One of the things I was most looking forward to during our Hawaii trip was taking a drive up to the top of Haleakala National Park. I was excited to visit one of the most remote national parks in the entire system, and the pictures I had seen made it look like a far easier version of our somewhat ill-fated attempt to “simply walk into Mordor” aka the Tongariro Alpine crossing.
The Red Crater really does look a lot like the Tongariro area, and driving up to 10,000 feet seemed like it would be much easier than hiking – and it sure was!
I was a little worried about altitude sickness for Jacob and my dad, neither of which had ever been at that elevation. Also, while Ariel and I had both been at higher elevations at Rocky Mountain National Park (where the road climbs to 12,183 feet), we had always started well above sea level. Haleakala has the distinction of being the fastest and highest climb from sea level anywhere in the world. It’s zero to 10,023 feet in just over an hour.
But the difference in air pressure between 10,000 feet and 8,000 feet (which is what most planes are pressurized to) isn’t really that different, so I was optimistic everyone would be ok. Still we took a few Tylenols in case anyone got a headache at the summit, where you must be prepared for no services whatsoever aside from restrooms.
We set out in the afternoon after Jacob had a nap after a morning on the beach. Generally people try to go for sunrise or sunset. Sunrise required entering the park before the sun comes up, which would have meant a 2 am or so start time. Even without a child – no thanks! We went for sunset, and I really cannot fathom what we could have missed out on that would make it worth starting our day at that truly ungodly hour.
One thing to note – we planned to pick up a sandwich dinner at the Kula Marketplace, which was pretty much the last opportunity to get food before entering the park. The restaurant was closed, and the store really had very limited options, especially if you’re not looking to eat meat. There were only three veggie wraps left when we went (and they included vegetables, swiss cheese, and hummus for some reason). I would recommend making your own sandwiches ahead of time or stopping earlier. It IS worth stopping there though because they did have some really delicious sweets and snacks.
Haleakala definitely lived up to the hype. After a truly incredible drive up (watch out for the 20+ hairpin turns) through numerous different climate zones, and cattle ranches where cows roamed all across the road, we drove into the perpetual fog that hangs around the volcano. Right around the actual entrance to the park where you pay ($30 per car, and your payment is good for three days INCLUDING the other side of the park at the end of the Road to Hana/start of the Piilani Highway so save your ticket!) we burst through the clouds and were able to see the summit.
The excitement built for everyone. I was excited too, but I noted to myself there were still about 3,000 more feet to climb, as evidenced by the absolutely tiny dots I saw slowly moving up and up and up and up above me to the top. Realizing I’d be doing the vast majority of the return drive in the dark was a less than wonderful thought to be sure…
Eventually we got to the top – and really, what is there to say? The “picture is worth 1,000 words” cliche could not be more true. Imagine standing on an overlook looking DOWN at the tops of clouds. Like you’re in an airplane sure, but you’re OUTSIDE. It doesn’t feel real.
You stand at the edge, and in one direction, it’s clouds like you’re literally in a palace in the sky like Skyloft in Zelda or some crazy peak in Skyrim. In another direction, you can actually see the twin volcanoes of the Big Island – Moana Kea and Moana Lea. And in a third direction, you’re looking down into massive crater that looks like a combination of Mars and the Mount Doom scenes from the Lord of the Rings films. I’m really at a loss for words to describe it.
And then the sun went down. My God…
Suddenly the sky – BENEATH US – seemed to catch fire. And all along the horizon, as far as the eye could see for about 180 degrees, grey clouds seemed to erupt in flames. It didn’t feel real. I’m still not entirely sure it was. Jacob loved it, and neither he nor my dad had any evidence of altitude sickness.
A few things to keep in mind when going.
It is WINDY at the summit and the larger parking deck near the main visitor center. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that even in Maui, when you’re at 10,000 feet, the conditions are going to be anything but tropical. It wasn’t that cold – around 50 degrees – but the WIND really knocked us around and made it feel much colder than it was. Make sure you bring a sweatshirt but ALSO a windbreaker too. Also be mindful of the wind when approaching any edges too…
The visitor center closes at 4 pm, which was disappointing, since I couldn’t get a National Park passport stamp for Jacob and I. There’s also no one really to talk to up there during sunset or sunrise. If you have questions – make sure to get there earlier than we did. And you should do that anyway, because there’s so much to do there. If we hadn’t been waiting on Jacob to nap (knowing we wouldn’t be getting home until well after 9 pm), we could have spent the whole day there.
Being that it’s so windy, by far the most comfortable place to have your dinner, is in your car. There are plenty of parking spaces where you can sit and watch the sun go down from the warm confines of your car, while chowing down on whatever you brought to the park. Honestly, you may prefer to just stay inside your car for the entire thing, like my dad did. You could also stay at the summit, where there is a small round booth with windows that look in every direction that is sheltered from the wind, although I’m not 100% sure the view of the sunset would be from there.
And keep in mind that you’re going to have a hard time finding a great place to watch the sun go down, and since sunrise requires a reservation, I can only assume it’s far worse and more crowded (again, I have to ask why??) than what we experienced. The sheltered areas aren’t great for viewing, and the windy areas are packed to the gills with selfie-taking, wannabe-Instagram influencers. We’re all getting the exact same pictures folks, putting yourself into it isn’t making it any more interesting!
Oh and when the parking lots fill up, it’s DONE. Rangers will NOT let anyone in. So make sure your car is parked by no later than an hour BEFORE the sun starts heading down.
I actually had a hunch that a good place to watch would have been a little further down at one of the overlooks we had driven past a few hundred feet below where we ended up (i.e. one of the two main areas near the summit) near the visitor center. On the drive down I could see I was right – same exact view. Although I can’t be sure there were much less people there, just the fact that less cars could fit there would mean by default you have more space to yourself. If you can grab a spot there I think that would work better.
There are also a few trails you can take to get a better, more secluded spot, but that actually brings me to the last summit discussion point – 10,000 feet is 10,000 feet. Even though we didn’t feel any pain or typical altitude sickness symptoms, the air is just much thinner there. My first jog up some stairs made it clear I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. We had intended to do at least a portion of a hike down into the amazing crater, but between the wind and the reduced oxygen levels, we actually ruled it out. It’s a shame because I think it would have been amazing, and maybe if we had gotten there a little earlier we would have taken a crack at it, but we really didn’t want a repeat of Tongariro, only this time with a 4 year old and a 72 year old.
The last thing to keep in mind is that watching the sunset, means you’re going to be doing quite a bit of downhill driving, with hordes of stop/start tourists, in the dark. Remember those hairpin turns I mentioned before? In the dark. Cows? In the dark. With tailgaters behind you, and people riding their brakes in front of you. Not very comfortable. At all at all.
If you’re not worried about bedtimes, the far better strategy would have been to wait until total darkness, when nearly everyone was gone and then do some stargazing. Haleakala is one of the very best places to see the Milky Way (really only exceeded on Earth by the peaks on the Big Island), which is something I always try to do, but couldn’t quite pull off on this trip. In fact, the observatories at the summit (which REALLY make it feel like you’re on a moonbase or something) were put there before the ones on the Big Island, because at the time this WAS the best place to see the stars.
Regardless of what could have been, this was one of the highlights of the trip. Really one of the highlights of ANY trip. Haleakala was one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited. And when you contrast that with the fact that we started our day swimming around in 80 degree ocean water, within sight of palm trees and tropical reefs at the “Baby Beach” – mind bogglingly incredible.
Verdict: Haleakala is a windy, stunning, and incredible use of the time we are given. Top 5 sunset I’ve ever witnessed. Absolutely required for any Maui visitor!