Sunrise at Haleakala National Park: One of my most memorable adventures in Maui was seeing the sunrise at Haleakala National Park. Of course, I didn’t envision waking up at 4 a.m. ever on my Hawaiian vacation – who would? – but that’s exactly what we did. And then I spent 1.5 hours in near complete darkness driving up an incredibly winding mountain road with other driver’s careening headlights barreling down on my bumper as my only company. Sounds great, right?
In hindsight, driving in the dark probably saved me from a panic attack for I couldn’t see the steep drop-offs into near oblivion that lined the entire 38 kilometers of mountain highway. Please note that most of the road does not have guardrails. But you’ll be fine. Just remember to breath.
Preparation: Michael, our host at the Upcountry B&B had everything prepared and planned for our pre-dawn shenanigans. He armed us with maps and directions to Crater Road (route 378) and loaded us up with blankets, sweatshirts, and a picnic breakfast of coffee and warm scones. Michael even checked the weather and sunrise times to make sure we arrived at the summit in plenty of time. For once, I happily followed step-by-step instructions instead of reading a guidebook or WikiTravel. (On the other hand, the Haleakala trip is fantastically easy to plan on your own.)
Start early: My alarm went off at 3:50 a.m (so I could roll over with the snooze button delayed for another 10 minutes). After filling our coffee mugs and adding a few extra cozy layers, we were out the door at 4:15 for the drive to the summit. Following Michael’s map was simple, and we were soon
enjoying cursing the white-knuckled-switchbacks with a train of other early rising adventure seekers.
Be wary that the Haleakala Crater road runs through open range cattle farms, and you could actually encounter a cow in the road…in the dead of night. Just drive at your own pace, and don’t be afraid to pull over and let the more eager drivers pass.
Haleakala National Park Fees and Entrance: At about 7,000 ft, the first visitors center/rangers station beckons with the glow of a yellow lamplight. Here you will be charged a $10 car fee for entrance to the Haleakala National Park. Keep in mind that if you visited Oheo Gulch along the Road to Hana in the past three days, your pass is still valid. Likewise, if you intend to drive the Road to Hana in the upcoming three days, keep your pass for free entrance to Oheo Gulch.
After the initial stop and brief chat with the park rangers, the second visitors center is a mere thirty minutes up the road at a 9,740 ft. elevation. There are two different car parks in this vicinity, and the rangers at the gates will advise where to park. You can either park at the “bottom” parking lot at 9,740 ft (near the visitors center), and then walk up to the Puu Ulaula Overlook. Alternatively, if space allows, you can drive directly up to the “upper” lot at the Overlook near 10,023 ft. There is limited parking at the upper Puu Ulaula Overlook, but you might be lucky and save yourself an oxygen deprived early morning hike.
The Puu Ulaula Overlook: The Puu Ulaula Overlook is a glass enclosed space offering a 360-degree view. Though the enclosure offers a break from the bitter wind, I suggest stepping outside on the concrete balcony directly in front of the enclosure. You will not only have an uninterrupted view of the sunrise, but you will also be able to do some serious star gazing before the sky starts lightening up. The Haleakala summit is one of the best places in Hawaii to stargaze – take advantage of it and watch for shooting stars too.
No lie – it was bloody cold! The Haleakala Visitor’s Center is about 30 cooler than the sea level temperature. Even with the blankets and sweatshirts that our B&B host, Michael, supplied, I was shivering and huddling as close as possible to the strangers around me. I was so thankful for my thermos of hot coffee, but as luck would have it…there are no restrooms at the summit! And I drank A LOT of coffee. Oh, well. I’ll gladly sacrifice some slight discomfort in exchange for the glorious daybreak painted before me.
As the sun emerges from it’s nocturnal entrada, you’ll witness dawn stretching across the isthmus of Maui and the Haleakala National Park landscape. Silhouettes of neighboring islands gently appear, and little by little, the warmth of the day will touch your cheeks and warm your soul. Amethyst, cinnabar, and goldenrod rays diffuse from the fiery epicenter to stain the veil of clouds above, and, for a solitary moment, all is well in the world. This could very well be what heaven looks like.
Don’t leave after the sunrise: There is no need to get back in your car immediately. Most visitors and tour buses will begin their journey down the mountain as soon as the sun’s morning show is over. Skip the headache of competing with a multitude of cars, buses, and bike riders, and hang out at the summit for some quiet time or investigate the informative Haleakala Visitors Center. If you’re up for a bit of walking, there are plenty of hikes lasting anywhere from one hour to full eight hour day adventures. There are even some overnight treks if you’re game for some intense exercise.
By the time you talk to the rangers at the Haleakala Visitor’s Center, snap some photos of the beautiful Haleakala crater, and realize just how small you are in the world while gazing at this incredible feat of nature, enough time will have passed to drive back down the mountain without 90% of the other sunrise watchers. This is a plus, especially if you’re at all uncomfortable with driving down switchbacks…like I was. My brakes were fine. I was more concerned with hitting one of the hundreds of bike riders that were sharing the roadway with us. Yikes. Yeah, that was fun.
What to bring: Warm clothes, sweatshirts, scarves, and blankets are a must. If you just don’t have any warm clothes at all (because you’re in Hawaii and who brings warm clothes to a tropical island after all), bring some towels from your hotel room – and then return them, of course. ANYTHING will help. Carry along some water as you can become easily dehydrated at the higher elevation. And, of course, bring your camera for some truly epic photos.
Enjoy your sunrise, and say hello to the angels for me.