Our Visit to Haleakala National Park
Fading Hope in the Dark
Reservation confirmation: check, winter clothing: check, national park pass: check, weather forecast for the summit of Haleakala: rain and 40 degrees for sunrise. We set out in the darkness at 4:35 am from the seaside town of Kehei, hoping against hope the weather would cooperate long enough for the promised magical sunrise over the other worldly Haleakala crater at 10,000 feet.
Loretta pointed out the stars as we drove down highway 31, a hopeful sign, if only for a fleeting moment. Soon, the stars disappeared and light rain started to fall. It was 73 degrees, according to the temperature gauge in the car. The rain became steady as we turned onto Haleakala Highway, past the bright sign that reminded us a reservation was required to enter the park between 3am and 7am. Our hope was fading, as fog joined the rain and we could barely see 30 feet in front of us. We drove slowly up the mountain in the dark and dense fog, as the elevation marker ticked up… 2500, 5000, 7000, 8000… and the temperature fell to the mid-thirties.
The Haleakala Visitor Center parking lot came into view. Visitors scurried around, trying to stay warm in the predawn darkness. The rain became a drizzle, and dense fog still persisted, as we walked uphill towards the visitor center, still in the dark, about half an hour before the published sunrise time.
The paved trail became steeper as I neared the visitor center building, with its promise of warmth. All of the sudden, I started to slide back – black ice! I quickly scampered to the side, planted my foot in the dirt off trail to steady myself. I retreated back down hill and found an alternate path with a railing, grabbed the ice coated railing and pulled my way up the path, trying to see over my glasses that was covered by raindrops.
Finally, I got inside the crowded but warm visitor center. We made it, but it was foggy, rainy, and icy. Will we see anything? Did we get up in the middle of the night just to see fog as the sun rises?
From Darkness Into Light
I gingerly made my way back outside, after getting my prized national park stamp for Haleakala, onto the icy path and railing coated with ice that faced east. The air was raw with slight drizzle and dense fog. We were in the clouds. I wrapped my waterproof GoPro around the railing and started time lapse recording as the sky lightened ever so slightly. All I saw was fog as my fingers became numb from the cold. Did I brave the ice and the cold just to record the fog?
The sky became brighter even as the temperature got colder when the drizzle stopped, giving me slight hope. Then, a miracle: over the next two minutes, the sky brightened just a little, the fog lifted like a curtain and presented a sea of cloud that hovered below us, like a lid on the crater. The visibility went from a hundred feet to miles. Over the next five minutes, an orange glow appeared below the cloud on the horizon. Waves of cloud moved north to south across the landscape and looked like an angry sea.
A couple with wool hats and a large blanket wrapped around both of them stood next to me, mesmerized by the cloud. A lady looked oddly out of place in a sun dress, her arms and legs exposed to the elements. I wonder how long she lasted outside in the wet, 32 degree air. Another lady, probably a tour guide, chanted a Hawaiian prayer to celebrate the emerging sun. As if responding to the prayer, the sea of cloud became still. Everyone held up their phone and pointed east, waiting with baited breath for that orange ball to peek above the cloud horizon.
Then it happened! The sun rose above the cloud horizon as a couple of hundred people cheered in unison to celebrate the arrival of another day!
The experience was almost spiritual, as if God orchestrated the presentation such that the fog lifted just in time for the sun to rise, and kept the cloud layer a thousand feet below us for the perfect, mystical scene. This was certainly not the expected outcome as we drove up the mountain in fog and rain!
As the sun rose higher in the sky, the orange glow reflected off of the now calm sea of cloud, still masking the crater. The crowd thinned as people returned to the warmth of their cars while a few lingered to savour the magnificent view. Black ice made it treacherous to walk in the parking lot. The back tire of a tour bus spun futilely on the black ice as she tried to back up.
Suddenly, the sun disappeared as the fog rolled back in and grey took over again. This was God’s way of telling us – the show was over. He parted the cloud for us to enjoy his beautiful creation but it’s time to close the curtains.
We planned to hike a couple of trails after sunrise, but the icy conditions made it impossible. The ranger thought it wasn’t going to thaw out until late morning, so we decided to head back. Black ice covered the road and we drove extremely slowly, moving less than five miles per hour. A car came up the hill, around a bend, at 30 miles per hour, slipped and could not hold his lane. We watched helplessly as his car headed straight for us while we were stopped. At the last second, he managed to get back to his lane – disaster averted.
We continued at a snail’s pace until we reached 8000 feet of elevation where I stopped the car, put my foot on the pavement to confirm the black ice was gone, before I resumed a more “normal” speed. The drive down the mountain was in the clouds until we reached 3000 feet when the sunny pacific ocean came into view with a vivid rainbow.
Haleakala for Sunset?
Undaunted, we decided to make a second attempt to see the crater, but this time, during sunset. From the coast, the peak was shrouded in the cloud but we were hopeful the top would be above the cloud, or the cloud would part when we got there, just like the day before. As we drove up Haleakala Highway, it was alternately clear and foggy, a hopeful sign.
When we got to the summit, all hope faded! The summit was in the clouds. Visibility was 50 feet, and worst of all, the wind was so strong, I could barely open the car door. The short walk from the parking lot to the shelter at the summit was difficult. We held on to the handrails and lowered our heads to fight the wind as raindrops pelted us. The reward for nearly getting blown away was – a view of the fog. That’s it. All we saw was white. Needless to say, we didn’t stay very long and made our way back to the car, again, holding on for dear life as we fought the wind. We decided not to wait for the conditions to change.
A ranger at the visitor center was on his way up to the summit to measure the wind speed. He said it was 38 mph at the visitor center, a few hundred feet below the summit. The wind at the visitor center felt like it was half the speed of the summit so the wind was probably blowing at 70 mph at the summit. On the way down, we saw a few tour buses on its way up, probably at the end of their day tour. We laughed because they were going to see nothing but white, and if they are elderly, they probably won’t even get out of the bus.
The Other Side
Haleakala National Park extends all the way to the southeast coast of Maui. The Kipahulu visitor center is 9 miles past Hana. You can hike from the summit to the coast on the Kaupo trail. The trail crosses private land but they do allow hikers as a courtesy. Unless you want to hike back to the summit, you better arrange for transportation from the end of the trail because it is in the middle of nowhere. This is a very difficult, poorly marked trail with elevation change of more than 5000 feet. It’s not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.
The Road to Hana is a well known attraction on Maui. The goal is not so much to get to Hana, but the journey. There are countless turns (well, actually 620) and bridges (59) through tropical and coastal scenery. It is beautiful but very slow going. Most of the time, 25 mph is about the speed for the drive. While lush with a few waterfalls and some dramatic coastal scenery, it’s a little over rated. The road beyond Hana to the Kipahulu visitor center is rough and bone jarring, but passable in a passenger car. While there is a road that loops around beyond Kipahulu visitor center, it’s mostly unpaved, narrow, and unpassable after rain. Most rental car contracts prohibit this road.
If I have been to a national park but didn’t get a stamp, does that count towards our journey to all 59 national parks? We decided previous visits didn’t count so we can have an excuse to go to Hawaii again. This visit in 2017 was actually our 3rd to Haleakala National Park. We were lucky enough to see the crater in beautiful sunshine with blue skies during our last visit in 2005. The crater looked like a picture from Mars. It was beautifully mesmerizing. We were all prepared this time (so we thought) to hike down the Sliding Sands Trail into the crater, but mother nature had other ideas. Ice on the trail (when we went up for sunrise) or 70 mph wind with pelting rain (when we went up for sunset) did not allow any hiking this time.
Thought for Haleakala National Park:
Change is the constant, just like the weather on Haleakala Summit. Even when it is the most foreboding, don’t give up – clouds can part at anytime to reveal a beautiful sunrise
Impressions of Haleakala National Park:
Haleakala National Park’s claim to fame is the crater. When clear, it looks like a picture from Mars with vibrant colors when the sun hits it just right. Sunrise is an experience, bordering on the mystical, that is well worth getting up at 3:30 AM for.
The park is easy to visit because the road takes you up 10,000 feet right to the summit. The road to the summit is beautiful with a few lookouts and trail heads but the attraction is the summit. The weather is unpredictable at the summit, thus, no guarantee to get a good view or a good hike, especially during the winter months.
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Haleakala National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Haleakala National Park:
Top Attractions at Haleakala National Park:
- Haleakala Crater
- Haleakala at sunrise
- Sliding Sands trail
One Day Visit Plan:
- Get a reservation for sunrise and an early start.
- After the sunrise, hike Sliding Sands trail into the crater as far as desired. Keep in mind it takes twice as long to come up as it is to go down. The sandy nature makes this harder than normal.
- Drive down the mountain to Halemau’u trail head and hike the trail for 1.1 miles to the overlook with a nice view of the crater rim.
- Depending on how far you venture into the Sliding Sands trail, you can be done by early afternoon.
Practical Info for Visiting Haleakala National Park
- Get the reservation for sunrise ahead of time from recreation.gov. It costs $1.50 per vehicle. If you miss it, there are a few last minute reservations available at 4pm two days before.
- Dress warmly for the summit. The summit is often in the clouds, windy and more than 30 degrees colder than the shore. On the day we went, it was 73 degrees at our condo and 32 degrees at the summit.
- Fill up your tank before you go. There are no fuel services in the park. It can take 3.5 hours to travel from some resort areas to the summit.
- It’s not advisable to visit both the summit and the Kipahulu (other side of Hana) on the same day. The drive is simply too long.
- Even if the summit looks like it’s in the clouds, take a chance and drive up because the summit is often above the clouds and it could be full sun at the summit (but not always as we experienced fog and gusty wind when we took the chance and drove up for sunset).
- Make the sunrise reservation for the day after you arrive in Hawaii if you are from mainland USA. Your body won’t object as much to the early wake up.
Haleakala National Park Facts:
- Size: 29,093 acres, ranked 53rd
- Visitors: 1,262,558 in 2016, ranked 20th. Record was 1,963,187 visitors in 1999
- Peak Month in 2016: 116,376 visitors in August
- Low Month in 2016: 93,221 visitors in December
- Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle.
Date Visited: December 15, 2017