Haleakala National Park Travel Guide
There are two very different ways to see Haleakala National Park on Maui. At the summit, you can watch the sunrise at 10,000 feet and hike near volcanic cindercones. On the coast, you can explore the waterfalls and pools at Ohe'o Gulch, also called the Seven Sacred Pools. Whether you've decided to visit the crater at 10,000 feet or drive to the coastal part of Heleakala on East Maui, you'll have to allocate a full day to complete either trip. Keep in mind that there is no direct road from the summit to East Maui, so you won't be able to squeeze both trips into one day. We found both areas of the park very beautiful and well worth a visit, but both drives are quite strenuous. The road to Hana, with its one-way bridges and more curves than you can count, is the more challenging of the two. If you decide to see the summit as well as the coastal part of the park, plan on taking two separate trips.
Haleakala National Park Summit
Most visitors head to the summit to see the sunrise, go hiking, horseback riding or biking down the main road. The drive to the summit takes one and a half hours from Kahului airport. If you are staying in one of the popular resort areas, such as Kapalua, Kihei and Wailea, it will take about 2.5 hours one way. Accommodations are available closer to the summit, such as the rustic Kula Lodge. There are a few things you should know about visiting the summit. Most importantly, the weather is unpredictable. When you start your drive up the slopes of Haleakala there is no way of knowing what the weather will be like once you reach the top two hours later. You may be stuck in a cloud on the drive up and find that the summit is sunny above all those clouds. Or it may rain the whole way up and down.
There are several trails available to hikers near the summit, ranging from quick 10-minute walks to full-day and overnight trips. We noticed pretty quickly that it's more difficult to breathe up there because the air is thinner. Keep that in mind when deciding how far to walk. Sunrise at 10,000 feet with a view of one of the world's largest dormant volcano is an experience you'll not want to miss.
Temperatures in the summit area usually range between 32 and 65 degrees F. The wind frequently causes the temperature to drop below freezing. If you are planning to watch the sunrise, bring a warm jacket. You won't be able to tell what the weather is like until you get there. No weather predictions or forecasts are available because the weather changes so often. Just to give you an idea, when we set out on a morning hike, the sky was clear and sunny. On the way back two hours later we almost couldn't see the trail through the thick rainy cloud. On average, the temperature drops about 3°F for every 1,000 foot rise in elevation, making the 10,023 foot summit of Haleakala about 30°F cooler than the coast. The three visitor centers in the park are the best source of information. Headquarters Visitor Center is located at 7,000 feet, Haleakala Visitor Center is near the summit and Kipahulu Visitor Center is on the coast. If you have questions about the summit, call 808-572-4400; for information about the coastal area, call 808-248-7375.
Hiking at 10,000 feet in Haleakala
If you are looking for adventure vacation ideas in Maui, Hawaii, head to Haleakala National Park. The scenery near the summit is incredible, complete with cindercones, volcanic rock and native plants. The crater area is huge: 3,000 feet deep, 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. The summit area has over 30 miles of hiking trails, ranging from 10-minute walks to overnight trips. Arrive early to watch the sunrise at the summit before going on a hike. We followed the Sliding Sands Trail for about 45 minutes down into the crater. The views were just incredible. There were huge cindercones in the distance and the sun reflected off the sand which varied in color from different shades of red to pitch black. We could see the famous Hawaiian silverswords dotting the landscape, as well as a few other bushes and native plants.
The Sliding Sands Trail
The Sliding Sands Trail (also called Keoneheehee Trail) starts at the bulletin board by the entrance to the Haleakala Visitor Center parking lot. The trail starts at 9,700 feet and descends 2,800 feet into the crater. The hike is extremely strenuous, especially on the way back up the mountain. For a strenuous half-day hike, follow the trail to the first cinder cone, Ka Luu o ka Oo to complete a five mile round trip loop. If you've reserved one of the park cabings, Keoneheehee Trail leads to Kapalaoa cabin 5.6 miles away. You'll quickly notice the lower concentration of oxygen in each breath. It's much more difficult to hike at such a high altitude and the air is very dry.
At the elevation of 10,000 feet, hiking is very strenuous unless you are used to the high altitude. We also noticed that the air was very dry and were grateful for the extra water we packed when planning the hike. The way back up the Sliding Sands Trail took almost twice as long as heading down and the strain of hiking at high elevation was even more noticeable hiking up the mountain.
In addition to water and sunscreen, pack some warm clothing because the weather can change quite rapidly from sunny to rainy and foggy. It's a good idea to bring some food with you since there is no food sold in the park.
Before heading out, stop at the Headquarters Visitor Center or at the Haleakala Visitor Center to pick up a trail map and ask about guided hikes which are sometimes offered.
The Drive to the Summit
The drive up Haleakala takes about 2.5 hours one way from popular resort areas, such as Kapalua, Napili, Ka'anapali, Kihei and Wailea. The summit is one and a half hours from Kahului airport. The road is very well maintained all the way to the top. It becomes curvy near Kula and stays that way until you reach the peak of the mountain. Once you head upcountry, you'll notice the slopes of Haleakala become quite lush. There are many forests, beautiful plants and several botanical gardens open to the public. One of the most popular spots for lunch is the Kula Lodge Restaurant (808-878-1535) which has a beautiful view. Be sure to book ahead of time because tour buses stop here.
Since Kula Lodge is only a one-hour drive from the summit of Haleakala, we decided to spend the night at the lodge. The rustic ambiance of the restaurant and our guest room was quite charming and service was very friendly. From the lodge, we were able to get an early start getting to the top of Haleakala to watch the sunrise. The restaurant is very popular for lunch with tour buses because of its spectacular views of the West Maui Mountains and the valley below. If you plan to stop here on your way down from the summit, book before you go (808-878-1535). Lunch is served from 11am to 4pm, and dinner from 4pm to 9:00pm. Chalet rates range from $125 to $195 per night. During the high season, the lodge is very popular, so remember to book early (kulalodge.com).
Visitor Centers & Park Entrance Fees
Admission is $10 per car and is valid for 7 days. You can stop at the park headquarters a few minutes after the entrance station to get more information about the park. There is a second visitors center located near the summit. The drive from the park headquarters to the visitors center takes about 30 minutes. Once you pay your fee and enter, there are no gas stations or food along the way. Therefore, make sure you have enough gas and food to get to 10,000 feet and back.
There are two visitor centers near the summit (and one down near Hana in East Maui). Haleakala Visitor Center is located at an elevation of 9,700 feet. It is open year-round from 7:30am to 3:30pm. There are restrooms, but no phone, food or gas. The building is ten miles from the park entrance and nine miles from the Headquarters Visitor Center. The drive usually takes 30 minutes.
TheHeadquarters Visitor Center is located one mile from the park entrance at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The center is open year-round from 8am to 4pm. You can stop here to pick up more information about Haleakala and get a backcountry camping/cabin permit. Facilities include restrooms, public telephone, picnic area and Hawaii Natural History Association sales area. Inside there is a replica of one of the most famous Haleakala plants - the silversword. There is no food or gas sold in the park. For more information, call the visitor center at 808-572-4400.
Watch the Sunrise at the Summit
Haleakala is home to one of the most unique landscapes on the planet, complete with towering cindercones, red and black sand, and wide open views. At sunrise, unpredictable things happen. Clouds shaped like a head of a woman are backlit by the rising sun. Gentle golden color illuminates the harsh rock. A bright orb rises above the clouds to start a new day. This is why thousands of people get up hours before sunrise for a long drive up the slopes of Haleakala to witness the event.
The weather at the summit is unpredictable and changes quickly. Lucky few select the perfect day to view the sunrise and get a clear view of the crater and the rest of Maui below. Others will see the sunrise just above the clouds that surround the slopes. Or you may get there and find yourself in the thick of a rainy cloud. It's impossible to tell before you reach the summit. Mornings at 10,000 feet are chilly and windy, so dress warmly. Arrive early so that you can find a parking space since this is the busiest time of the day. Also, there is no food, clothing or gas available in the park.
The sun rises earlier in the summer than in the winter. On January 1, the sun rises at 6:56am; on July 1 more than an hour earlier, at 5:41am. National Park Service has the exact times posted on their web site for all days of the year (www.nps.gov/hale). Most people head to the Visitor Center or the summit. There is a small structure at the summit with panoramic windows. The Visitor Center doesn't open until 7:30am.
Seven Sacred Pools in Haleakala
O'heo Gulch is a beautiful coastal area located several miles from Hana on the eastern side of Maui. A path leads past waterfalls and pools of water. The pools, also called the Seven Sacred Pools although there are more than seven, are sometimes open for swimming. During the periods of heavy rain, the pools are closed off by the National Park Service, but you can still see them from the trail. There are several hiking trails in the area which will take you through lush forests to beautiful waterfalls. If you are pressed for time, however, follow the Kuloa Point Trail from the visitor center for half a mile. The trail includes views of Hawaiian habitation sites, the ocean, waterfalls and several large pools. You'll have to brave the curvy Hana Highway for about 2.5 hours from Kahului airport to O'heo Gulch. If you are staying in Kapalua, Napili, Ka'anapali, Kihei or Wailea, add another hour to estimate your driving time. A day trip won't give you much time to enjoy the area and swim in the pools because you'll have to complete the same 3.5 hour drive back. It's a better idea to plan on staying in Hana for a day or two.
The Weather Along the Coast
Temperatures are much warmer here than at the summit: in the 70s and 80s during the day, but can drop quickly with rain showers and winds. The pools are closed for swimming during periods of heavy rain because flash floods are such as danger. Kipahulu receives an average of 187 inches of rain each year. Nighttime lows are mid-60s to 70s.
Touring the Seven Sacred Pools
There aren't just seven pools, but quite a few more. There is a visitor center and several marked trails maintained by the National Park Service. Follow the Kuloa Point Trail near the coast to the series of pools and waterfalls. Swimming in the pools is at your own risk and there are no lifeguards on duty. During heavy rains, NPS closes off the area to prevent any injuries from flash floods. Since there is no food available in the park, it's a good idea to pack a picnic lunch which you can enjoy after a swim in the pools. Hana Ranch, which you'll pass on your way through Hana, has a great take-out menu. Kuloa Point Trail is the easiest trail you can take from the parking lot to the Pools of Ohe'o. The trail loops for about half a mile, past the ocean and slightly uphill near the waterfalls.
Along the way, you'll pass Hawaiian habitation sites, a grove of hala trees, the ocean, and beautiful waterfalls. Swimming in the pools is at your own risk. There are no lifeguards on duty and flash floods are likely in this area. Weather predictions aren't possible, but for information about the coastal area, you can call the Kipahulu Visitor Center at 808-248-7375. The visitor center is open year-round from 9am to 5pm. The center offers interpretive exhibits on the cultural and natural heritage of the Kipahulu area.
Hana Highway Driving Tips
You've probably already heard about the famous Hana Highway, its one-way bridges and yield signs. To get to the Seven Sacred Pools, you'll have to drive the whole length of the highway. There are many scenic stops along the way. If you are staying in Kapalua, Napili, Ka'anapali, Kihei or Wailea, the drive will take about 3.5 hours each way without stopping. Even if you get started early in the morning, you won't have much time for sightseeing once you get to O'heo Gulch. If you can, plan on spending a day or two in Hana. It's beautiful and incredibly peaceful. In addition to Travaasa Hana, there are several rentals available in town.
The Hana Highway is a 60 mile stretch of road that connects the small town of Hana to the rest of Maui. The road to Hana is not really a highway. It's narrow and patched together with one-way and some two-way bridges. There are 54 bridges along the way, apparently. But can anyone be really sure? It's this "highway" that keeps Hana so isolated. The road features beautiful views of the coastline, waterfalls and tropical plants. In fact, many visitors to Maui (about 3,000 each day), take a day trip just to drive along the road. The drive from Kahului Airport takes about two hours. Traffic frequently comes to a stop near the bridges as tour vans pull over and let passengers look at waterfalls and plants. Before you head there, be sure to fill up your car with gas in Paia. The coastal part of Haleakala features beautiful waterfalls and pools of water where you can go for a swim. The pools are closed off if there is a lot of rain.
Once you reach the town, you can have lunch at Travassa Hana or at Hana Ranch which also has a take-out window, if you are in a hurry. If you prefer to fly, Pacific Wing Airline offers daily flights to Hana, either from Honolulu, Oahu, or Kahului, Maui. After you reach Hana, the highway becomes even more like a footpath than a road and heads to the Kipahulu Visitor Center at Haleakala National Park. Not everyone gets excited at the thought of a three and a half hour drive. We did hear some people complain that they didn't like the drive but the majority of travelers we met thoroughly enjoyed it.
The easiest way to drive the road is to spend at least one night in Hana - that way you won't have to drive for the entire day. If you do plan on doing the whole drive in one day than you should get an early start, particularly if you are starting out from West Maui (Kapalua, Napili, Lahaina). The drive from Kahului (the Main Airport) to Hana takes about 3 and a half hours but the time goes by really fast. Once you reach Hana you can stop for lunch. The Hana Ranch has a take-out window if you want to grab some food for a picnic in Haleakala National Park. From Hana, it will take another 45 minutes to reach the Kipahulu Visitor Center at Haleakala. Once you reach the Park entrance you can park and take a short walk to the Seven Sacred Pools. On the way back to your hotel you can stop at Hamoa Beach for a swim. If driving for more than three hours one way is not really your idea of a fun vacation than you can fly over the highway and Haleakala National Park on a Helicopter Tour. A helicopter tour is a great way to see Maui. Here are our top 5 driving tips for Hana Highway:
- It may sound really obvious but the drivers should keep their eyes on the road. Don't get distracted by the scenery, if you want a better look just pull your car over and take all the time you need.
- When you do pull over make sure that other cars can still get around you safely. Again, it may sound obvious but we saw a couple park their car on a one lane bridge and get out to pose for a photograph.
- The road gets really narrow in places and the locals (as well as some tourists) drive the highway very fast, so watch out on the sharp turns and single lane bridges.
- Be considerate of the local people. You may be on vacation but they are trying to get to work so pull over and let them pass if you are driving slower than they are.
- Last but not least, get good directions. There are plenty of road signs and the actual highway has almost no exits that aren't driveways but some people do manage to get lost. One couple we spoke with said the drive to Hana took them 18 hours. (Apparently they went the wrong way around the entire Island of Maui... not the best part of their vacation.) So just ask your hotel concierge for directions. Be sure to get a good road map when you rent your car, they're free.
Affordable Hana Ranch Restaurant
Once you reach Hana, stop for a quick lunch or a take-out from the Hana Ranch Restaurant just off the main road. Hana Ranch Restaurant is located on the Town Center. This eatery is a great place to stop for a casual, inexpensive meal. The restaurant offers a daily lunch buffet, and dinner on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. For those in a hurry, there is a take-out window for sandwiches, hamburgers, salads and drinks. Entrees, including burgers, cost around $15, salads from $7 and pasta dishes are $12.