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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Getting to Know Hawaii: Sunrise at Haleakala Crater

STARTING FEBRUARY 1, 2017: Reservations will be REQUIRED to enter the park between 3AM and 7AM to view the sunrise.  Make your reservations HERE.

The Need to Knows:
  • Haleakala National Park is located off State Highway 378 in Kula, HI on Maui.  The exact location of the park's Summit Visitor Center is here:
  • The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The Visitor Center at the summit is open from 6AM to 3PM local time.
  • The cost to enter the park is $10 per vehicle and $5 per hiker and biker or free for military.
  • Folks with respiratory issues, heart conditions, or anything similar who cannot handle high altitudes should stay away from this activity.
  • Dressing warmly is an absolute necessity since you will be at 9,000 feet plus in elevation for this activity.  Do not try to come up here in shorts and slippers!  The temperature can easily reach below freezing depending on the time of year.  Mr. L and I wore long socks, long pants, sneakers, gloves, a beanie, a long sleeve undershirt, a T-shirt over that, a lightweight jacket, and a hoodie for this trip in May.  As the summit got warmer, we would take off another layer of clothing and still be able to remain comfortable.  (Also keep in mind that Mr. L and I are FULLY adapted to a tropical climate, so it may seem much colder on the summit to us than it would to some of you snowbirds out there, but expect temperatures in the range of 30 to 40 degrees or so.)
  • Food and gas are not sold within the park itself, so plan accordingly.  Fill up and bring snacks!
  • You definitely need to stay hydrated at this altitude.  Altitude sickness is real and can be quickly brought on by dehydration, so bring plenty of water for everyone.  Sunblock is also a really, really good idea if you plan on exploring after the sunrise.
  • Make sure to be aware of any kinds of changes in your own body or your loved ones', especially if you start to feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, or you get a headache.  Walk slowly and take it easy up here!
  • Please keep in mind that you are in a delicate environment.  Endangered species are quite prevalent here, so drive slowly, walk carefully, and never remove anything from the park you didn't put there yourself!
  • A flashlight is a good idea so you can navigate well in the dark (we should have brought one), and binoculars would be great for stargazing and checking out the rest of Maui around you after the sunrise.
  • If you plan on taking photos of the sunrise, two important tips are to turn off your camera's flash and keep your camera steady.  If possible, stabilize your camera on a railing or even a tripod to reduce the chance of blurry pictures.
  • I go into some detail in the post about the driving times from Ka'anapali, but if you're located elsewhere on the island, plan out ahead of time which routes to take and how long your drive will end up being so you can wake up accordingly.  Don't sleep as late as you can and rush to get to the summit -- you'll miss on the stargazing ahead of time which can be some of the best in the entire world.  An extra 30-45 minutes of time up here can make a world of difference on your experience, plus you can always sleep later on the beach ;)  
  • If you're coming from the mainland, it may be easiest to do this activity within your first day or two on Maui due to jet lag.
  • Tours are available for this activity, but it was actually really easy to DIY.  The road to the summit is paved the entire way and it isn't a strenuous drive at all, even in the dark.  Plus being able to do whatever you want after the sunrise is really great!
  • If you need more information on Haleakala, check out the NPS website for Haleakala National Park here.

One of the things I had been looking forward to doing the most since moving to Hawaii was being able to watch the sunrise from the top of the Haleakala volcano on Maui.  On my and Mr. L's first trip to Maui, this unfortunately was not able to happen due to the government shutdown that occurred in 2013.  We were very disappointed but we knew that we absolutely had to come back and experience it, so that's exactly what we did last month when Mr. L was able to get away for a weekend.

Haleakala is a massive shield volcano that actually makes up the majority of the island of Maui.  It is around 1.1 million years old, and its summit sits at over 10,000 feet high.  "Haleakala" is Hawaiian for House of the Sun, which makes it more than appropriate to watch sunrises and sunsets, and ancient Hawaiians claimed it to be the home of the grandmother of the demigod Maui.  It was here that Hawaiian legends claim that Maui lassoed the sun and forced it to slow its path across the sky to increase the length of the day in order to please his mother.

Because we were staying at the Westin Maui in Ka'anapali on the western side of the island, we knew that we had a heck of a drive ahead of us the morning of the sunrise.  We woke up at about 2:30 A.M., got dressed in some of our warmest clothes, and then proceeded to leave the hotel around 3 A.M.  I was lucky enough (ha!) to be the one driving the first leg but I actually ended up preferring driving in the dark.  Basically what I couldn't see couldn't hurt me, haha.  It also really helped that the road is quite well-maintained so it was a very smooth ride overall.

GIF I made of part of the sunrise
All in all the drive from Ka'anapali took roughly two hours total and we arrived at around 5 A.M.  I was worried for a while because our cell phone GPS kept saying it was a three hour drive for some reason, but thankfully that was not the case and we actually arrived at the perfect time to set up my tripod and camera and also get a tiny slice of stargazing in.  It was absolutely breathtaking to be able to just look up and literally see the Milky Way galaxy above us, so I highly recommend getting here even earlier if you want to maximize your stargazing potential.  Thankfully we will be heading to Mauna Kea on the Big Island in the future for some even better stargazing, so we weren't too disappointed to have missed it here.

View of Mauna Loa on the Big Island (Mauna Kea is to the right, but unseen here)
I didn't do very much research before we did this activity (which is pretty out of character for me, actually), so I was unaware of our options from which to watch the sunrise.  We ended up stopping at the first large parking lot we came upon, which was the Haleakala Visitor Center's (9,740 feet) parking lot and coincidentally the most popular vantage point.  However, you could also keep driving up to the actual summit (10,023 feet) and watch the sunrise from there (take the right at the Visitor's Center parking lot) or you could even stop before the Visitor's Center parking lot at the Kalahaku Overlook (9,000 feet).  And if you feel up for a tiny hike, there's a 0.4 mile trail right next to the Visitor's Center called the Pa'oao Trail (AKA White Hill Trail) that takes you up to a view that would be perfect for the sunrise.  Just be sure to monitor yourself and your loved ones for any signs of altitude sickness and don't overdue it.  It was incredibly bizarre for me to walk only a short distance only to find my pulse racing thanks to the overall lack of oxygen at this elevation.

If we would have known of the other places beforehand, we most likely would have chosen to continue on up to the summit, but in the end I don't think it made too much of a difference for us, although the crowd was pretty substantial at the Visitor's Center.  If you aren't a crowds person and especially if you are photographing the sunrise, I would suggest one of the other locations.

When the sun finally makes its grand appearance, a park ranger calls out a beautiful chant known as a mele oli that welcomes the start of the new day in the House of the Sun as the crowds admire the beauty around them.  Finally, you're able to see all of the majestic crater before you, and I'll be honest with you -- it was one of the most breathtaking sights I've ever seen in my life!  I could tell that everyone around us was just in awe, and with good reason.

Start of the Pa'oao Trail on the left

Our sunrise experience at Haleakala was truly incredible, but it wasn't all that we did while on the volcano.  I'll be detailing the other crater activities we fit in on this trip in my next Getting to Know Hawaii post, so stay tuned for that!  :)  [Post can be found here now!]

Is seeing the sunrise at Haleakala on your bucket list?


  1. so pretty! you take great photos! we didnt wake up early enough for a sunrise trip, but the crater was pretty cool. the drive up with the steep cliffs freaked me out though =_=

    1. Oh yeah, the drive can definitely be scary! I did NOT like being the passenger on the way down at all, haha. I kept thinking we were going to drive off a cliff or something, even though my husband was driving perfectly fine. Gotta love my irrational brain! :)



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