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It is likely that millions have travelled up the slope of Mt. Haleakala to witness the sunrise as seen from its summit, in the hundred-thirty plus years since Mark Twain's two day mule ride to see the same. Despite the ruggedness of the trip, Twain wrote,
"It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed and I think the memory of it will remain with me always."


Today, the trip to the House of the Sun takes a little more than an hour, and hundreds of people daily shiver in the darkness, waiting for the first ribbon of color to appear on the eastern horizon. Then, an hour or so later, in the full light of a new day, most of them jump in their cars, or on a bicycle, and leave.

A few do not.

Line-up of cars at summit.
Cars line up along the road at the summit of Haleakala.

They hang around the summit for an hour or so, exploring the accessible reaches of Pu'u 'Ula'ula (Red Hill) and Pa Ka'oao (White Hill) scampering over cinder and boulder, before they, too, depart.



Fewer still, are those that don't confine themselves to the summit of Haleakala. For, not far from the visitor center at the 9800 foot level is the beginning of the Sliding Sands Trail, and a quick descent into the sleeping giant. Sliding Sands Trail drops 2000 feet in only a mile of hiking, which makes the descent rapid and incredibly easy and fun.

But beware! The ease of descent finds its perfect balance in the hike out, which will literally take your breath away. You'll want to rest often on the way back out of the crater, but that shouldn't stop you from going in. If you can walk around a shopping mall all afternoon, then you can survive a day-hike in the world's largest dormant volcano, and you really owe it to yourself to go. (Of course, there are other ways to see the crater, on a guided hiking tour, or by horseback. Look in the yellow pages under "Tours" if you don't feel like exploring on your own.)

For you who choose to hike into Haleakala Crater on your own, it is important to remember that despite the apparent ruggedness of the terrain, Haleakala is a fragile wilderness environment, and the very presence of humans is disruptive to the balance of nature. You should always observe the greatest care in order to preserve this precious wilderness.

A few simple, common sense rules will do:

  • Do not leave the marked trails. Doing so can harm delicate seedlings, crush rare insects, and contribute to erosion of the loose cinder. As you hike you will see where the footprints of others have gone off the trail, spoiling what would have been the unmarked and undisturbed perfection of the cinder scenery. Please don't contribute to this undesirable intrusion into the natural beauty. Stay on the marked trails.

  • Do not bring your pet to hike with you. They can cause tremendous damage to the native wildlife, even more so than ourselves, and we can be pretty bad.

  • Do not leave any trash. Every bit of trash that remains in the crater is a disturbance to the environment. Even cigarette butts are glaringly visible against the seamless perfection of the crater's beauty.

  • Do not feed the nene, or other wildlife. The nene have become accustomed to our presence and will even come up to you for food scraps. Human food is harmful to them, and it is your responsibility to not offer it.

  • Do not remove rocks from the crater, or plants, or anything else. Do pick up trash you encounter, but don't disturb anything else. You will hear that it is considered "bad luck" to remove rocks from Haleakala, and in the Visitor Center on the crater's rim, you can read letters from people who encountered incredible bad luck, and subsequently mailed their rocks back! Enough said, eh?

  • Do not make any of those silly stacks of rocks that you may see. This is a Hawaiian place, and that is NOT a Hawaiian tradition. It is inappropriate and disturbing to what should be a natural scene, unscarred by human foolishness. It is a form of graffiti, and it should be stopped. Please, do not contribute to this silliness.

Now that you've taken care of protecting the crater, you should consider protecting yourself, too. The crater weather is unpredictable. It can go from hot and sunny to cold and rainy in a moment. And at night you can be certain that the temperature will be around freezing. No matter whether you read it in Fahrenheit or Celsius, you'll be cold!

The elevation at the summit is 10,023 feet above sea level. The crater floor averages 6,700 feet. At these altitudes, the air is thin and the ultra-violet radiation is very strong. You should be prepared to protect yourself from sunburn and sudden weather changes.

Wear extra clothing. You can always ditch it in the car after the sun comes up. I strongly recommend wearing a pair of socks on your hands! Unless you came to Hawai'i with mittens you won't be prepared for freezing fingers.

In this photo taken near the trailhead, Sliding Sands Trail arcs into the distance
as it descends into Haleakala Crater.

The descent begins, as was said, at the 9780' trail head and runs in a gentle curve along the southwestern inside wall of the crater. A couple of times it switches back on itself for a few hundred yards before continuing its sweeping arch down to the crater floor at about 7000' elevation.

After only 1 and 1/2 miles, the trail splits in two directions. The path to the right leads east across the crater, passing Kapalaoa cabin, eventually reaching Paliku cabin, some miles distant. The trail to the left takes you less than a mile to the north, to Ka Lu'u o Ka 'O'o, a silent cinder cone, close to the western end of the crater. This is the trail to take, a brief but rewarding excursion, as you'll soon discover.

The trail to Ka Lu'u o Ka 'O'o runs along a ridge extending into the crater from the southwestern corner. It winds around boulders and through a thriving patch of silversword plants. If you're lucky, several of the mature silverswords will be in bloom, their tall spike of raspberry scented blossoms reaching for the abundant sunlight. If none are in bloom, the silverswords are still a marvel, with their fuzzy silver blades spread perfectly about the hidden stem within.



A relative of the sunflower (look at the individual flowers and you'll notice the family resemblance,) the silversword is unique to the Hawaiian islands, growing only here in Haleakala, and on the high slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island. Protected both by law and conscience, the silversword has proliferated in the last ten to fifteen years. The first time I hiked in Haleakala I saw only one small silversword, and it was not in bloom. You can see, when you hike, that the situation has greatly improved over time, and this truly rare plant now appears in abundance.

Hiking in Haleakala Crater is, in itself, a stunning experience. If you're alone, or in a small group, and you all stop and stand still, silently holding your breath, you hear one of the rarest of sounds. . .the coursing of the blood in the capillaries of your eardrums. . .the sound of silence!

You might occasionally hear the honk of a nene, the rare and endangered native Hawaiian goose, which like the silversword, is only found here and on the Big Island. But, it is more likely that you will not. Sorry.

The experience of hiking in the crater certainly defies description. How do you communicate the crunching of the glassy cinder underfoot, or describe the perfect smoothness of the cinder landscape, all gray in one place, but speckled with randomly distributed red rocks spread in every direction. You walk along and then, suddenly, it all switches. The cinder is red everywhere, and the speckles are black. And then a swath of yellow cinder cuts across the land. You just have to see it for yourself.

Distances are very difficult to judge in Haleakala Crater. What seems a long way off is often remarkably close, and what seems to be "just over there", can take a good while to reach. Often what appears to be rocks nearby, are great boulders by the time you get to them.

It will only take an hour or so for you to reach Ka Lu'u o ka 'O'o, and it is a good idea to take a nice long break before doubling back. If you brought snacks, eat them, but be sure to pack out your trash.

After you're rested, you can begin the trek back to the summit. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I told you it can be very tiring. Don't hesitate to stop and catch your breath. The return trip is almost a constant ascent through increasingly thinner air, so oxygen is scarce, and you shouldn't push yourself too hard. Take it nice and slow, and you'll still get to the top, and you won't feel like you're dead when you get there.


The hike out will take you much longer than the hike in. It can take a somewhat more than two hours at a leisurely pace,


None-the-less, at that pace you will arrive back at the summit by noon, and have plenty of time left in the day for relaxing at the beach. So, take your time. Don't feel rushed. Enjoy the spectacular views on all sides. You won't even notice the effort, and by the time you return to the Sliding Sands Trailhead, you'll be able to turn around and look back on Haleakala Crater, and feel within you the deeper connection that you have made with this special paradise, Maui.





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