Haleakala National Park – Maui, Hawaii
The crown jewel of Maui – the grand volcano Haleakala! It is known for the spectacular sunrises and sunsets – when I mentioned Maui as a trip to someone that had been, the first thing they say is “oh you have to do the sunrise at Haleakala”. Ok, ok I got it – we will go do the sunrise summit.
Some quick things about the park. The summit is actually one of two parts of Haleakala National park, the second being found on the Road to Hana. There is hiking you can do at the top as well. You need a reservation to see sunrise but after 7AM, anyone is permitted into the park without reservations. Park entrance fee is $30 and is valid for three days.
Planning this part of the trip ended up being a bit tricky. The sunrise here is extremely popular and COVID has only increased the difficulty in securing a reservation. Typically, there are over 150 reservation spots per morning and most of the time, the day before there is another small release of tickets.
For our journey at the end of February, there were only 50 reservation spots with no option of additional released the day before. Reservations were posted 7 days ahead of the date you wanted at 7AM HST. At the 7 day mark, I got on time.gov to make sure the time was exact for 7AM HST and as I click to add to the cart – the page loaded with “experiencing high traffic” and then kicked me out. I was hopeful Kevin was more successful in securing a reservation but alas, no luck. We were both pretty shocked how that ordeal went. It happened so fast it was strange to feel disappointed… but this was “the thing to do on Maui”.
I checked back a few minutes later (thanks to a co-worker) and saw that one single ticket remained. I was unable to add it but I kept trying and after a few more minutes, I was somehow able to add it to my cart and check out! It must have been sitting in someone else’s cart and released after the hold time passed. We were in, a bit stressful, but it worked.
You only need one reservation per car and there is a one dollar fee to process. Now, if we were unable to get this ticket for sunrise, we would have arranged our schedules for a sunset trip which does not require a reservation. The issue though (and the advantage of sunrise over sunset) is that this trip eats up a lot of time of the day – at least driving up for sunrise the hours that it consumes are mostly sleep hours and not active hours whereas a sunset trip would be all active time. From our Airbnb in Kihei, it is an hour and a half drive one way.
Another thing to add to the mix is the park rangers mention it is only a 50/50 shot of seeing sunrise on any given day – I had no idea the odds were that poor! So consider yourselves in the lucky 50% if you had the pleasure of seeing sunrise at Haleakala. It is a bit easier to predict and plan ahead of a sunset visit to know what the weather will be like to know if it is worth the three hours round trip journey. Things to consider depending on what you are up for – some people prefer the sunset journey. Pay attention to how to book your reservations as things are constantly changing with COVID measures.
Park fee is $30 per vehicle and I have done enough rough draft itineraries for National Parks to know that $80 gets you the America the Beautiful Pass for a years worth of entrances into National Parks. Looking forward to checking a few more of these off the list in 2021!
Ok, now that we got our reservation, we made it to Maui and prepared for our journey to the summit.
Wide awake at 1AM, the jet lag was really kicking. This is why everyone recommends to travel to the top of Haleakala for sunrise since you are most likely already wide awake for the early morning required to travel there for sunrise. Check sunrise times to know when you have to leave. From our Airbnb in Kihei, it was a one and a half hour drive to the summit. Sunrise was at 6:39AM and we wanted to make sure we got there with enough time so aimed to be there from 5:30AM which meant a 4AM departure from the Airbnb – not too bad. I was hoping to see a great night sky before the sun came up.
It is know to be very cold and windy up at the summit. In comparison to the rest of the island in to 80s, it can be as low as 30 degrees. Most people do not pack warm clothes to use for several hours of an entire trip so many use blankets and towels from their accommodation to stay warm. Lucky for us, we were traveling from a cold climate so we had to bring jackets and long pants for the trip. We checked the weather before we went to bed and the first thing that flags is a flash flood warning for the entire weekend – fantastic! Other than the potential for flooding, the temperature was a balmy 40 degrees.
The ride up was said to be nerve wrecking and I can see why. It is a series of switch backs all the way to the summit on a narrow road up to 10,000 feet and in complete darkness at 4AM. Luckily, we had the light of a bright full moon that illuminated the roads enough to make it less pitch black. Mostly everyone takes the ride slow and if someone is coming up behind you uncomfortably, just let them pass you.
It was an entirely clear sky until we started getting to the upper elevation where a dense fog and intermittent rain started. When we got to the parking lot at the summit, it was pitch black, windy, cold, and raining. I brought a small flash light so we ventured out for a few minutes to figure out what the deal was since I had no clue where we were ‘supposed’ to be for sunrise… not that sunrise was looking likely but who knows.
We waited in the car as the other lucky reservation recipients this morning did, trying to reserve heat in the car. Around 6:10AM people began to creep out of the cars – some successfully making their way to the path up to the observation deck and others running back to the car to wait a bit longer. We ventured out around 6:20AM to snag a spot in the event a magically clearing the the sky occurred. The rain had picked up quite a bit and the wind was much stronger at this elevation – I was very happy I grabbed the rain jackets (flash flood and all). As I read, people were up there in their shorts wrapped in their comforter from their bed and beach towels to stay warm. Everyone was huddle behind the building at the top as it broke the wind a bit so it was a tad more tolerable.
As 6:30AM rolled around, we swung to the viewing area in hopes of a miracle – we could see absolutely nothing. Then 6:40AM came and went – somewhere in the fog, the sun was rising giving someone a good show. I asked the rangers stationed there what the odds were of this clearing up – and it matched what I was told – 50 / 50. He pointed into the distance – “over there is the crater”… wow! We passed trails on the way up and the ranger agreed that there was a chance that even at a slightly lower elevation the clouds were broken up and a good view was possible.
Shortly before 7AM, we got back to the car and made our descent down the volcano. The first trail – Pa Kaoao Trail (0.5 miles) – was at the top of the summit so naturally that was not an option. That meant the popular Sliding Sand Trail (11 miles) was also out (recommended to do a few miles if you do not have time to do the 11 miles). The next trail -Keoneheʻeheʻe (2 miles) – came up but the rain and clouds persisted, and still no visibility. The final trail – Halemau‘u Trail (2 miles) – had the same result. Alas, the morning sunrise at Haleakala was no more. It is unfortunate because they way the reservation system is at present, it is impossible to try another morning – this was the one shot we had. So far we are zero for two on crater views. The hours I had set aside for the additional trails in the park were now back in our favor so it was time to make something of them.
The way down was better for brightness but visibility remained poor until we were almost down the entire volcano. Kevin did a great job navigating down shifting as it would have killed the brakes to stay in “drive” the entire way down. We did get some great views of Maui as we rounded out the final leg of switchbacks – not too shabby!
I think seeing Haleakala in some capacity – whether it be sunrise or sunset – should be included in your Maui itinerary. Hopefully once COVID settles down, it will be easier to make reservations and give yourself the best advantage to seeing a sunrise. If you have the time and are able to be flexible, perhaps banking on a sunset would be better suited.