Guide to Haleakala National Park

Haleakala National Park's terrain varies from lush groves near the coast to a high-altitude volcanic landscape that travelers often describe as "lunar." (©Leslie Ray Ware/Shutterstock)

Haleakala National Park: A Guide for Travelers

By Kyle Ellison on 03/24/15, updated 03/27/15
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When was the last time you looked down on the clouds—and weren’t in the seat of an airplane? Or hiked to the base of a 400 ft. waterfall through a bamboo forest that creaks in the wind?

Amazingly, both experiences are possible for visitors inside of Maui's Haleakala National Park, where a cinder-cone laden, polychrome crater exists in the same protected swath as a series of cascading falls. While visiting Haleakala National Park is one the best activities on Maui, it can easily occupy a couple of days to explore its many corners.

So, in order to provide some helpful insight as to the best way to visit “the crater”—and also highlight the lush sliver of paradise in the Kipahulu section past Hana—here are some insider, local tips for Haleakala National Park when you visit Hawaii.

Haleakala crater

Haleakala Section of the Park

At a lung-altering 10,023 feet, the summit of Haleakala is the highest, and coldest, place on the island of Maui. Temperatures here often drop below freezing, and even a light coating of snow and ice is possible in the middle of winter. Despite the harsh conditions, however, Maui visitors flock here in droves to experience the lunar scenery. The crater was formed by violent eruptions nearly 750,000 years ago, and while the volcano is currently classified as dormant, geologists haven’t ruled out the possibility it could eventually spurt back to life. In the meantime, the crater overlook is the famous spot for watching a Haleakala sunrise, where bright orange rays illuminate the horizon and bathe the crater in light.

How To Get There: Allow a minimum of two hours if traveling from Wailea or Makena, and the same goes for Lahaina and Ka’anapali resorts. Visitors staying in Napili or Kapalua should expect a 2.5 hour drive, and allow a little bit of extra time for stops and finding parking.

Tip: Instead of simply rushing to the crater and then rushing back down to the beach, spend the morning exploring the Maui upcountry and its small, rural towns. Makawao is a funky ranching community full of cowboys, artists and yogis, and Kula is a fertile spread of farmland where protea, coffee, lavender and onions flourish on the rolling slopes.

Sliding Sands hiking trail in the Haleakala Crater

Best Hikes: Many visitors seem surprised to learn there’s hiking in Haleakala Crater. Often overshadowed by the popularity of sunrise, the hiking here inside Haleakala Crater is arguably the best on Maui. Of all the hiking trails inside Haleakala Crater, the most popular trail is Keonehe’ehe’e—also known as “Sliding Sands.” Beginning directly from the summit visitor center, this trail drops 2,800 vertical feet over the course of only four miles. At the bottom of the trail, visitors have a chance to connect with the trails that criss-cross the crater floor. A popular option is to continue hiking on the Halemau’u Trail, which is also known as the “Switchback Trail” for its zig-zagging journey back up. In total, hiking the Sliding Sands-Switchback Trail is 12 leg-burning miles—and hikers end up at a different trailhead than where they originally started. Luckily, passing motorists are more than accommodating to shuttle you back to your car, and should you decide to tackle the crater loop, remember to pack plenty of water and snacks and prepare for inclement weather.

Tip: For shorter hikes than an all-day epic, consider walking only part of the way down the steep Sliding Sands Trail. From the halfway point about two miles in, visitors are awarded with sweeping views of the Pu’u O Pele cinder cone. Or, by the park entrance at 6,800 feet, a short loop trail at Hosmer’s Grove winds for .7 miles through dense pine and is the island’s best spot for bird watching. 

Sunset from Haleakala Observatory

Watching The Sunrise:  From the winding drive in the inky black darkness up towards a star-filled sky, to the moment the sun crests the eastern horizon and fills the crater with light, seeing the sunrise at Haleakala Crater is an adventure infused with romance. Of all the activities in Haleakala Crater, watching the sunrise is something every visitor has to experience at least once in their lifetime. Or, if you’d prefer to skip the crowds and avoid the early wakeup, considering visiting the crater for sunset and watching the stars come out.    

Tip: Before setting out, check the time of the Haleakala sunrise. Then, plan to arrive about 30 minutes prior. The most crowded section of the park for viewing the sunrise at Haleakala is the summit visitor center overlook. To avoid the crowds, either make the short climb up Pa Ka’oao adjacent to the summit visitor center, or, for a rarely-used option, watch the sunrise from Kalahaku Overlook at 9,300 feet.  Finally, remember to dress for cold weather since the temperature is often below freezing. If you didn’t pack a jacket or warm clothes, use the blankets from the hotel bed—just remember to bring them back.

Camping in Haleakala Crater: To really experience Haleakala’s beauty, strap on a backpack and trek your way into Maui’s volcanic backcountry. There are two campgrounds and three cabins inside of Haleakala Crater, and the stars at night and morning calm are a sight only few will experience.

Tip: Cabin reservations can be tough to come by and often sell out early. For info on cabins in Haleakala Crater visit the wilderness cabins section of the park’s website. For wilderness camping, permits are available at the park visitor center and are completely free of charge.

Kipahulu Section of the Park

Best known to visitors as “Seven Sacred Pools,” the idyllic, multi-tiered Pools of Ohe’o are surprisingly a part of the same national park as the arid and frigid summit. In fact, many visitors who have watched a Haleakala sunrise are surprised to learn that even though these waterfalls are over 90 miles away, they are still a part of this national park that stretches from summit to sea.

Seven Sacred Pools, Kipahulu

The grandiose distance aside, however, what makes Kipahulu such a special place is the rarefied sense of remoteness. Cell phones don’t get any service in this lush, vine-tangled enclave, and the ills of the world and dreaded “to-do” lists seems to melt away in the sun. Waterfalls, waves and windswept treetops manage to capture all of your attention, and don’t be surprised if you’re caught off guard by the foreign sense of calm. 

Road to Hana on Maui

How To Get There: Kipahulu is 30 minutes past Hana—and just before the middle of nowhere. Reaching this coastal tropical utopia requires a lot of driving, and expect to drive upwards of four hours from Wailea, Lahaina or Kapalua. The best way to visit is to drive the famous and winding “Road to Hana,” and then return via the bumpy, single lane “back road” that winds past Kipahulu.

Tip: To maximize your time and minimize the crowds, go ahead and do what the locals do by spending the night at the Kipahulu campground. This way you can walk to the pools in the morning and have them all to yourself, since the swarms of tourists making the long day trip usually don’t arrive until noon. Also, if you’ve visited Haleakala Crater is the past three days, the entrance fee of $10 per car is still valid for Kipahulu.

Bamboo groves, Kipahulu

Best Hikes: There are really only two hikes in the Kipahulu section of park: the half-mile stroll from the visitor center parking lot down towards the famous pools, or the two-mile trek on the Pipiwai Trail that’s considered the island’s best hike. Aside from weaving past numerous waterfalls and through sun-obscuring groves of bamboo, the Pipiwai Trail reaches a dramatic terminus at the 400-foot-high Waimoku Falls. Here, at this isolated amphitheater set deep in the rainforest on one of the most scenic islands in the world, it’s hard not to take a moment of pause and simply look around—momentarily frozen in awe of the beauty you’ve managed to find. 

Tip: Sometimes it’s possible to find guavas along the trail that are ripe and ready for picking. Also, since there’s a definite lack of potable water at the Kipahulu Visitor Center, be sure to buy water before leaving Hana or pack a few bottles for the trip.