Seeing the sunrise from the top of a crater isn’t normally on the schedule during trips that are mostly spent snorkeling and stand up paddleboarding. On our recent trip to Maui, we figured we could make an exception so we could see the sunrise at Haleakala*, a Hawaiian name that translates to “house of the sun.” Our name is Sunplay, after all!
Haleakala is a huge shield volcano that forms nearly 3/4ths of the entire island of Maui. The tallest peak on the crater sits at approximately 10,023 feet while the visitor’s center where people gather to watch the sunrise is a bit lower at 10,000 feet.
The trip up to the crater began early—around 4:15 in the morning. We had to depart from where we were staying in Kihei and from there, the trip up from there took approximately an hour and a half. Despite the insane hour, we weren't alone on the drive up the mountain. There was actually a steady stream of cars to accompany us. At least it was reassuring knowing we were heading the right way.
On our way up what became a long and very windy road, we came across a guard station where we paid a $10 entrance fee since the surrounding area and the crater itself are considered a National Park, one that spans over 30,000 acres of Hawaiian wilderness. Keep your receipt if you think you might want to visit another time during your trip. It will grant you entry for three days.
If you’re at all car sick, you might want to go light on the breakfast (if you can stomach anything at such an ungodly hour, anyway). The road climbs quickly and has no shortage of bends along the way. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat and was okay on the ride up but started to feel a little urpy** on the way down. There’s not much you can do but close your eyes and take deep breaths. Don’t do that if you’re driving, though. Could have disastrous consequences.
If there’s one bit of advice I can give to you it’s that you should probably plan on getting up the mountain earlier than you think is necessary. We gave ourselves two hours to get up to the top and we were still fighting to get a parking space. I ended up parking illegally just for the duration of the sunrise and then moving the car when everyone started to split for good. Expect there to be buses full of tourists and a lot full of rental cars by at least 6:00 AM so give yourself plenty of time.
Another reason you’ll want to get there early is to get a decent spot to view the sunrise. There’s a limited amount of space along the railing and stairwell so getting there all the earlier is ideal. Getting up the mountain on time also means getting to hear the entire spiel from one of the park rangers. Ours was a native Hawaiian woman who was both informative and surprisingly humorous, despite having to scold a few people about trying to view the sunrise from the wrong side of the railing.
Tip number two: dress appropriately. It is cold at 10,000 feet. I know, I know—you came to Maui for the perpetually 75 degree weather and the glorious sunshine. If you’re hoping to actually enjoy the sunrise and not only see a blurry version because of your severely chattering teeth, wear appropriate layers and footwear. Cameraman/marketing director Kasey made the trip in flip-flops and his swimming suit and was not exactly enjoying the brisk morning air.
One tricky part of watching the sunrise at Haleakala is you never know what kind of weather you’re going to get. There’s no guarantee that you’ll have a good view/visibility but we were lucky enough to get both. You might want to prepare for rain just in case--it’s hard to know what the weather up there will be like until you’ve reached the summit.
It’s really remarkable to be up above the cloud cover. That view combined with the changing colors as the sun was emerging were beautiful—rich oranges and bright yellow, all turning a clear blue as it peeked its head over the clouds. My favorite moment was when the park ranger began to chant in Hawaiian to greet the sun. It was one of those things you didn’t have to understand the language to appreciate. It was evident her chant was full of thanks and devotion.
I was surprised to see how quickly other tourists began clearing out after the sun had risen. Truth is, they were about to miss out on my favorite part of the morning which was hanging out and watching the fog roll in and out of the crater in the silence of those early hours. I guess once the Instagram-worthy moment had passed, people figured they’d get on with their day. In reality, standing on what feels like the edge of some prehistoric world and experiencing the kind of noiselessness that escapes most people in our day and age was really something. Not that I think being alone with my thoughts is anything special (trust me, it isn’t), but it was just such a unique feeling. So if you go, hang out for a while. Watch the clouds and fog creep their way up and down the barren mountainside. Think about the island, its creation, the ancient peoples who populated it. It might be a more memorable moment than the crowded sunrise that preceded the quiet.
The main parking lot where there is a sunset overlook has a small visitor’s center. Apart from having a good view, you can learn about local plants and bugs that are found only at the crater. Take a minute to learn about how the crater was formed if you haven’t recently taken a geology course and stamp a certificate with the date to mark the visit. Think about how cool it is that you’re standing on top of something that came out of the ocean 10,000 feet below your feet.
If you continue up the road, there’s another station with an unmanned visitor’s center. There are almost 360 degree views up there inside a heavily windowed shelter that also serves the dual purpose of shielding you from the very cold wind.
On your drive down, be prepared to have your stomach’s strength tested. It got a little dicey on the way down with the endless twists and turns down the mountain. You’ll also want to be mindful of all the cyclists, most of whom are heading down the mountain. You’ll probably notice a few large buses carrying dozens of bikes either on racks or trailers in the parking lot where you’ll watch the sunrise. These are tour groups that haul up people interested in biking their way down the mountain; you’re likely to pass one or two groups of them during your descent. Some of them don’t have the greatest concept of spacial awareness so give them plenty of room.
Enjoy the views on the way down, even if you’re feeling tired and slightly nauseated. We saw a rainbow arching its way down the green valley as well as lots of lush green growth along the way. There’s so much to take in on the island of Maui and starting your morning off with a drive up to Haleakala to see the sunrise is a perfect way to begin it.
*I butchered this pronunciation on the video. Repeatedly. They may never let me back on the island.
**This is an onomatopoeic Angie-ism meaning “nauseated.”