab a ginger-and-tamari-marinated ahi poke bowl at the Hali’maile General Store, a favorite of locals and tourists alike.

Ten minutes from there, in the beach town of Paia on the North Coast, dine at the Paia Fish Market. The line is usually long, but it moves fast and it’s more than worth the wait. Try the ono fish burger.


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In the Area

Beyond HNP, there are plenty of other activities to do in the Upcountry region. At Maui Wine’s Ulupalakua Vineyards in Kula, sample the unique flavors of its island-produced wines, some made with pineapples. Elsewhere in Kula’s rolling hills is Ali’i Kula Lavender, a bucolic, 13.5-acre lavender farm reminiscent of the south of France, where visitors can walk its gorgeous grounds, home to more than 55,000 plants and 20 varieties of lavender. If you’re looking to stay active, rent a bike or book a guided tour with Bike Maui to cruise through the picturesque Upcountry area or downhill from the crater’s summit (from $55).

Protect the Park’s Future With Malama

Native Hawaiians’ relationship with the land is a sacred tradition. As a visitor to the Hawaiian Islands, consider participating in Malama Hawaii, a volunteer program in which travelers give back, be it through a beach cleanup or a tree-planting excursion arranged by your hotel. You’ll help preserve Hawaii’s future while also receiving a travel discount from most island hotels.

T.J. Olwig is a St. Louis-based travel writer who has penned stories for BBC Travel, Delta Sky, Missouri Life and Virtuoso Life.  ​ ​

Also of Interest

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