One of the most popular activities on Maui is to see the incredible Maui Sunrise on Haleakala. Seeing the sun come up from this 10,000ft behemoth is a truly awe-inspiring sight and one fit for any bucket list. However, it is important to know a few things if you are to get the best out of the trip. Many people get the basics wrong and end up disappointed.
Our guide will tell you everything you need for a fantastic and enjoyable trip to the Summit of Haleakala. Whether that is to catch the Sunrise or Sunset, gaze at the mind-boggling stars, or just to see the Crater and far-reaching views during the day. We will tell you everything you need to know about visiting the House of the Sun.
About Mount Haleakala – House of the Sun
Let’s start with a little intro to the Mountain. Haleakala means “the House of the Sun” in Hawaiian and to anyone who has seen the sunrise up there, it is very clear why. This gigantic Volcano rises high above almost everything else including the clouds and from this altitude, the sun appears in an unbelievable shower of color as the whole scene in front and behind is bathed in reds, oranges, and yellows before the blinding ball of fire erupts from the cloud marking the new Day. It’s enough to make you come over all religious, and we often hear utterings of that type as the sun makes its way up into the sky.
The photos we post here are only mildly edited and really are not as beautiful as the real-life scene they were captured from. As stunning as they are, nothing compares to the real beauty of seeing it in person!
Maui is made up of two large Volcanoes with a valley large plane between the two. The Smaller Volcano, West Maui Mountain is now Dorment and may well stay that way. The Larger Dominant Volcano is Named Haleakala and makes up most (around 75%) of Maui’s land Mass. This 10,000 ft monster towers over everything in Maui and even has a huge impact on weather and water distribution on the island.
The Volcano is technically active, but it is in a very quiet non-eruptive phase. having shown no signs of eruption since the 17th Century. These lava flows are still visible around La Perouse Bay but are much older than the rather recent appearance. Haleakala has been peacefully watching over the valley isle for centuries causing little trouble for the inhabitants of this paradise island. Of course, that could change and no one really knows when a new eruption is due, but it is unlikely to be without warning.
At the Summit of the Volcano is a HUGE crater. Which is home to the Demi-God Maui (according to legend) The Haleakala crater was not actually formed volcanically and is in fact formed by erosion indicating the length of time of dormancy at the summit. The enormous crater is over 7 miles across and nearly 800ft deep and has a red color in all its rock walls and dirt. Making the scene very reminiscent of a Martian landscape. It really feels very otherworldly.
The Summit peak is at over 10,000 and is around 10 miles (As the Crow Flies) from the coast any attempt to scale the summit would be a huge physical undertaking. Only very fit people could manage it. Fortunately, there is a well-paved road leading right to the very top. Which is handy! The last 10 miles of the 36-mile road are inside the Haleakala National park and require you to pay for the park entrance. This goes to the upkeep and protection of this and other parks and is part of the National Park Service.
$30 – per car (3 – day return)
$25 – Motorcycle
$15 Per Person (if not in a Car)
$55 Annual Tri Park Pass (Haleakala, Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park (Big Island) and Puʻuhonua ʻO Hōnaunau National Historical Park (Big Island))
$80 Interagency Annual Pass – Valid in all US National parks
Until recently the Tri Park pass was only $30 and was exceptional value even if you only planned on visiting Haleakala twice. Unfortunately, that has now shot up and offers only a minimal saving unless you are visiting all three parks!
The Problem with Haleakala park, is there are two entry points often visited. One here at the summit but also in the Kipahula area where people visit the Piwipi Trail and the seven sacred pools. Now unless you visit both areas within 3 days you will have to pay £30 twice. The Interagency Pass is great value if you regularly visit parks across the United States.
REMEMBER – Entry fees HAVE to be paid on a Credit/Debit Card as the Booths are remotely located and storing a large amount of cash in the booths is a safety issue.
Sunrise On Haleakala
So you decided you want to go for the Big Tomali and head up for sunrise. First of all, be ready for a REALLY early start. And we mean early. Expect to set your alarm for 3-4 AM! Secondly, brace for the cold. It will be in the middle of the night and at 10,000ft altitude. Temperatures can be nudging FREEZING! even in Summer. If that has not put you off let’s look at specifics.
This all depends on a few things. First; where you are located on Maui. Second, do you want to see the sunrise and the Stars as well? And third; what time of year. Let’s start with the latter and we will run through a working example to show you how to calculate that crucial alarm call!
The Exact time of sunrise changes through the year just like it does at home. Being so close to the Equator it probably alters less than at home, unless your home is equally close to the equator? Anyway, the best way to work out the time is using a Calculator website we use timeanddate.com Simply scroll down to the list and find the date you plan on going, and note the Sunrise time Simple.
Example – 16th March 2018 – Sunrise time: 06:32
Excellent, we know exactly what time we need to be in place on the mountain. It is already looking like an early start. But it’s going to get worse!
Next Question, Do you want to see the stars as well?
The high altitude and limited light pollution mean the stars from the Summit of Haleakala are truly breathtaking. Like, beyond what we can adequately describe. This is one of the few places you can easily see the Milky Way with the naked eye. Our own Galactic home appears clearly across the sky as an iridescent smear of milky white. It is such an incredible sight we strongly advise heading up early to see the stars while the Sky is still fully black. There is a downside to this. The light from the sunrise starts creeping up very early. You need to be at the summit at least an hour before sunrise and we really strongly recommend an hour and a half. 45 Minutes and the stars are no better than a normal night sky. So Our Target time is now 05:00! We would still suggest getting there at least 30 mins early even if you just want to see the sunrise.
That’s an early start, but we are still in our resort. We still need to get to the top of the mountain. The road is only 36 miles but it’s a narrow, tight, steep twisty road and it’s pitch black. Google gives a time of 1:10mins from Kahului. And this is a fair guess. We would add a little on if you are a nervous driver or take a little off if you are confident on these types of roads. Not too much though as you will have to follow people most of the way as there are sparse overtaking opportunities. We normally manage around an hour, including queueing at the Gate to get in. Which means 04:00!
Of course, very few people actually stay in Kahului so we need to get there from the resort areas. It will be very early in the morning so the traffic is light and almost no queues so we can expect to beat googles guesses just a little. But we tend to go off them just to add in a safety margin. There is nothing worse than getting to the top only to miss Sunrise or the Dark Sky needed to see the Milky Way. So let’s have a look at Google’s expected times from popular resort areas.
- Lahaina – + 30Mins
- Kaanapali – + 40Mins
- Kahana – + 45 Mins
- Napili/Kapalua – + 50Mins
- Kihei – + 20Mins
- Wailea– + 25Mins
- Makena– + 30 Mins
For this example, we are staying in Napili so that’s +50Mins so we need to leave at 3:10 am! As we will need a coffee and get in the car that’s a 3:00 am wake-up call. Urrgghhh. This is actually what we did last March on our latest trip to Maui!
Admittedly this is getting towards the worst-case scenario, and your own resort may be closer, and if we just wanted to see the Sunset you could have another hour in bed. But it is still a very early wake-up call. And some tours will have you up even earlier as the tour buses are pretty slow up the hill! And in summer the Sunrise is even earlier 05:43 at its earliest.
But before you run screaming for your duvet there is some more very good news.
Plan to visit early in your trip?
Here is what makes this ridiculous early rise quite bearable! Jet-Lag. Depending on how far you have come you may well be very jetlagged and can use this to your advantage. Plan to hit the sunrise very early in your trip. We normally say the second morning. The first morning we like to settle in and take it easy. Charging up a 10,000ft volcano doesn’t really fit that bill. You will find that on that first morning, you will probably be up very early regardless. Often well before sunrise. Newly arrived tourists wandering around in the dead of night is a very common sight in Hawaii. Even the East coast has a 4-hour difference so 3:00 am is really like waking up at 7:00 am still early but far more reasonable. For anyone from the east coast, it will be a lie-in until 10:00 am, you probably won’t even need an alarm. If you are from the UK or Europe like us it really won’t matter you will be so messed up time-wise!
The later you leave it on your trip the more adjusted you will be and the more the alarm call will hurt.
Of course, this only applies to people coming from the east, USA, Canada, Europe. Those traveling west to east, Japan, Australia, etc. Well, you may be best trying to stay up REALLY late and catch the sunrise before going to bed!
You need to BOOK!
We can’t stress this enough. If you want to be at the summit for Sunrise you need a reservation. It’s free ($1.50 booking fee) But HAS to be done in advance. Even if there is space they will not let you up unless you have a booking. And you have got up at 3 AM and driven 26 miles up a mountain before you find out! So decide your date and book well ahead of time.
Best View – Where to View the Haleakala Sunrise
Ok, so you managed to get up and get to the top in time, you have oggled at the Stars and maybe even taken a few Astro shots! Time to get in position and await the rising Sun. By now the Dawn Sky will be breaking, it starts getting bright 45-30mins before the sunrise.
There are a number of options. These used to be super important as the car parks would fill very quickly but with the new pre-booking system, there is normally space in one of the main car parks. Remember this is a National Park and wandering off any trail is actually illegal so remember to stay on the paths.
Red Hill Summit Carpark and Overlook
This is the highest point of the mountain and has a reasonably sized car park but will fill quickly. Get here early if you desperately want to see the sunrise from the actual summit. However, it isn’t actually the BEST view, in our opinion. It’s still a very very good view and the smaller car park means there is normally room to stand. Most people huddle around the building at the very top. Which provides some shelter. This area is best for people wanting to see the stars or take astrophotos as it’s less crowded and fewer cars head up meaning less light pollution.
Haleakala Visitors Centre
The Overlook at the visitor’s center is probably the best view of them all. The overlook is perched right on the edge of the crater and there is nothing between you and the sunrise but the incredible crater void. It is truly spectacular. It is also very crowded. Do not expect a peaceful Sunrise. This is where the tours offload and most people park here. The overlook is large and can handle a lot of people but it’s still going to be crowded. Not so bad you won’t get a good view or can’t set up a tripod but still far from quiet. While you are not quite on the summit as far as anyone really knows it’s as good as.
Due to the busy car park and the odds of getting your tripod kicked this is a poor choice to photograph the stars.
Pakaoao Trail lookout
Head up this very short trail that begins at the visitor’s center and you will find a small lookout at the top. This provides views even better than the Visitor center but not by much, it’s practically the same view. It is likely to be less busy but as it is so much smaller than the Main lookout can be even more crowded. The path is very rough though and a hard trek in the dark. DO NOT consider it without a good head torch!
Much further down the Hill is the KalaHaku Overlook. This is much smaller and provides a less perfect view of the sunrise as it’s elevation is considerably lower. But it’s still a good view and is much less likely to be busy. However, you do get the nagging feeling you are not really on top of the volcano. As such we normally skip here.
With thousands of people heading to the summit each day to see the sunrise, finding a spot to be on your own can be a big challenge. Combined with the fact you must stay on Trail and it’s pitch black means escaping the hordes is nigh on impossible. Your best bet is to head down the sliding sands trail. Just far enough to still get a great view but be away from the masses. Take great care though it’s a steep offroad trail and pitch black. Head torch again is a must.
What to Wear?
Remember IT IS COLD AT THE TOP! You have packed for a holiday in Paradise. Your case is rammed with shorts, T-shirts, and Swimwear. You know it’s cold but you will risk it in your t-shirt as it’s still warm in the resort even though it’s 3 AM…Big mistake! And quite a common one.
The temperature drops off very quickly as you increase elevation and summit temps can be as low as 30Degf -1 DegC. Even if it is warm in the resort. Combined with the potential wind chill and moisture at higher altitudes it can feel incredibly cold!
Expect Numb hands, Chattering teeth, and Shivering bodies within minutes if you brave it in shorts and tee. Our advice is to wear everything you possibly can. Layering up is the key as you are unlikely to have brought a big coat. We also borrow Blankets from the Hotel/Condo for extra warmth or if we have literally brought nothing but summer wear.
DO NOT underestimate this! It really is no fun watching the sunrise from your car with the heater on full blast!
After all that you might think Sunrise is just a bit too much faff. Getting up at silly o’clock to fight with the crowds just to see the sunrise…something you can see every day. We tend to disagree and think sunrise is well worth the pilgrimage even after multiple times. But if you really can’t bear all that there are several options that are nearly as good.
If the whole rigmarole of getting to the summit for Sunrise just seems far too much the next best alternative is Sunset. The Sunset is not as impressive as the rise as the Sun disappears into the ocean on the other side of the crater thus lacking the visual impact of the color flooding the crater that the sunrise provides. Cloud is also more likely to have built up and obscure anything resembling a view. Sunrise is more often than not clear at the summit but sunset is more of a gamble.
The colors do not always seem as vivid or bright as sunrise, but on the right day, it is still a sight to behold. We would always pick Sunrise but it is a big pain to get there in time and sunset makes the whole experience more sedate. You can easily head up with plenty of time and explore the Summit area in the daytime while you await the dusk. It is likely to be much warmer during the day and you can more easily hang around to see the stars. Overall it’s probably a better experience but it just lacks the X-factor of Sunrise.
The downside is the need to navigate the road at night when everyone will be heading down at the same time. We use timeanddate.com again to calculate the time needed to be at the top for Sunset. Times range from 17:45 in the Winter to 09:10 in the summer.
The Summit area is a great place to visit during the Daytime if you really can’t be bothered with the fuss of seeing the sun’s transition. Of course, we always explore immediately after any sunrise or sunset and can safely say it’s still an incredible place to be. The Crater is an absolute monster and really feels not of this world. The views of Maui are breathtaking and you can see as far as Moana Loa and Moana Kei on the Big Island. There isn’t much to do at the summit other than visiting the rather small visitor’s center, gawp at the phenomenal views or go for a hike but it’s still a very memorable place to visit. And you get to experience the road both ways in the daylight. And it is one incredible Drive.
We Didn’t even know so many Stars existed!
As mentioned before the StarScape from the Summit is truly breathtaking. The number of visible stars and the brightness and clarity truly astounds not to mention the fact the MilkyWay is clearly visible to the naked eye. It is one of the most staggering and humbling sights we know of.
While we tend to hit several birds with one stone and get up really early to see the stars, then watch the sunrise before exploring in the warming Daylight, You can organize to head up with a professional astronomer who will guide you around the celestial wonders you are witnessing. While simply staring at the stars in wonder is an incredible experience actually hearing about what you are looking at is a great and educational experience.
The 36 Miles from Kahului is an incredible drive. It is fairly benign until you turn off the 377 onto the Summit road (378) with 21 miles still to go. At night you will notice little but during the day this is the beautiful deciduous and pine-forested, Kula region. It’s like nowhere on Maui and hard to believe you are on a tropical Island. As you head up from here the road starts tightening and steepening as you negotiate endless switchbacks on your climb towards the heavens.
The Entire road is No Passing. This can be extremely frustrating as you catch timid drivers, coaches, and tour buses. The road can be scary for those not used to this type of drive and the tendency is to slow right down. This is fine and we don’t believe anyone should be rushed beyond their comfort zone. But please if you are the one taking your time, Please just use the pullouts to let people pass. It will help you not having an impatient driver behind as well as the driver wanting to go at a quicker pace.
Most Tour buses and the like will periodically pull over to let people pass. We tend to get there very early (for Astrophotography) so avoid the bulk of the tours and slower drivers. But this road is rarely quiet.
With 10 miles to go you enter the Park. The road kicks up another level here. If it’s pitch black you may not notice the sheer drops on the side or just how high you are climbing, but you will notice the narrowness and steep gradients. The surface is excellent the whole way and there are pullouts at regular intervals. If it’s early you will now be noticing the Stars. Despite the headlights, you will see the brightest stars imaginable above you.
Eventually, you will reach the visitor’s center where you must decide on parking here or carrying on to the actual summit. The Summit car park will fill first so if you are later then it is probably not worth trying.
The Road is not as fearsome as its reputation and most confident drivers will have no trouble. One of the best ways to decide if it’s for you is to see it so we did a quick timelapse of the summit road. We had to shoot on the descent as the video of the ascent really didn’t show much in the pitch black of night!
DIY – Hire Car
Having read that you may be a little nervous. But rest assured it’s not that bad a road. Anyone with a little confidence can make the drive. Personally, I think nothing of it and there are far worse roads around me. Some I use every day. But for Americans used to huge multi-lane freeways it can feel daunting (I prefer this to a freeway any day!)
A hire car is easily your best option. Any car you might hire is more than capable of the journey. And there are no restrictions on driving to the summit (other roads are restricted on the island). It gives you the chance to set your own schedule and wake-up time and not be a slave to pick-up and drop-off times. However, if the thought of this drive is turning your blood cold there are options.
You can also get a tour company to drive you to the summit in time for sunset. These tours normally include breakfast and come complete with a tour guide to point out interesting and important points along the way. This is not a cheap option and it takes a good 7-8 hours with a pick-up from your hotel possibly as early as 2 am but it does mean you won’t have to face driving the road and can catch a few zzz’s on the boring part of the drive.
Things to look out for
Basically, a Goose that lives on a Volcano at High Altitude! Quite why they find this inhospitable place a good home is a bit of a mystery but that can be frequently seen up here. The Nene is Hawaii’s State Bird and the world’s rarest goose! It can be found across the islands but is increasingly rare. As ever in Hawaii, though conservation efforts are helping protect its Survival. From a low of 30 Birds in the 50’s the population has rebounded to over 2500! Another Hawaiian conservation success story.
The Haleakala silversword is found nowhere else on Earth other than the Summit region of Haleakala and Moana Kei on the Big Island. Like the Nene (and a whole host of other Hawaiian species) the Silversword was nearly made extinct but was rescued from the brink. They are now common at the summit.
A large cactus-like plant. they are very noticeable. and make for great photos. It isn’t often you see a plant that really grows nowhere else on earth!
Other Attractions on Haleakala
Apart from Gazing at the Celestial wonders, there is plenty of other things to do while up the mountain, here are a few of the best
Cycle down the Mountain Road
Unfortunately, this has been partially stopped. Tours are no longer allowed to operate downhill bike rides inside the park for safety reasons. But that doesn’t stop the companies from operating outside the park. This still gives you a long exciting descent to barrel down. Of course, the tours take you and the bikes to the top and then lead you down the descent at a pace to suit most people. You can even include Sunrise in the tour to get the best of both.
The Haleakala Skyline Trail is an incredible trail that follows the Backbone of the volcano offroad all the way into Kula, over 15 Miles of incredible offroad terrain and stunning beauty. We don’t know of any tours that take you on this route so it’s a DIY project that will require you to get to the top and be picked up at the bottom in Kula. So really you need a Driver who will not Bike. If you can arrange it, it is one hell of a ride! There are many Bike Hire shops in Maui that will hire you a bike for this trail. However, some forbid their bike to be ridden here!
***Warning*** You need to know what you are doing for this Trail, not one for the tourist to have a go at, Despite what it may say in the blue book! Experienced MTB Rider ONLY!
Cycle up the Mountain
Riding Downhill is for Sissies!
Not one for the Feint heated, and not one I have personally achieved…YET. But an Ocean to Summit ride is one heck of an achievement. But for now, it’s still on the “to do” list. You have to be an exceptional fit cyclist to even attempt this monster ride.
There are actually fairly limited hiking opportunities at the summit. The steep remote terrain means the NPS has kept the trails to a minimum. The Good news is the few trails that exist are fantastic.
Haleakala Skyline Trail
The Skyline trail runs down the backbone of Haleakala and eventually comes out in Kula. It’s a whopping 15 miles of off-road trail and will leave you at the bottom of the mountain with 25 miles of uphill to climb back up to get to your car! Best arrange for a drop-off at the top and pick-up in Kula. Alternatively, you can just hike down a few miles to get the best of the trail before turning around.
Sliding Sands Trail
The Sliding Sands Trail is the most heavily used trail and actually leads you down into the Crater where it breaks off into a huge maze of other trails that explore the crater depths. It is even possible to hike all the way down to Kaupo/Kipahula on the Hana Coastline. That is an epic 20-mile hike through some pretty evil terrain. Probably not Recommended.
It is important to remember that the 2-mile Trail is very steep and you lose a lot of elevation very quickly. While this is great and makes for easy hiking, you do have to climb BACK up the tail. Which is often much less fun. After 2 miles of descent, you can then explore the network of trails that crisscross the valley exploring dormant craters, vents, and other volcanic features formed in the recent past.
Really hardly a Trail this one at a minuscule 0.2 miles it simply heads up to the overlook for a slightly different take on the crater. Well worth wandering up, but it’s not really a hike. Still, as we said Trailheads are pretty limited up on the summit.
If you fancy seeing the Volcano and Crater from the Air there are numerous helicopter tours that will take you up and over the crater. We have a full guide here.
Have Your Say
Have you been up to the Volcano? Did you make it for Sunrise? What time did you get up? Let us know if you have any comments or questions on the volcano. Either at Sunrise or any other time. We always love hearing about anything Maui or Hawaii-related so feel free to drop us a comment below.