At an elevation of 10,023 frigid feet, Haleakala volcano, on the island of Maui, is 3% of the distance to space when compared to the beaches at sea level. When standing here, above the clouds, 50% of the Earth’s atmosphere has already disappeared, and 99% of birds don’t ever fly this high. Its colorful crater is so voluminous that all of Manhattan—or half of San Francisco—could nearly fit inside, and when measured from its base on the ocean floor it’s amazingly taller than Everest.
Stunning superlatives and statistics aside, Haleakala is a place that’s not only surreal, but also immensely sacred, as it’s from this spot that the demigod, Maui, famously snared the sun. According to ancient Hawaiian legend, the sun was racing across the sky too quickly for Hawaiians to survive, and there wasn’t enough light for their crops to grow, or kapa (cloth) to dry in the sun. By scaling the mountain and snaring the sun inside of his massive fishnet, Maui was able to strike a deal where he’d only release the sun if it moved much slower across the sky.
When visiting Haleakala volcano today, the first thing visitors will notice is the drive that winds its way up towards the top. Considering the road gains 10,000 feet in only 38 miles, it’s believed to be the world’s steepest route from sea level to 10,000 feet. The air is cooler up here at the summit—as much as 30°F from sea level—and temperatures dip below freezing in winter with ice and occasional snow.
Given the frosty mountaintop chill, visitors planning to summit for sunrise should pack a jacket or three, especially since the sunrise, in all of its phases, can last for up to an hour. The morning begins with the serpentine climb up the mountain in inky black darkness, where the Milky Way stretches across the sky in all of its nebulous glory. After paying the National Park entrance fee of $15/vehicle, it’s still another 20 minutes to the sunrise perch at the top, and a faint red glow is just beginning to tickle the eastern horizon. By the time you’ve parked and made it to the overlook, ribbons of orange wage war with a darkness that’s slowly relenting to light, and only the largest planets and stars still twinkle high overhead. Off in the distance, south and east, the lofty summits of the Big Island of Hawaii rise silently up toward the sky, and seem to float on a sea of clouds that often begin to creep in the crater just moments after first light.
Finally, with anticipation running high and fingertips already numb, sunlight bursts from the eastern horizon and bathes the crater in light—illuminating the colorful cinder cones that rise from the crater floor.
As poetically beautiful and unforgettable as the moment can be, however, watching the sunrise at Haleakala is far from the only outdoor adventure you’ll find on the dormant volcano. A network of hiking trails winds its way across the crater floor, where ahinahina, or silversword plants, rise up from the reddish brown cinder, and flocks of nene geese—Hawaii’s state bird—honk as they stroll through the grass. For avid hikers who are well prepared and equipped to stay overnight, two backcountry wilderness campgrounds offer the chance to spend the day hiking across the crater floor, and fall asleep beneath the mists, the silence, the moon, and the stars.
While riding a bike down Haleakala volcano was once a popular activity, recent changes in regulation have forced the commercial bike tour operators to no longer ride through the park. Should you choose to bike down Haleakala volcano, you’ll still see the sunrise atop the summit, and then drive back down to the National Park entrance to bike from 6,800 feet. If you want the thrill of conquering a 10,000 ft. descent on two wheels, it’s possible to hire a bike for the day and arrange your own ride to the top, and then feel the freedom of coasting a road that disappears down toward the clouds.
Lastly, if the idea of waking at 3am for sunrise isn’t your thing, watching the sunset from Haleakala is an equally magical event, and free of the choking sunrise crowds that can number into the hundreds. Unlike sunrise at Haleakala—which is better viewed from the crater overlook at 9,800 feet—sunset is best from the lava rock ridge right next to the summit parking lot, where the view looks west toward the island of Lanai and Pacific Ocean below.