Exploring Haleakala's moonscape

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

By Christine Strobel

Maui is unquestionably one of the most beautiful islands on earth, with beaches and resorts that prompt you plant a towel on its white sands — or black, or even red — and let your cares be whisked into the breeze.

But after a couple days of that, get a jolt of the extraordinary with a trip to Haleakala. The extinct volcano's crater, which belongs to Haleakala National Park, has miles of trails and sights you won't find anywhere else.

Many will recommend a sunrise tour and, though I've not done it myself, friends swear by the experience. For me, however, vacation means never getting up before 8 a.m. So it was after a hearty breakfast and a trip up the western slope of the great volcano, my brother-in-law Ben and I started a noontime exploration of the crater's moonscape.

Our path

From the visitors center at the summit, you can descend into the crater using the Sliding Sands trail, so named for the soft dusty gravel that marks the path. (You can also hike into the crater from lower elevations at the Halemaumau Trailhead and Hosmer Grove.)

The geological eye-candy is everywhere (see photo gallery at top): tuft cones that line the crater floor, shocks of green growth and red clay among basalt black, creeping cloud banks spilling over its walls on the lush northern side. The Big Island's monster volcanos are visible above the cloud line. You're high enough that it seems you can trace the curvature of the Earth. (So it seems.)

It is eerily silent, but perhaps that's fitting with the terrain. The sound of wind, your footfalls grinding against gravel, and the conversation of your hiking companions are all the "noise" afforded a trip here. Plants — steroidal shrubs defying every law of nature to carve out life where it isn't meant to be — pockmark the path. Unlike typical trails, animal noise is almost nonexistent. We did see a couple of Hawaiian petrels, migratory seabirds that nest in Haleakala's upper elevations (Hawaiian name: 'Ua'u). Their talons clacked across the rocks as they scurried. (Photo: National Park Service.)

The trail is clearly marked and easy to navigate — there is no climbing involved. Our plan was to go as far as we felt comfortable, knowing that heading back we'd be walking up instead of down in a high elevation, a challenge for us coastal dwellers. We ended up going most of the length of that first leg of the trail (see map), and our hearts raced on the way back even though we were only walking at a moderate pace.

It was worth it for those views and otherworldly atmosphere. Add it to your Maui checklist.


  • Haleakala's summit peaks at 10,023 feet; the Haleakala Observatories are at the top and are not open to the public.
  • Daytime temperatures run roughly 20 degrees cooler than at the coast. Strong winds can whip through there, making it feel even colder; if you stay overnight to catch the brilliant expanse of stars, it will drop to freezing or below. For just a day trip, we brought warm clothes, sunscreen, water and snacks.
  • If you're driving, gas up at Kahului or Kula.
  • You can camp in the crater, at two designated wilderness campgrounds and at three cabins. A camping permit is required and cabins must be reserved. Click on the links for details. (Bring your stargazing equipment!)
  • Geologists have estimated the last time Haleakala erupted was between A.D. 1480 and 1600: The La Perouse flow that marks the southern flank of the volcano is the evidence of this last burst of volcanic activity.
  • The park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except during extreme weather closures. Check withe the visitors centers for the latest on conditions. Park Headquarters Visitor Center (7000 ft/2134 m): 7 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Haleakala Visitor Center (9740 ft/2969 m): 5:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

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