From an elevation of about 6,000 feet, on the north-facing slopes of one of Hawaii's tallest volcanoes, the land separating me from the West Maui Mountains looked a lot like a painter's dropcloth.
Wide swatches of green grassland and sugarcane were interrupted by splotches of rusty red Hawaiian soil or the dappled white of distant homes and businesses in Kahului as a flotilla of slow-moving shadows, cast by high clouds, sailed silently over the patchwork landscape.
"We get a lot of people who are just in awe of the views," said Andrea Thompson, whose father, Jerry, is a third-generation Maui rancher. "They're completely amazed and had no idea there was something like this here on Maui."
The family's Thompson Ranch dates to the early 1900s. Along with mom, Toni, the Thompsons today operate a 1,400-acre working cattle spread, just east of the small community of Kula, on the slopes of Haleakala, Maui's 10,000-foot shield volcano.
Thompson Ranch is also headquarters for the family's trail-riding operation, offering visitors a chance to climb up into the region's steep pastureland for spellbinding views of not only Maui but also the Pacific and neighboring islands like Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai.
"No horseback-riding experience is required at all," Thompson explained. "And in most cases, it will be a private ride with just you and your family."
Far from Maui's more bustling attractions, a two-hour trail ride on Thompson Ranch gives visitors a much different perspective on the destination, one offering a million-dollar look down at the island itself along with great exposure to the relaxed, upcountry Maui lifestyle.
Much of my ride was spent chatting with Thompson while I guided my horse along behind hers, discussing her 10-year career of rodeo competition and the land Oprah Winfrey purchased from the Thompson family several years ago. Meanwhile, a knee-high, gray and black dog named Bella — part Catahoula, kelpie and Australian cattle dog — scampered around the horses, sprinting off occasionally to pester one of more than 200 goats on the ranch, and earn a scolding from Thompson. Her love for animals, though, was hard to miss.
"Most of the horses were all born and raised up on the ranch, and they're all trained by one of us," she said. "We have their moms, their brothers, their uncles, their aunties, [and] we definitely think of them as family."
Commissionable to agents, Thompson Ranch riding excursions should be booked at least a week in advance and are $100 for adults and children at least 6 years old. Visit www.thompsonranchmaui.com
. 'House of the sun'
Unlike Thompson Ranch, Haleakala's summit, which lies within a 33,000-acre national park, has long been one of Maui's most frequented attractions, especially at dawn.
Meaning "house of the sun" in Hawaiian, Haleakala is where the demigod Maui, who legend has it pulled the Hawaiian Islands from the ocean with his fishhook, also is said to have lassoed the sun, slowing the star's passage across the sky.
Valley Isle visitors often rise as early as 3 a.m. to travel across the island from a variety of West Maui hotels and then slowly make their way up the mountain's winding access road before light to witness the sun climb out of Haleakala's summit crater.
According to Jeff Bagshaw, a supervising park ranger at Haleakala National Park, officials there frequently have to turn people away before sunrise because the summit parking lots fill up early.
"I tell anybody willing to listen that sunset is just as pretty as sunrise," he said. "It's also a tad warmer at that time of day, there are 1,000 fewer people at the summit [and] in Hawaiian tradition day actually starts at sunset not at a sunrise."
Bagshaw refuted another common misconception for many Maui visitors.
"A lot of the resorts here are on the west side, and people think, 'Well, I'm already watching sunset from my hotel,'" he explained. "But it's a whole different world to watch sunset above the clouds. It's like you're on another planet watching the sun go down."
First-time Maui travelers, who will undoubtedly hear a lot of talk about watching the sun rise at Haleakala once they arrive, should avoid the dawn crowds and drive up to the summit later in the day, perhaps early enough to complete a day hike in the national park before dusk.
For those interested in a full day on the mountain, a morning ride at Thompson Ranch followed by lunch in Kula before continuing on up to the summit and the national park's visitor center is an excellent way to see the often-missed upcountry side of Maui and later receive an introduction to native plants and Hawaiian culture.
"We do a short, guided ranger hike daily at the summit," Bagshaw said. "It only lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, but it's a solid introduction to all of the different topics that are part of the mountain, and a great way for people to get their feet wet, or in this case, dusty."
The daily walk passes by several ancient archaeological sites, giving park rangers an opportunity to discuss Haleakala's significance to Maui's earliest human inhabitants.
"People often came up to the top of the mountain to make stone tools," Bagshaw said, noting that the geologic conditions and temperatures atop the 10,000-foot volcano combined to create a valuable rock resource. "Stone tools made on Maui were traded all over."
Home to a handful of state-of-the-art astronomical observatories today, the Haleakala summit also served as a classroom for young Hawaiians learning to navigate by the night sky.
"The kilo hoku, or the young initiates, would be trudged up here back in the day with no neoprene or polypropylene jackets," Bagshaw said. "And they would learn the star patterns without binoculars or big telescopes."
Folks willing to wait at the Haleakala summit until after dark will certainly enjoy quite a star show today.
"We're one of the 10 best [astronomical] seeing sites in the world," Bagshaw said. "You can see the Galilean moons [around Jupiter] with just 20/20 vision, which is a big wow for astronomers."