Haleakala National Park features a landscape suitable for a Hawaiian deity
63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every national park in the United States. Backpacker with a passion for backpackers and public lands, Emily Pennington, built a pickup truck to travel and live in, rescued, hit the road, and practiced best COVID-19 safety protocols along the way. Gardens as we know them change quickly, and she wanted to see them before it was too late. Haleakala is her sixtieth visit to the garden.
When I think of US national parks, I tend to picture the steep hillsides of the Great Smoky Mountains, the sweeping granite rock faces of Yosemite, or the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone. So when I landed on the Hawaiian island of Maui for a visit to Haleakala, I was surprised to feel like I had been transported away to another country entirely. Mountains covered with thick bushes rose from the sea, and my nose quivered in the viscous moisture.
Since the trip to Hawaii was one of my last trips, I asked my friend Avi to make the week-long trip more festive. We took our bags, rented our camper van and, after a night’s rest, began the excruciating drive through the Piilani Highway, a rundown stretch of single track that shouldn’t really be called a highway at all.
Also known as Route 31, Piilani runs along the southern shore from near the Kanaio Natural Area to the coastal Kipahulu area of Haleakala National Park, with enough blind turns and steep inclines to make the most confident driver nervous, especially in a two-wheel drive vehicle. Had we known before we blindly hit the gas, we might have chosen the more attractive route to Hana, the North Road (which is similarly serpentine). After an hour and a half of gnashing our teeth and creaking each time we were sure the truck was going to veer off a cliff, we drove to a parking lot and drove down the wooded Pipiwai Trail.
As we climbed, we passed with a view of the roaring Makahiko Falls, through a thick tangle of rainforest, and among the bamboo stalks soaring in the sky breaking and banging against each other in the breeze.
By the time we reached the tipping point at Waimoku Falls, two miles and 800 feet of altitude increase later, my head was spinning—a mixture of heat, sunlight, and gorgeous scenery. According to the Native Hawaiians, the god Maui once stood on top of the 10,023-foot Haleakala volcano and rotated the sun on its journey across the sky to make the days longer. Although I wasn’t sure if I believed the legend, the power of the glow was enough to make me turn around in search of ice cream and conditioning.
The next day, we set our sights on a completely different terrain, in the park’s Summit area, and a famous trek I’ve been dreaming of for years – the Keoneheehee (or Sliding Sands) Trail. This trail is one of the few trails in the park that drops below the crater rim, traveling 11 miles through terrain unlike anything else on the planet.
Ave and I clicked our trekking poles through seemingly endless switches as we made our way down 2,500 feet vertically to the pit floor. Oxblood-colored cinder cones appeared like an enormous anthill, the endangered Haleakala silverswords greeted us like glowing anemones, and a pair of endemic geese crossed the trail. With so little other life surrounding us, it was as if we had been teleported to Mars, where the coppery hues and rich hues of the day replaced the green texture of the previous day.
After an exhausting climb in the harsh sun, we found our truck and directed it to the top of Crater Road to check the sunset near the Haleakala High Altitude Observatory. A sea of clouds flew beneath my feet, making the volcano itself look like an island upon an island.
Hanging between heaven and earth, watching the sky turn orange, I found myself speechless and utterly grateful. Grateful to live in a country diverse enough to convince me in a rainforest one day, then drop me off to a Martian landscape the next. Grateful that the two coexist in the same national park.
63 Parks Traveler Haleakala Info
Size: 33,265 acres
Site: Southeast Maui, Hawaii
Established in: 1916 (Hawaii National Park), 1961 (renamed Haleakala National Park)
Best for: Hiking, watching sunrise and sunset, stars, backpacking, original history
when are you going: Haleakala is known for its wide range of temperatures, due to its extreme shift in altitude from sea level to over 10,000 feet at the summit. Seasoned travelers recommend visiting Maui in spring (55 to 74 degrees) or fall (58 to 77 degrees) to escape the crowds and enjoy the cooler temperatures. Summer (59 to 78 degrees) sees less rain and more tourists, while winter (55 to 72 degrees) will be cold and possibly snowy in the Summit area of the park, which is usually 30 degrees cooler than it is on the coast.
Where to stay: The park has a couple of campsites for travelers who don’t mind being intimidated. At 7,000 feet, in the summit area, Hosmer Grove features sites with a picnic table, grill, pit toilets, and potable water. Kipahulu, not far from the Pipiwai Trail, offers similar amenities (though no water) and is located in the more tropical area of the park, overlooking stunning ocean cliffs. Both locations require advance reservations. Interested in backpacks? Haleakala also hosts three onshore cabins inside the volcanic crater which must also be booked in advance.
little adventure: Watch the sunrise from the top of Haleakala. This natural wonder is such a popular trip that the National Park Service now requires a daily pass to drive through Crater Road between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. Trek along the Halemauu Trail to the first crater viewing point.
Mega Adventure: Deal with the entire Keoneheehee path. Since this storied trail is technically a hike, the Park Service recommends parking at the Halemauu Trailhead, then walk the six miles to Keoneheehee (Sliding Sands) Trailhead, so when you’re done for that day, you’ll have car access to return to your place of residence. Along the way, keep an eye out for El Niño geese, silverfish, and a vibrant rust-colored cliff known as Pele’s Paint Pot.