Setting one’s alarm clock for three o’clock in the morning might not immediately seem like the most scintillating idea while on vacation, but that’s precisely what scores of visitors to Maui often do—2.2 million per year, to be exact.
Why, you might ask? To watch the glory and wonder of one of Maui’s most miraculous sights: The great Haleakalā sunrise.
The “House of the Sun” is an astounding feat of nature. Rising over ten thousand feet above sea level, Haleakalā looms so high above the Valley Isle that it extends beyond the cloud line, making up an astounding 75% of the island. A National Park that stretches east into beloved Hana, it comprises over 34,000 acres of stunning sights—from glimpses of rare fauna and flora (including the strange and surreal silversword and the endangered Nene goose) to a crater that yawns wide enough to hold all of Manhattan Island.
But watching the sun ascend from the acme of Maui’s most magnificent mountain shouldn’t be something you rush through just to knock it off your bucket list. As records of people will attest, a Haleakalā sunrise is a near-sacred event; every minute should be savored.
Planning a morning of magic and serenity? Here’s what to expect.
Sunrise typically arrives between 5:30 and 7:00 in the morning, depending on the season. Arrive late and you’ll miss the resplendence of seeing the first rays of light, so give yourself plenty of time. Drive times are around an hour and a half from both the West and South Sides. Those staying in Paia, Haiku, or Upcountry can hit snooze: These regions are closer to the serpentine highway that’ll take you up to the summit.
The ascent to Haleakalā Crater takes drivers across twenty-nine switchbacks as the road curves around the volcano’s edge. Guardrails are sparse and there are no stoplights—rendering this pre-dawn trek exhilarating in the dark.
Pack with Care
It may seem improbable to believe that a tropical island could offer anything less than seventy degrees, but temperatures at the top of Haleakalā frequently fall below forty. Factor in the arid air and the whimsy of Hawaii’s winds and you might find yourself having a mainland-kind-of morning if you’re not adequately prepared. Bring jackets, hats, and scarves, and don’t forget the sunscreen: Haleakalā’s moniker exists for a reason. Fuel up the night before, as there are no service stations in the park. And don’t forget to bring enough cash; entrance to the park comes at a nominal fee. Inside tip: For those who are sensitive to altitude, grab some water and Aspirin—Haleakalā hovers above one-third of the Earth’s atmosphere and dizzies those who are vulnerable to altitude sickness.
Bask in the Past
The legend surrounding this dormant giant is almost as rich as its vistas: According to myth, Haleakalā Crater was home to the demigod Maui’s formidable grandmother. When Maui—an ancient chief who was considered the savior of mankind for lifting the sky—wanted to give his mother more time in the day to dry her kapa (or Hawaiian bark), he climbed to the top of the mountain and harnessed the sun’s rays with ropes he braided from his sister’s hair. To watch the enormous bands gilding the horizon during sunrise is to garner a glimpse of how this fable was formed.
On the less nebulous side of Haleakalā’s history, imagine this: The mountain rose from the Pacific roughly a million years ago and is believed to have once stood 12,000 feet above sea level. Given its size and majesty, it was—and remains—a holy site for native Hawaiians, who have been caring for Maui for over 1,000 years. Of its myriad nicknames, it’s also known to kanakas as “wao akua” or “wilderness of the gods.” Now dormant, Haleakalā’s last eruption is believed to have taken place around 200 to 400 years ago, when it dramatically altered the island’s lava-rich South Shore.
Relish the Present
A sunrise at Haleakalā isn’t something to be seen from the comfort of your car. Aim to arrive early enough to find parking—did we mention the 2.2 million visitors per year?—and “first-row” spots at the crater’s edge. Some group tours come with a talented guide who chant or sing as the sun breaks and then stretches the sky, giving visitors a rather symphonic spectacle. On the clearest of mornings, you might be fortunate enough to see across the rough ‘Alenuihaha channel to the Big Island.
With daylight as your guide, take time to explore the park. Thirty miles of hiking trails ranging from piece-of-cake to sore-worthy can be found within the vicinity, bringing you into closer view of exquisite moonscapes, fascinating lava tubes, and awesome cinder cones. Fearless flyers: Check out the impressive Kaupo Gap Trail, an 8.3-mile journey from the park’s Paliku Cabin to Kaupo Ranch, where the switch from barren to bucolic will leave you breathless. And be prepared to be literally stopped in your tracks: Panoramic views from and of the crater are sweeping to the point of poignancy.
Enjoy the Ride
Given Haleakalā’s grandeur and location, it’s no wonder that biking down its slopes is consistently voted one of Maui’s leading visitor experiences. The sense of freedom it evokes and the awe it inspires often stays with riders for a lifetime. Expansive vistas extend from the pinnacle of the mountain to the valley and beaches below to the outlying islands, while taking cyclists through a range of ecological systems that span from barren and cold to mist-tipped and verdant. The route to sea level offers time on Upcountry’s fertile slopes, where riders can get up close and personal with wildly beautiful landscapes and fascinating birds.
Prefer to roll down the hill on four wheels? Pencil in ample time to make it back to your resort: This is a route that begs to be absorbed in small sips, with frequent stops at outstanding lookouts and shoulders with excellent photo ops. Then swerve into Kula to satisfy that appetite: From Grandma’s Coffehouse to the Kula Lodge, you’ll find a bevy of breakfast spots to rejuvenate your spirit—which, after the sunrise you’ve just witnessed, will likely be lit from within.