Who sets an alarm clock on vacation?? That was my thought when I set my alarm for 2:30am (why go to bed right?) on the second day of vacation. But we were assured it would be worth it to see the sun rise on top of a mountain. And once again, Maui did not disappoint.
Haleakala National Park was established as part of Hawaii National Park in 1916, only one week after the National Park Service was established. Haleakala is 10,023-foot high mountain that is the core of Maui and is the largest dormant volcano in the world (it’s consider active despite last erupting in 1790). Signage at the summit states that Haleakala is 29,703 feet if you start at the base of the mountain which makes it taller than Mt. Everest. At the summit is the crater large enough to hold the island of Manhattan. The height of the mountain greatly influences the weather on Maui. Consider that Hana averages 400 inches of rain per year while Kihei, 15 miles away on the other side of the mountain, averages only 10 inches a year.
The winding road to the summit rises from sea level to 10,000 feet in just 37 miles (my ears told me that!). The views are amazing with varying landscapes. The silversword plant only grows in Hawaii and the state bird is the endangered nene, a Hawaiian goose that doesn’t migrate. Despite being a volcanic crater, the colors on Haleakala pop and the rugged landscape is beautiful.
Most people told us the summit sunrise was a must-do, especially for our first visit. And it was totally worth getting up before dawn to witness the beauty. It truly is a breathtaking, gorgeous act of nature. It was recommended to get up for sunrise on the first or second morning of our visit since our bodies were still adjusting to the six-hour time change (frankly I’m not sure our bodies ever adjusted!) so we went on our second morning. We were also told to expect very cold temps (the summit is typically 32 degrees colder than the beaches) so we knew to dress in layers, wore socks and shoes, took some warm drinks, and packed our rain jackets to block the wind.
We debated whether to drive ourselves in our rental car or take a tour bus. In the end we decided to drive ourselves and I’m glad we did. My husband is a confident, smart, safe driver who has a keen sense of direction, judge of distance, etc. So I felt very safe having him navigate the windy, steep road. I also liked having our own car to be on our own time schedule, which was nice after sunrise when we could wander around the visitor center and some trails.
We left our condo in Kihei around 3:15am. From Kahului, it is approximately 1.5 hours to the summit. Since it was so early, traffic was light and we made good time to the summit road. There were only cars and tour buses on the road. Otherwise it was quiet and dark. I thought not being able to see the steep drop off the side would make me feel more comfortable but I actually felt more anxious not being able to really see what surrounded us. My husband, funny guy that he is, took an opportunity to stop in the middle of the dark road and turn off all car lights. It was pitch black! I seriously couldn’t see anything outside the window (I might not have thought that was funny at the time!).
We took one of the last spots in the summit parking lot. When this lot is full, you must park in the visitors center lot just below (the views are still great). There were quite a few people at the Puu Ulaula Overlook, which has a viewing center that provides nice protection from the wind. We found a cozy spot to wait for the big show. I could tell we were at a much higher elevation than Michigan because the air was noticeably thinner and after quickly climbing up the steps to the viewing area, I felt a bit winded and light-headed. I thankfully adjusted easily, however, when we started hiking after sunrise I felt the difference again. We also didn’t find the temps as cold as we expected. It was around 48 degrees at sunrise. Granted it was chilly compared to the 85-degree afternoon we had but since we arrived from Michigan, where temps had been in the 50s, we were comfortable (not sure the West Coast viewers felt the same!).
The sunrise begins slow as light starts dawning on the clouds and the shadows begin to fade off the horizon. The light plays tricks with your eyes as the clouds shift from looking like water to shadows. Even as a writer, I find the scene difficult to describe. It’s so pretty and emotionally moving. It also struck me how quiet the crowd was, like you respect the moment to be quiet. You don’t want to look away once the sun starts to peek over the mountains because then it rises quickly. And it gets bright so don’t look directly at the light.
Once the sun was up in the sky, we spotted the two summits of the Big Island in the distance. Haleakala Observatories are also near the summit but not open to the public – the U.S. Air Force uses this observatory also to identify and track man-made objects in the sky (a sign said there are more than 8,000 in orbit, yikes!). We explored the visitors center and wandered a few trails. We stopped at several scenic overlooks to marvel at the beauty of the land and ocean beyond.
Lots of people pay to ride bikes down the summit road post-sunrise. We saw many bikers getting ready to go but, truthfully, thought they were crazy. The road is SO curvy and filled with many blind spots. I read that there is an average of one critical injury of a biker a week on the summit road. With that statistic, I was happy to be in the car.
Haleakala National Park is a beautiful example of nature. We are so fortunate to have this place in our country and it proves once more that we need to protect and preserve these places for generations to come.