Catching some rays on top of Maui's Haleakala

Sunset from Haleakala offers amazing views with less advance planning required.
Sunset from Haleakala offers amazing views with less advance planning required. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg

The drive to Haleakala is a trip through worlds. From eucalyptus groves to grassy ranchland to hearty scrub to Martian expanse, it's a 50-minute, 22-mile journey to another universe on Maui, a winding, two-hands-on-the-wheel exercise that moves slow enough that even the driver can take it all in.

And you don't have to do it at sunrise.

Sunrise, the hours of 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. as far as Haleakala National Park is concerned, is the most popular time of day to visit this park set on a shield volcano that last erupted an estimated 400-plus years ago. In February 2017, the park debuted a sunrise reservation system to limit the number of visitors slogging up its slopes and crowding its parking lots in the wee hours of the morning. Today, reservations open 60 days in advance, with a handful of spots saved for last-minute purchase two days before. Guests can spend $1.50 online to reserve one of 150 parking spots spread over four locations to watch the sun emerge from the sea over east Maui, and many do. They bundle up and drive in darkness or catch a ride to the summit, then bomb downhill on bikes after the sun has broken the horizon.

It makes for a magical morning, but it's not the only way to appreciate the spectacular view.

Sunrise atop Haleakala is a hot ticket, with reservations open 60 days in advance.
Sunrise atop Haleakala is a hot ticket, with reservations open 60 days in advance. Photo Credit: Sarah Feldberg

With a 10,023-foot summit soaring over the rest of Maui, Haleakala is a spiritual place for Native Hawaiians, who believe it was here that the demigod Maui lassoed the sun, resulting in longer days and regular seasons. 

On a weekday afternoon, we began the drive up to the House of the Sun, curving along miles of switchbacks as we wound through different terrain and ecosystems. It was still fairly warm when we passed through the entrance gate and stopped at the visitors center to read about the native wildlife and plants. Silverswords, low plants with spiky leaves that shine metallic in the light, burst from the rocky ground, while signs warned motorists to watch for wandering nenes, the vulnerable native geese with black-and-white markings that visitors sometimes spot within the park's bounds. 

A vanful of tourists stepped out of their vehicle in shorts and T-shirts. 

"They're going to be cold," our guide said under her breath.

Indeed, as we gained elevation the climate shifted. First we traded AC for open windows, then T-shirts for sweatshirts and flip-flops for socks and sneakers. At the summit of Haleakala's tallest peak, known as Puu Ulaula, the temperatures are often dramatically colder than at sea level and especially chilly before sunrise or after sunset, when the temperature can drop below freezing. Last winter, the upper elevations even saw snow.

We passed a lower parking lot and kept climbing. If you're going to make the trip, you might as well reach the very top. 

Even 45 minutes before sunset, the summit was crowded, with a line of cars waiting optimistically for someone to depart before the evening show. One upside of the sunrise reservation system is a guaranteed place to park. On sunset visits, there are no reserved spots. We snagged a sliver of asphalt with time to explore the apex of the long-dormant volcano, marveling at the crater and admiring the rough, rocky landscape. 

Soon the crowd started flocking to a west-facing slope, visitors claiming patches of ground for the best vantage point. There were DSLR cameras set on hefty tripods; a social media influencer with camera crew in tow; someone flying a drone, who was quickly reprimanded by a park ranger; and so many cellphones, raised and pointed toward the horizon. The more prepared among us had windbreakers, picnic blankets and, enviably, snacks.

The clouds moved in to the north, a thick blanket stained apricot and lavender by the evening colors. A hush fell over the hillside, and we watched in mesmerized silence as the sun sank toward the sea, a glowing yolk that seemed to melt into the ocean. 

There was a round of applause when the sun finally dipped out of sight, and within minutes, cars began to pour back down the mountain. But Haleakala's views weren't over yet. The park is open to the public around the clock, and as the final echoes of light faded away, the stars came out over Maui's highest peak. Heartier souls stared into the heavens, and a few hours later the crowds would return to the Red Hill summit, when the island's famed volcano would wow visitors once again.

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