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Haleakala Crater, Maui, HI

2005-04-29 10 min read Great Hikes marco

{moszoomimglink:12-49 Focus on the cloud and the sky turns blue} Maui is made up of two volcanoes joined at the hip by a low-lying valley. The Western volcano, aptly named ‘West Maui Mountains’ is old and weathered, while the Eastern one, Haleakala, erupted as recently as 1790.

Haleakala is a gigantic presence in the backyard of Maui. Its gentle slopes carry nature from the tropical paradise of the Hana coast to a harsh, almost Alpine summit. In between, you’ll find cowboys tending herds and flower farms, wild rivers and incongruous deserts.

The grandest sight, though, is the crater itself, the summit of the ancient volcano. It is witness to the power of nature: the destructive power, but the power to transform even mere rock into items of beauty.

This is a fairly long hike either in the cold clouds or in the blazing sun of 10,000 ft. You must be prepared to both, and pack clothes covering your whole body, sunscreen, food and plenty of water. Remember: the weather shifts very quickly, and you may end up sweating on one section just to freeze on the next one!

Getting There

{moszoomimglink:10-37 Downhill ride} I would love to say you can’t get lost on your way to Haleakala, but I actually did. I mean, how difficult can it be to find your way to the top? You just take a road and follow it up and up until it hits the summit, right?

Well, think again… I was on a quest to see a Haleakala sunrise, but lost my way, ended up on a side street that led all the way to 5000 feet and then stopped at a private residence. Bummer! I got to the top a quarter of an hour after sunrise, and felt like the perfect idiot…

{moszoomimglink:09-51 It all starts at 8000 feet} Plan your trip ahead. It’s an easy drive, if you know the route. Take highway 37 out of Kahului, up the slope of Haleakala. Then you switch to highway 377, Haleakala highway. A few miles into it, you turn left onto highway 378. Still called Haleakala highway. Confusing. At least, once you are on 378, there is no mistaking any more, the only way is up.

Drive all the way past the park entrance to the parking lot shortly before the 8000 ft marker. The stark landscape should have warned you you’ll need lots of water, food and very sturdy boots to make this hike!

The Way to the Summit

Smart people will have found a way to drive to the summit. Either by hitchhiking up or by having two cars around. Hiking up is possible, but it takes about two hours, quite boring ones at that. Trust me, been there, done that and regret it ever since.

{moszoomimglink:10-46 Pu’u Maui, I believe} You’ll soon get to Leleiwi overlook, your first chance to glimpse into the crater. The sudden drop of the West wall into the pit is incredible, and you’ll see for the first time the red hills in the distance. Those a crater vents, where spewing lava fountains jumped into the air, freezing on their way down into pebbles that fell onto mounds that grew into vents. Hence the hole in the middle, and the prevailing Northwest winds made the Southeast side of the vents higher than the opposing, giving them a chic slanted look.

The highway’s incline grows tired at some point, and you’ll see soon the observatory. Of course, that’s the summit, so you can look forward to getting there soon. On your way, you’ll observe the strangest people: cyclists going down in groups of maybe twenty, sometimes more, clad in garrulous outfits and followed by a huge van with spare bikes on top. That’s the famous Haleakala combo ride, people that are driven up to the top to see the famous sunrise, then ride downhill to the beach. Horrible enterprise, since you start close to freezing point, to get down to what surely feels like boiling…

{moszoomimglink:11-56 A biker, who knows from how far} Of course there are the other ones, too. The ones that don’t go down, but up. You’ll be passed sometimes by an old man realizing the dream of a lifetime, sometimes by a group of crazy European cyclists in loud skintight outfits. Occasionally, there will even be a runner on his or her way up. And you think you are tired because you are hiking!

Sliding Sands Trail

The visitor center comes into view. The true summit is another mile up high, but you don’t want to hike up there. Instead, you should focus on the Sliding Sands trail, starting just South of the visitor center. Don’t get fooled by the short hike up the rocky hill, that’s the wrong one and will cost you a half hour up and down!

{moszoomimglink:12-14 Closing in on the hooded person} Sliding sands descends for about 2000 ft down the crater floor. You can see most of the trail up from the top. It will usually be crowded for the first part, and down at the bottom you will be pretty much all to yourself, with only the occasional horse riding party crossing your path, and sometimes a lonely hiker or a loving couple on their honeymoon (why?).

The ‘sand’ is actually the frothed lava I talked about before. It is fine enough to get into your shoes, but unfortunately way to coarse to cause no harm. I had Tevas on, usually an excellent hiking choice; but by the end of the descent, I had rubbed my skin raw against the pebbles, and the rest of the trip was a huge pain, eased only by the fact that I knew I had no choice but to march on…

{moszoomimglink:12-42 The visitable vent with the trail leading to it} Around halfway down the trail, there is a spur trail to a vent – as close as you’ll get to one of them! It is a must see: you’ll first walk on this thin path through a field of silversword, seeing this amazing plant from close up. Then you’ll get to the rim of the vent (a path leads all the way around it). The colors of nature up there are crazy, with yellow, reds, blacks and browns all vying for attention.

A great many turn around at the vent and ascend back. A good hiker can do the descent in one hour, the ascent in approximately the same time. But if you like hiking, you should continue, since from here on, the scenery is unique and will fascinate you.

{moszoomimglink:12-59 Betcha the guys at the overlook won’t like the view} You will continue on the trail until. The horse droppings of the saddle tours leave an annoying dung smell that completely covers whatever volcanic smells are remaining. You will have to watch your step all the time, a lot of the smell comes from unpleasantly fresh and moist… Too much information? Well, from here the layout of the crater becomes obvious: a ring of mountain has been breached by erosion in two areas: Koolau and Kaupo gaps. From there, fog and clouds enter the crater floor, playing with the vents and creating surreal figures in the sky.

To your left, a series of vents will dot the flat floor. They are all dormant, but made of unstable cinder that makes any ascent quite impossible (besides, you wouldn’t want to anger a park ranger by trying to climb one, believe me!). To your right, a series of jagged peaks slopes down, until it hits the gap. The last peak, I find out, is called Haleakala, or House of the Sun, and gave the whole mountain its fairly romantic name.

Halemau’u Trail

The end of my section of Sliding Sands is at a sign marking the connection to Halemau’u trail to the North. You could walk on Sliding Sands for another two hours, reach a cabin on the crater floor, rented out to hikers by virtue of a unique lottery, and get closer to the gap. I chose to turn around because time was running out for me, a late starter as they come.

{moszoomimglink:14-26 Sky, moon, vent and ahinahina} This next section of the trail is probably the most amazing of the whole hike. You will get between vents, ascend the saddle between two and switchback your way out of this hellish paradise. You will not see a living thing besides ahinahina, the beautiful white balls of silversword, fragile as any plant must be that survives in this extreme climate.

{moszoomimglink:14-42 The trail circles around a vent to the Bottomless Pit} Descending, you will get wedged between vents again. You’ll soon reach the main trail out of the crater, Halemau’u, where the signage is really good. Circle around this next peak and see the Bottomless Pit, Kawilinau, marked by a really ugly steel fence and a rather amusing sign: BOTTOMLESS PIT – 65 FT. DEEP 🙂

By now, the attractions of the park were starting to seem less interesting. I had been hiking for five hours, three of which enduring searing pain from the blisters cut raw by the lava rubble. I followed the trail back to mankind through a stark but very beautiful black lava desert, the trail marked by a series of stones on the ground.

All of a sudden, near a rock, a backpack was on the trail, and I was wondering what that was all about. I thought maybe some imprudent tourist had been eaten by a grizzly. Then again the only visible thing was silversword, which seemed unlikely to eat tourists. I turned around in search of someone to rescue, and found myself disturbing a young couple making out behind a rock. Actually, they were already past the making out stage, and the guy looked a bit annoyed at me. I smiled to myself and thought how odd it was that the only two people I would see here at the end of the world would be mad at me.

And no, I didn’t take any picture.

{moszoomimglink:15-42 Holoa cabin signals the end of the flat part} Soon the trail reaches a grassy section, the first life in hours. At the end of the valley, you’ll see another little cabin, available by the same lottery system. The current occupants will look at you will even worse hatred than the guy behind the rock, so even if you are getting a little sad and lonely, mind your business and turn right.

Next you’ll finally walk through a marvelous flat, bushy and green and lapped by the thin waters of the Koolau fog. At the end of the path, a gate on the mountain side reveals where the trail starts ascending. I rest for a short while, maybe ten minutes, and the couple from before shows up. I hurry up and start moving, ascending the switchbacks that lead to my parked car, but see the two are actually not following me. Instead, they will lie down in plain view and start making out again. Evidently, the idea of someone watching them had been appealing. Still no pictures, you voyeurs!

Going Up, Up, Up

{moszoomimglink:16-22 Looking back to the valley} You will ascend 1,400 ft. The first part you will spend on switchbacks overlooking the valley and its now shrinking (keep that smirk off your face!) visitor couple. Then the trail cuts to the other side and will start getting flatter, slowly winding towards the highway. After about an hour, you’ll see the parking lot and your car. Time to drive down, after seven hours of strenuous hike.

You can’t even begin to imagine how beautiful your car will look like!

The full collection of pictures from this hike is available here.