One of the most referenced national park experiences was viewing sunrise from the summit of Haleakalā volcano at 10,000 feet. You need a reservation for this experience, so I set an alarm on my phone and was on the website the moment they became available to get ours.
The morning of our experience, we left our AirBnB in Kihei at 3:30 a.m. for a very dark and quiet drive into the park and up to the summit. The farther we traveled from civilization below, the brighter the stars appeared overhead. As we wound our way up the volcano, additional cars joined our journey – a string of headlights weaving back and forth like Christmas lights across a tree.
We parked in the first/lower parking area near the visitor center, turned off the car, and had a snack and coffee by starlight as we got our bearings. There were a few other cars already there and some buses filled with tour groups were beginning to arrive.
I read ahead of time that the best place to view the sunrise was on top of White Hill. We carefully climbed the rocky trail to the overlook, found a spot, and started taking pictures as the horizon turned from black to purple, orange to gold, and finally pink to red.
A park ranger joined us just before the sun came up and asked if we would like her to give the E Ala E traditional ‘Arise’ chant. It was an incredible moment, watching the sun appear as her rich voice surrounded us. (I found the chant online and embedded a video following our pictures below.) This experience should absolutely be on your Maui bucket list.
After the sun was well above the horizon, people started to make their way back down to their cars and then back down the volcano.
We had planned to spend most of our morning in the park so we took our time walking around the top of White Hill, taking pictures overlooking western Maui, and eventually returning to our car so we could switch out of our layers ahead of our hike. It was ~30 degrees for our summit experience, and I was glad I brought my puffy coat, silk, hat and gloves!
If you’re planning a sunrise experience, I’d definitely recommend parking at the lower lot like we did. There is ample space to stand along the railings beside the visitor center if you don’t want to climb up White Hill for the actual viewing, there are rangers on hand who augment the already incredible experience, and there are facilities (if, like me, you need a bio break after your morning coffee).
Tip: Bring a headlamp to help you safely climb White Hill in the dark, and stay on the trail! We couldn’t see the signs well during our ascent, but it’s important not to walk into the protected areas.
Hiking the Sliding Sands Trail
We decided to do a little hiking on the Sliding Sands trail, which is accessible from the lower parking lot. This trail winds 3.9 miles down to the crater floor with an elevation change of almost 2,500.
It would have been great to tackle that 8-mile hike, but we had other things on our itinerary for the day so we decided to just hike down to the first couple of overlooks and then turn back. It’s always misleading on these hikes where you go down first – it’s so easy heading in and sometimes hard to remember you have to climb back out!
We ended up only hiking a couple of miles (~400 feet of gain). The overlooks were definitely worth visiting – we had amazing views into the crater and of the giant cinder cones and soaring cliffs around us.
Visiting the Pu’u’ula’ula Summit
Our last stop was Pu’u’ula’ula, which rises over the island of Maui at 10,023 feet. The observation building was closed, but we walked around it and over to the nearby red hill for incredible views over western Maui.
Around the parking lot were several chukar, which we saw as were were leaving the lower parking lot as well. They are very hard to spot among the rocks, as evidenced by the one picture below, but fun to see wandering around looking for food and water.
There is nothing quite like seeing the world from on high – if you have a chance to visit Haleakalā National Park, do not miss an experience on the summit, especially for sunrise.