Photograph by Greg Vaughn, Alamy
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The famed Haleakalā Crater is a vast depression—but it's actually not a volcanic crater. It was formed as erosion ate away a ridgeline, joining two valleys.

Photograph by Greg Vaughn, Alamy

Haleakalā National Park

Location: Maui, Hawai'i
Established: August 1, 1916
Size: 34,294 acres

Haleakalā, a giant shield volcano, forms the eastern bulwark of the island of Maui. According to legend, it was here, in the awe-inspiring basin at the mountain's summit, that the demigod Maui snared the sun, releasing it only after it promised to move more slowly across the sky. Haleakalā means "house of the sun"; the park encompasses the basin and portions of the volcano's flanks.

A United Nations International Biosphere Reserve, the park comprises starkly contrasting worlds of mountain and coast. The road to the summit of Haleakalā rises from near sea level to 10,023 feet in 38 miles—possibly the steepest such gradient for autos in the world. Visitors ascend through several climate and vegetation zones, from humid subtropical lowlands to subalpine desert. Striking plants and animals such as the Haleakalā silversword and the nēnē may be seen in this mountain section.

The summit-area depression, misnamed Haleakalā Crater, formed as erosion ate away the mountain, joining two valleys. This 19-square-mile wilderness area, 2,720 feet deep, is the park's major draw.

From east of the rim, the great rain forest valley of Kīpahulu drops thousands of feet down to the coast. The upper Kīpahulu Valley is a biological reserve (no public access), home to a vast profusion of flora and fauna, including some of the world's rarest birds, plants, and invertebrates. Some insects and plants evolved in the Kīpahulu Valley and live nowhere else.

Visitors reach the lower valley of Kīpahulu via the long winding Ha-na Highway. Dominated by intense hues—azure sea, black rock, silver waterfalls, green forest and meadow—the coastal area was first farmed in early Polynesian times, more than 1,200 years ago. Mark Twain, who traveled to Hawai'i in 1866, may well have had this part of Kīpahulu in mind when he wrote: "For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore."

How to Get There

Fly directly from the mainland, or from another Hawaiian island, to Kahului in central Maui. To reach the summit of Haleakalā , follow, sequentially, Hawaii 36, 37, 377, and 378. The 38-mile route is well marked, but note the last chance to buy food and gas is at Pukalani or Makawao. Continue on the switchback road through miles of lush mountain rangeland to the park's northwest entrance. Allow up to 2 hours.

For the 62-mile drive to Kīpahulu, allow up to 3.5 hours. Take Hawaii 36 from Kahului around the northeastern side of the island to the town of Ha-na. The road to Ha-na, which becomes Hawaii 360, is famous for its narrow, tortuous course along 1,000-foot sea cliffs, into deep gorges. This drive affords many views of waterfalls and cascade pools, but few places to access them. Proceed past Ha-na on Hawaii 31 for about 12 miles. Follow signs to the park entrance and parking lot.

When to Go

All-year park. Most rain comes in winter, although temperatures remain fairly constant month to month. To avoid crowds, visit the summit after 3 p.m.; sunsets can be as spectacular as the famous sunrises. At Kīpahulu, avoid crowds by arriving early or camping overnight. Weather varies most at high elevations, and can change from very hot to rainy, cold, and windy in the same day. Temperatures can drop to freezing inside the wilderness area, although snow is rare. Coastal Kīpahulu stays warm but receives considerable rain all year.

How to Visit

It would be neither safe nor very enjoyable to try fitting both the Haleakalā summit and Kīpahulu coastal regions of the park into one day as the Hana Highway drive takes more than six hours alone both ways. To absorb more of the ambience of this unique sea-girt volcano, try to spend a day on the mountain, with a hike through the moonscape of the "crater," and a second day on the coast. Van and bus tours—some starting in predawn hours take in the magical summit sunrise—can be arranged from most island hotels—or visit at sunset and wait for the stars to appear. From May to September star programs are offered at Hosmer Grove.

Consider taking a guided walk from Hosmer Grove into the Nature Conservancy's Waikamoi Preserve, home of living treasures including various species of honeycreepers, the premier family of native Hawaiian birds. Reservations required; call ahead for the schedule.

Air tours that fly around Maui and across the park are available from Kahului, but regulations limit them to high altitude.