A visit to Maui is not complete without a drive into the clouds and beyond. There have only been a few occasions in my life that I have traveled above the clouds and still had my feet firmly planted on the ground. In Maui, a trip to Haleakala National Park allowed me to have that heightened experience.
While there are multiple tour companies offering excursions, I found the best way to visit is by rental car. Going “freestyle” allowed me to stop along the way, hike one of the many trails inside the national park, and do so at my own pace.
Haleakala (meaning “house of the sun”) is the only National Park on Maui, and it’s known for its spectacular sunrise.
If you plan to make the trip for sunrise, do note this is a bustling place in the morning. Be prepared for the long, winding road up to the summit in the dark.
The park itself comprises two areas. Firstly, it takes approximately 1-1/2 to 2 hours one way to reach the region at the summit. Secondly is the Kipahulu district, which is accessible by driving the road to Hana, along the coast, and beyond.
A one-way drive here is about three hours. Some areas of the park are not open to the public and are not accessible by road or on foot.
Preparing For Your Day At Haleakala National Park
If you are driving to the summit, make sure you gas up because there are no services inside the park. There are also no concessions so bring plenty of water and snacks to ward off the hunger pangs.
During my visit in late April, the temperature fluctuated from 89 F at the base to a very cool 54 F at the top. In winter, the summit temperatures can be freezing due to the wind chill factor, and you could possibly run into snow and ice.
Also, because this mountain is very high, sometimes clouds and fog can impair visibility, so you may arrive at the summit and not be able to see anything.
If this happens, don’t despair because the drive to the top is still quite enjoyable. If you have the time, hang around. The clouds can move quite quickly at 10,000 feet in the sky.
Going For Sunrise
Watching the sunrise at Haleakala is a romantic activity for couples. If you’re planning to see the Haleakala sunrise, you now need a reservation if you are traveling by private vehicle.
Bookings are only available online and can be made up to 60 days in advance at recreation.gov or by calling 1-877-444-6777 to make your reservation over the phone.
The USD 1.50 reservation fee ensures you will have a parking spot at one of the four sunrise viewing locations, and your permit must be displayed on your car’s dashboard during your visit.
The sunrise reservation is valid from 3 am to 7 am. Yes, you read right, 3 am! While this might seem ridiculously early, you’d be surprised at how many people plan to be there at this time. After you’re sunrise experience, you can remove that experience from your United States bucket list.
While there are four sunrise viewing locations, some are better than others. The parking spots at the preferred locations will fill up first. So, if you arrive late, you may be forced to watch the sunrise at a less desirable spot.
If you’re not an early bird (like me) or want to avoid the crowds, visit in the afternoon and maybe plan to watch the Haleakala sunset instead. While the sunset is not as spectacular as the sunrise, it’s still worth seeing.
Lunch Before The Drive
Since I’m not an early bird and was staying in Lahaina on a cruise ship, my preference was a leisurely drive without the crowds.
We planned a stop in Paia to have an early lunch at the Flatbread Company, which is located on the Hana Highway. Paia is a lovely town with lots of quaint shops and fantastic restaurants. While parking is problematic, Paia offers lots to do.
Street parking is at a premium. It’s best to park in the larger parking lot across the street and to the west one block.
Walking into the restaurant, we were immediately struck by its charming ambiance, colorful artwork, and rustic-style decor. We were met by Karen, the assistant manager, who gave us the rundown of the menu and made some recommendations.
I have celiac disease and other significant allergies, and it’s often (or should I say always) a challenge to eat out anywhere. To my surprise, the Flatbread Company not only had gluten and lactose-free pizzas, but they were incredibly delicious.
The Flatbread Company uses locally grown fruits and vegetables to make its food organic when possible. The menu changes regularly depending on the local produce available.
There are two daily specials listed on a large chalkboard, and the selection of local ingredients determines these. One of these is a carnivore pizza, and one is a veggie.
I loved the fact that the restaurant has an entirely open kitchen where you can watch the whole process from kitchen to table.
The pizzas are cooked in a traditional wood-fired clay oven which is showcased in the middle of the restaurant.
The Flatbread Company doesn’t have a big menu, but everything on it sounded terrific. The most popular flatbreads on the menu are Mopsy’s Kalua Pork and the Pele Pesto.
Additionally, the restaurant allows you to select two different halves on one pizza at no extra cost. This is a nice bonus for those who can’t decide or want to try something new.
We went with both signature pizzas on one gluten-free flatbread. Anyone who eats gluten-free will know that wheat-free food is either hit or miss. All I can say is WOW; these pizzas are to die for.
I especially liked the Pele Pesto, which had the right amount of garlic and a unique pesto made from macadamia nuts instead of pine nuts.
Where else can you travel in the world and have macadamia nuts on your pizza? To say this pizza is heavenly is no exaggeration.
The Kalua Pork satisfied my sweet tooth with its delicious mango BBQ sauce, yummy pulled pork, and melt-in-your-mouth goat cheeses. Other pizzas included a traditional pepperoni and mushroom, Pa’ia Bay Ohana (caramelized onions and mushrooms), and a vegan option.
It’s important to note that gluten-free flatbreads are prepared and cooked in a separate area of the kitchen to ensure they do not get cross-contaminated with gluten ingredients.
On Karen’s recommendation, we also ordered the organic salad, which was phenomenal with its amazing Maui pineapple vinaigrette. If you’re not fond of salad, this is a salad that would make you love greens again.
The salads are incredibly fresh, made with local organic ingredients, and so flavorful. As I said to Karen, you know the food is excellent when the restaurant is full and the plates are empty.
While I arrived at the Flatbread Company with a small appetite, I left with a full and happy tummy and a burning desire to visit again.
While I was hosted by the Flatbread Company, all opinions, as always, are my own.
The Drive To The Summit
After our delicious lunch, we set out on our Haleakala day trip. The drive to the summit is 38 miles and takes 1-1/2 to 2 hours, depending on how many times you stop and the amount of traffic.
The switchback road rises from sea level to an elevation of 10,023 feet and possibly makes it the steepest vehicle road in the world.
The fascinating drive allowed me to view many different climatic zones, from the tropical area at the base of the mountain to the subalpine desert at the top. The journey is a botanist’s paradise.
Along the route, there are pullout stopping points that provide magnificent views of the coastline below, should the skies be void of thick clouds.
During my drive, I spotted a number of Ringneck pheasants and feral goats, as well as a Chukar partridge at the summit.
The landscape of the Haleakala volcano rises from a lush valley beneath a waterfall at sea level to a red desert of cinder cones at the summit.
At approximately 7,000 feet, you will arrive at the park entrance, and it’s another 3,000 feet and another ½ hour’s drive to reach the summit.
The entrance fee is USD 30 per vehicle and is suitable for three days. Alternatively, you can buy a Tri Park annual pass for USD 55, which gets you into Haleakala National Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park.
Once you reach the park, you are in the “Kua Mauna,” the land above the clouds, where people never dwell for long.
Facts About Haleakala National Park
While the summit is 10,023 feet above sea level, the actual height of the Haleakala volcano from the bottom of the ocean is about 30,000 feet. This makes it one of the tallest mountains in the world.
Of the 20 recognized climatic zones on earth, Maui has 17 of them. Many of these I experienced during my visit to the park.
While some were experienced en route to the summit and inside the crater, others are found lower down on the ocean side in the Kipahulu districts of the park.
At the summit and on a clear day, look to the southwest. You may be able to see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island over 100 miles away.
Haleakala National Park is a favorite place for amateur astronomers. If you want to experience some fantastic star gazing, you can rent telescopes and binoculars from local shops in the area.
Since there are no city lights nearby, the mountain offers amazing star-gazing opportunities.
At the Haleakala summit parking lot, there is a short hike to the very top. Don’t be deceived by this short walk. The air is thin at 10,000 feet, so don’t be surprised if you get out of breath quickly.
Pace yourself slowly and be careful of the very large steps on the route to the top. The White Hill Trail climbs to the top of a volcanic cinder cone for views of the Haleakala wilderness area.
At first glance, this dormant volcano seems quite barren. For the most part, it is, but there are signs of life amongst the dirt and rocks.
Living amongst the rocks are nesting silverswords, a haven for wolf spiders, flightless moths, and yellow-faced bees. There are more endangered species in Haleakala National Park than in any other United States national park.
The Haleakala Silversword is a rare plant only found in Hawaii. It’s easy to spot with its very striking silver long leaves that grow in a unique rosette shape. These delicate plants once dominated the area but are now rare due to the overgrazing of cattle and goats.
Now almost extinct, these fragile plants rely on park management to keep them thriving in Haleakala National Park. Other rare species include the Hawaii Petrel and the Hawaiian bat.
Another rare species is the Nene, a native Hawaiian goose that resembles a smaller version of the Canada goose. Please drive slowly in the park and look out for these rare birds.
While great efforts have been made to preserve endangered species, these efforts are ongoing. Please stay on the trails, take nothing but photos and memories, and help to protect the fragile habitat.
It took two trips to Hawaii before I spotted my first Nene, and in three visits, I’ve only ever seen one.
Haleakala National Park Viewing
The optimal viewing spot is close to the Haleakala National Park visitor center. The view from the Haleakala crater rim is indescribable and unforgettable.
Many visitors describe the aspects as moon-like. As the clouds shift, the layers of earthy tones come into view, and the colors are magnificent.
The vibrant reds blend so brilliantly with the browns, greens, and grays that Claude Monet himself could not have painted a better vision.
If the weather is favorable and the skies are clear, the views from rim to rim are quite spectacular. Standing at the rim of the crater gave me a feeling that I was on top of the world, considering the clouds surrounded me.
On the right-hand side of the crater rim, a hiking trail meanders into the crater. While most travelers come for the Haleakala sunrise, the hiking trails are often forgotten.
However, these trails are immensely rewarding, with opportunities to view rare vegetation and a chance to see endangered wildlife.
Hiking In Haleakala National Park
There are almost 40 miles of trails in the park, ranging from easy to rugged and strenuous. Most of these trails are in the summit area of the park.
It’s important to note that hiking off designated trails and cutting across switchbacks are prohibited. These actions cause erosion and damage to many of the endangered species in the park. Also, wilderness area water needs to be treated before it’s drinkable.
When participating in a Haleakala hike, it’s essential to know that most trails are very strenuous. This is due to the high elevation, which can cause altitude sickness. Also, should you be hiking Sliding Sands Trail, the path starts downwards, so allow for twice the time to hike back upwards.
Remember to wear sturdy shoes, use sunscreen, carry plenty of water, and be prepared for drastic weather changes. Hiking in the Kipahulu district nearer the coast is much less strenuous.
If you plan to do some considerable hiking in the park, you may want to camp at one of the two Haleakala campgrounds within the park.
The peak of Haleakala is one of the most sought-after places in the world for ground-based telescopes. Its summit offers stillness of air, clarity, dryness, little pollution, and its location is above one-third of the world’s atmosphere.
Because of this, its skies offer superb astronomical viewing conditions and are considered to be the fourth-best viewing spot on the planet.
Through a partnership between the Department of Defense and the University of Hawaii, the telescopes are shared with government agencies and academic and scientific institutions.
While the large white domes are noticeable from the summit, the entire observatory complex lies outside the park boundaries and is closed to the public.
For adventurous individuals, Maui offers the longest downhill bike ride in the world. Tours operators pick you up from your hotel or cruise ship and drive you just outside the park’s entrance at 6,700 feet.
Here, you will jump on a bike for the ride of your life. The 26-mile ride is all downhill, so there’s no strenuous peddling needed. The bikes provided are not ordinary mountain bikes.
In fact, they have a heavy-duty braking system since you need them for the entire ride down. Some tours are guided, and some are self-guided so that you can ride at your own pace.
Paragliding and a helicopter ride also offer unique ways of viewing the dormant volcano. Get above the clouds and soar through the skies as you take in the scenery from your seat in the sky.
Air Maui, Maverick Helicopters, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, and Pacific Helicopter Tours all operate in Maui. Some tours offer doors-off options for the not-so-faint of heart.
If bike riding down a mountain for almost 7,000 feet isn’t adventurous enough, consider a mind-blowing snorkel with the manta rays in Kona, Hawaii. My manta ray night snorkel was an exhilarating bucket list experience that I soon won’t forget.
Happy travels ~ Karen