Haleakala National Park Boasts a Landscape Fit for a Hawaiian God
From lush jungles with waterfalls and ocean shores to otherworldly volcanic peaks and craters, the range of ecosystems you can visit in a day at this Maui park is astounding
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63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing COVID-19 best safety protocols along the way. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late. Haleakala is her 60th park visit.
When I think of U.S. national parks, I tend to picture the rolling hillsides of Great Smoky Mountains, the sweeping granite rock faces of Yosemite, or the burbling hydrothermal features of Yellowstone. So when I touched down on the Hawaiian island of Maui to pay a visit to Haleakala, I was surprised to feel as though I’d been whisked away to another country entirely. Mountains cloaked in dense jungle rose up from the sea, and my nostrils twitched in the sticky humidity.
Since the flight to Hawaii was one of the last of my trip, I asked my friend Ave along to make the weeklong excursion feel more festive. We grabbed our bags, picked up our camper-van rental, and, after a night of rest, began the butt-clenching drive across the Piilani Highway, a crumbling, one-lane stretch of road that shouldn’t rightfully be called a highway at all.
Also known as Route 31, Piilani stretches along the southern shore from near the Kanaio Natural Area to the coastal Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park, with enough blind turns and steep drop-offs to make even the most confident driver nervous, especially in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. Had we known before blindly hitting the gas, we might have opted for the more touristed Road to Hana, the northerly route (which is similarly serpentine). After an hour and a half of gritting our teeth and squealing every time we were sure the van would careen off a cliff, we rolled into a parking space and set off on the forested Pipiwai Trail.
Up we climbed, past an overlook for roaring Makahiku Falls, through dense tangles of rainforest, and between sky-high stalks of bamboo that rhythmically creaked and tapped against one another in the breeze.
By the time we arrived at the turnaround point at Waimoku Falls, two miles and 800 feet of elevation gain later, my head was spinning—a combination of heat, sunshine, and sublime scenery. According to Native Hawaiians, the god Maui once stood atop the summit of the 10,023-foot volcano Haleakala and lassoed the sun in its journey across the sky to make the days last longer. While I wasn’t sure if I believed the legend, the strength of the glare was enough to make me turn around in search of ice cream and air-conditioning.
The next day, we set our sights on completely different terrain, in the park’s Summit District, and a famous hike that I’d been dreaming about for years—the Keoneheehee (or Sliding Sands) Trail. This path is one of the few in the park that dips below the crater’s rim, traveling for 11 miles across a topography unlike anything else on the planet.
Ave and I clicked our trekking poles across seemingly endless switchbacks as we made our way down 2,500 vertical feet to the crater’s floor. Oxblood-colored cinder cones sprouted up like enormous anthills, once endangered Haleakala silverswords greeted us like glowing anemones, and a pair of endemic nene geese waddled across the trail. With little other life surrounding us, it was as if we’d been teleported to Mars, rich copper and umber hues replacing the previous day’s verdant tapestry.
After a grueling return ascent in the unrelenting sun, we found our van and steered it to the top of Crater Road to check out the sunset near the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory. A sea of clouds hovered below my feet, making the volcano itself feel like an island atop an island.
Hung between heaven and earth, watching the sky turn flame orange, I found myself speechless and utterly grateful. Grateful to live in a country diverse enough to toss me into a rainforest one day, then drop me onto a Martian landscape the next. Grateful that the two coexisted in the very same national park.
63 Parks Traveler Haleakala Info
Size: 33,265 acres
Location: Southeastern Maui, Hawaii
Created In: 1916 (Hawaii National Park), 1961 (redesignated as Haleakala National Park)
Best For: Hiking, sunrise and sunset viewing, stargazing, backpacking, Native history
When to Go: Haleakala is known for having a wide range of temperatures, due to its extreme elevation shift from sea level to over 10,000 feet at the summit. Seasoned travelers recommend visiting the island of Maui in spring (55 to 74 degrees) or fall (58 to 77 degrees) to escape the crowds and enjoy moderate temperatures. Summer (59 to 78 degrees) sees less rain and more tourists, while winter (55 to 72 degrees) will be chilly and possibly snowy in the park’s Summit District, which is typically 30 degrees colder than it is on the coast.
Where to Stay: The park boasts two campgrounds for travelers who don’t mind roughing it. Hosmer Grove sits at a lofty 7,000 feet elevation, in the Summit District, and features sites with a picnic table, grill, pit toilets, and potable water. Kipahulu, not far from the Pipiwai Trail, offers similar amenities (although no water) and lies in the more tropical area of the park, overlooking stunning ocean cliffs. Both sites require advance reservations. Interested in backpacking? Haleakala also hosts three wilderness cabins inside the volcanic crater that also must be booked in advance.
Mini Adventure: Watch the sunrise from the summit of Haleakala. This natural marvel is such a popular excursion that the National Park Service now requires a daily entry permit to drive up Crater Road between 3 A.M. and 7 A.M. If your morning coffee has bestowed you with enough energy to hike afterward, consider making the 1.1-mile journey along the Halemauu Trail to the first crater viewpoint.
Mega Adventure: Tackle the entire Keoneheehee Trail. Since this storied pathway is technically a thru-hike, the Park Service recommends parking your vehicle at the Halemauu Trailhead, then hitchhiking six miles up to the Keoneheehee (Sliding Sands) Trailhead, so that when you’re done for the day, you’ll have car access to drive back to your lodging. Along the way, keep an eye out for nene geese, silverswords, and a vibrant rust-tinted slope known as Pele’s Paint Pot.