April 21, 2023

Visiting Haleakala’s summit can be grueling, but awe-inspiring as well

When Hina told Maui that the days were so short that she couldn’t dry her kapa cloth, her son climbed to the top of Haleakala, the “House of the Sun.”


There, he used a coconut-fiber rope to snare the sun, and it begged for release. Maui held tight until the sun agreed that days would be longer in the summer and shorter in winter.


Now, thanks to the Hawaiian demigod and fortunately for visitors, the sun’s path across the sky runs like clockwork: dawn comes as early as 5:38 a.m. in the first two weeks of June and as late as 6:58 a.m. in mid-January. This allows visitors to do some math to arrive atop Haleakala’s 10,023-foot summit when the sun begins its daily ascent in the east.


Arriving on time means visitors need to begin their journey in the wee hours of the morning. Starting in Central Maui requires 2.5 hours of travel time to the park entrance and another 30 minutes through steep switch-backs to the summit before sunrise. Coming from the Wailea end of South Maui pushes the alarm clock back to 3.5 hours before sunrise, and 4 hours for those driving from Lahaina.


One might think that such rigamarole would dissuade sleepy island visitors from making such a grueling pre-dawn trek. But, no. The sunrise-atop-Haleakala experience attracted so many people that there were complaints about overcrowding, safety, traffic, a lack of space in the summit’s modest parking lot and harm to the dormant volcano’s natural and cultural resources.


Overcrowding got so bad that, in 2017, the National Park Service that oversees Haleakala National Park implemented an online reservation system. It restricts the number of vehicles allowed to enter the park between 3 and 7 a.m.


Reservations require signing up for an account in Recreation.gov. There, visitors may book a reservation up to 60 days in advance. Tickets are per vehicle, not per person. The $1 ticket price does not include the usual park entrance fee.


For frequently asked questions go to Recreation.com and search for “Haleakala sunrise.” For questions, call the website’s help line at (877) 444-6777.


More insider’s information is available by visiting the park service’s website at https://www.nps.gov/hale/planyourvisit/sunrise.htm


My wife and I advise friends to visit the summit at sunset, not sunrise. Aside from avoiding crowds, they can sleep in, enjoy a day of activities and drive up the mountain in daylight. Drivers and their passengers are treated to sweeping, awe-inspiring views of Maui’s central valley and the West Maui Mountains.


At around 7,000 feet, motorists usually pass through a band of clouds and can watch as train-sized puffs of clouds float by at eye-level. Sunset times are also available online.

Summit veterans recommend wearing layered, warm clothing. Mountaintop temperatures can plunge below freezing, especially in winter. Food, clothing and gas are not sold within the park.


Vehicles should have brakes in good operating condition when traveling up and down Haleakala. Sometimes, instead of putting their vehicles in low gear while coasting down the mountain, drivers ride their brakes, which can overheat and fail.


Some people have been afflicted with altitude sickness while in the thin air of the mountaintop. Symptoms include headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath. It helps to take things slowly, including walking.


Visitors should also remember that Haleakala is not only a natural wonder. It’s the dwelling place of na akua, the gods, and sacred to Native Hawaiians. Since ancient times, kahuna have come to the mountain to perform religious ceremonies. So, it’s more appropriate to behave with reverence and liken a summit visit to walking into a cathedral, not strolling at Disneyland.


As a mammoth tourist attraction, Haleakala is a cash cow. Last year, the National Park Service reported that 853,000 people visited Haleakala National Park in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic and spent $61 million. That spending supported nearly 600 jobs and had a cumulative economic benefit of $76.7 million.


This avalanche of tourist money can be traced back to 1866 when a 30-year-old Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, visited Hawaii and wrote a series of travel letters for the Sacramento Union. At Haleakala’s rim, he reported rolling rocks, “half as large as a barrel, from our perch, and saw them go careering down the most perpendicular sides, bounding three hundred feet at a jump; kicking up cast-clouds wherever they struck . . . It was magnificent sport. We wore ourselves out at it.”


And, here’s his account of sunrise:


“A growing warmth suffused the horizon, and soon the sun emerged and looked out over the cloud-waste, flinging bars of ruddy light across it, staining its folds and billow-caps with blushes, purpling the shaded troughs between and glorifying the massy vapor – palaces and cathedrals with a wasteful splendor of all blendings and combinations of rich coloring. It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always.”


About the author: Brian Perry grew up in Honolulu, graduating from Roosevelt High School and the University of Hawai‘i. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, Brian worked for five years at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. There, he met and married Claudine San Nicolas. In 1990, the couple moved to Maui to work as journalists at The Maui News. In December 2018, Brian left the newspaper to work four years as Director of Communications for Mayor Michael Victorino. Now, Brian and Claudine have established a communications and public relations business, Red Rice Maui LLC.