Rising dramatically to a summit of 10,023 feet, Haleakalā is the third largest volcano in Hawaiʻi. Its mass makes up approximately three quarters of Maui, and its presence is dominating, playing an important role in the island’s environmental, cultural, and geological makeup.
But it’s not just Hawaiians who understand the volcano’s significance. Haleakalā and its surrounding wilderness became a National Park in 1961, ensuring its place on the national radar and its preservation for future generations.
Today, Haleakalā provides numerous opportunities for visitors to explore its landscape. Below, we break down everything you need to know when visiting.
Good to Know Before You Go
Before setting out to visit Haleakalā, there are some important things to know.
The summit of Haleakalā is reached by the Haleakalā Highway, a ten-mile “driveway,” if you will, that zig-zag its way from the main entrance gates about 10 miles to the upper craters and viewing areas. Don’t be fooled by the distance – the ten miles is very slow going, twisting and turning with lots of pull offs. Door-to-door travel time from most hubs in Maui is 1.5 to 2.5 hours, and you’ll want to take your time when there.
If you don’t have a car or don’t want to drive, you’ll have to join a tour that provides transportation. See below for more about tours to Haleakalā.
Haleakalā National Park Entrance Fees
All park visitors are required to purchase a recreational use pass upon entering Haleakalā National Park. Passes are non-transferable and are valid for 3 days including the date of purchase. Park entrance fees (last checked: 2020) are $30 per private vehicle or $15 per pedestrian / cyclist for those without car.
Entrance is also possible with a variety of annual passes, see the “Fees and passes for the Haleakalā National Park website” for all admission information the most up-to-date prices.
Climate & Altitude
From your hotel at sea level, you’ll ascend more than 10,000 feet to the top of Haleakalā. Not only does this present challenges in elevation change, but also in weather conditions.
Don’t be that person standing at the summit in shorts when the wind is howling and it’s near freezing temperatures. Be sure you bring extra layers to change into upon arrival, as temperature differences between sea level and the summit can be anywhere from 30 to 50 °F (-1 to 10 °C). The wind can be strong, as can the sun, increasing the risk of exposure (bring plenty of sunscreen, especially if hiking).
If you’re not used to being at elevation, take your time. Walk slow, drink plenty of water, and stop to rest often, especially if you feel lightheaded. Developing a strong headache can be an early-warning sign of altitude sickness. Don’t panic if this happens to you – simply make your way back down to sea level and your condition should improve.
Summit District (Frontside) vs. Kīpahulu District (Backside)
Most visitation of the Park occurs at the Summit District, where one can explore its craters and take view of its high-altitude, barren landscape. It’s where you will find the main visitor center for the Park, reached by the Haleakalā Highway.
But, if you check out the map, you’ll see that the Park boundaries extend down to sea level as well. Often referred to as the “backside” of Haleakalā, the Kīpahulu District shows off a different side of the volcano, where its lava flows have met the sea, creating waterfalls and other lush environments, such as the Pools at ʻOheʻo.
These two sides could not be more different, and we suggest making time to visit both of them during your trip, as together they offer the full picture of a Hawaiian volcano. As such, both of these regions are included below in our “Things to Do” section.
Things to Do
Haleakalā’s unique terrain provides a myriad of opportunities for visitors. Here’s an overview of the activities you’ll find within Haleakalā National Park, both at the summit and the Kīpahulu District.
- Scenic drive and overlooks
- Cultural points of interest
- Seeing the sunrise and sunset
Scenic Drive and Overlooks
The main scenic drive is the Haleakalā Highway, which climbs and zig-zags about ten miles from the main entrance up to the summit and the main visitor center. The drive provides wonderful views of the valley below, with plenty of places to pull off and take pictures. It also allows you to see the transition of the environment as you climb up in altitude. At the main gate, you’ll look around and see forests, and as you climb, those forests will thin out into shrublands and eventually to the barren, rocky landscape of the summit, home of the the native silversword plant.
Both the summit and backside of Haleakalā offer wonderful hiking opportunities, albeit much different terrain.
At the summit, the Sliding Sands Trail takes you from the main parking area into Haleakalā’s summit crater. The entire trail goes on for 11-miles, but many people simply walk out a mile or two and then turn around. You can expect to see old lava flows, small pit craters, and a variety of colors within the lava rock. There are a variety of other walking paths and trails that leave from the summit area, such as the Halemau‘u Trail.
In the Kīpahulu District, the hiking takes place along the coast in lush rainforests thanks to its location down at sea level on the island’s windward (east) side. The Pīpīwai Trail is tremendous, famous for its bamboo forest and waterfalls, and the Kūloa Point Trail takes you to the infamous Seven Sacred Pools. For those hiking this area, we recommend arriving early or late to avoid the mid-day crowds that are common in this area.
You can check out the full list and map of Haleakalā’s hikes here.
How good is the stargazing in Hawai‘i? Well, considering several Hawaiian volcanoes have international telescopes at their summit, you can be sure that you’re in store for a memorable experience. The Haleakalā Observatory is not open to the public, but you will see it when you visit the summit, and when you stand near it at night, you’ll understand why it was put there in the first place.
Good to know: MaunaKea on the Big Island is another volcano famous for stargazing.
Though there are stargazing tours most nights (see “Tours” below), you can head up and see the night sky on your own as well. Our recommendation would be to go to the summit at sunset and stay put as the stars come out. You can bring your own telescope, or use an app to identify constellations. You’ll want to bring something to help you identify the stars – no matter where you are from, you will see many more stars than you’re used to, and locating even simple constellations, like the Big Dipper, can be challenging due to the number of stars!
Also, temperatures will plummet after sunset. Be sure you have warm clothes so you can stand outside comfortably. Savvy travelers will have hot chocolate or coffee in a thermos to help stay warm.
Cultural Points of Interest
Haleakalā’s summit is a sacred area for Native Hawaiians, who believe it holds a lot of “mana,” or power. The name Haleakalā, which translates to “House of the Sun,” captures its significance as a place that harbors energy, receiving the first light each and every day.
When visiting Haleakalā, stop into the visitor center and inquire about cultural programming. The schedule varies, but interpretive walks often relay historical and cultural stories of the summit area.
There are two drive-up campsites in Halekalakā National Park, Hosmer’s Grove and the Kīpahulu campground, as well as backcountry options.
Hosmer’s Grove is located near the main entrance to the Park and the beginning of the Haleakalā Highway, at about 7,000-feet above sea level. As a result, it is prone to cold and changing weather, but adventurers will enjoy its location within the cloud belt and its dense forests, home to many native birds (the area surrounding Hosmer’s Grove is popular with birders as a result). The campground has pit toilets, picnic tables, BBQ grills, and drinking water, and puts you on the doorstep of the National Park.
If you’re looking for coastal camping on Maui, it doesn’t get much better than Kīpahulu. Its campsites are spread out along the rocky coastline, with restrooms, picnic tables, drinking water, and barbecue grills. The campground offers beautiful views of the ocean in a lush, tropical area, adjacent to nearby hikes and attractions. Indeed, camping at Kīpahulu is a great strategy for those interested in exploring the area. You can wake up, hike the Pīpīwai Trail and bamboo forest, visit the Seven Sacred Pools, and return to camp before most people even arrive.
Backcountry Camping and Cabins
There are also backcountry camping sites in Haleakalā. These are for experienced adventurers only, as they require a significant hike to reach and you must carry-in everything you need, including food and water. There are also three backcountry cabins, but again, these require a significant physical investment to reach. If you feel like this is the adventure for you, check out the links above to see maps and the specs on the backcountry options.
How to see the Sunrise or Sunset
This section is last but certainly not least – watching the sunrise at the top of Haleakalā is one of the most popular activities within the National Park, so much so that regulations were installed in recent years that require you to have an advanced reservation and permit to access the summit area at sunrise. This change was made to curb the impact of the overwhelming number of people who were visiting for sunrise, causing issues of traffic and overcrowding.
If you can’t get a permit, sunrise tours are also available – see below in the “Tours” section for more information.
Keep in mind that, if you plan to visit the summit for sunrise, you’re in for an early wake-up call. Sunrise is between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. throughout the year, meaning you’ll have to depart around 3 or 4 a.m. to make it in time. If this sounds like too much, consider going to Haleakalā for sunset. No permit is required, and the views are just as dramatic. Then, you can stick around until it’s completely dark and watch the stars come out.
Good to know: if you worry about planning and directions but don’t want to join a tour you should consider getting a GPS audio guide which will narrate your whole trip. See for example these Haleakala sunset and sunrise guides.
Whether it’s sunrise or sunset, be sure to bring warm clothes and enough food and drink to keep you happy and healthy.
Food and Drink
There are no food or drink services available in the National Park (other than water fountains). Be sure to pack plenty of snacks, and if you’re planning to hike, bringing a complete lunch is advised.
If you want to stop for lunch somewhere on the way, there are a couple places to do so in the upcountry town of Kula.
- Kula Lodge Restaurant: The slopes of Haleakalā and the town of Kula provide a different, “upcountry” look at Hawai‘i, and the Kula Lodge is a great place to experience it. Featuring huge windows and sprawling valley views, the Kula Lodge Restaurant combines cozy cabin feelings with tiki-inspired accents, including an outdoor garden and patio. Pulled pork, local beef and fish, brick-oven pizza, and other breakfast, lunch, and dinner options are available.
- Kula Sandalwoods: Just down the road from the Kula Lodge is Kula Sandalwoods, a collection of small cottages with an on-site restaurant. While it’s not as flashy as the Lodge, it does offer its own modest patio with views and a variety of local lunch offerings, such as pulled pork sandwiches and burgers.
- La Provence: If you’re looking for a cup of coffee, a couple pastries, and a nice view, the French-influenced La Provence is a great stop along the way to the National Park. You can also grab a crepe or quiche for breakfast, or pick up a sandwich to go.
- Nui’s Garden Kitchen: This food truck is a part of Maui Nui Farm, offering a mix of Hawaiian and Thai dishes that use vegetables right from the fields. The menu rotates and hours fluctuate, so be sure to check ahead, but this off-beat option showcases the rural, agricultural side of Haleakalā’s slopes.
Tours to Haleakalā
Because of the driving distance, altitude, weather, and other uncertainties surrounding a trip to Haleakalā, many people choose to visit on a tour. Below, we highlight some of the different types of tours with suggestions of tour operators.
Stargazing and astronomy tours occur most nights and offer a guided exploration of the night sky atop Haleakalā. Tours include transfer to the summit and often include hot drinks, snacks, and telescope use.
Only specific companies are permitted to provide nighttime tours at the summit, and you must use one of the approved vendors (specific vendors are mentioned in each sub-section). They include Magic Maui, Kaze Enterprises, Maui Stargazing, and Roberts Hawai‘i.
Please respect this and ensure the company is permitted by the National Park. All other tours are illegal.
Hiking and Birding Tours
Like stargazing, only approved vendors are permitted to operate hiking and birding tours at the summit area. Currently, the companies are Aloha Nui Loa Tours, Inc., Explore Maui Nature, Backroads, and Holo Holo Tours.
If you don’t want to wake up at 3 a.m. and self-drive to the top of Haleakalā for sunrise, you can jump on a tour. You’ll still get picked up early, but at least you won’t have to drive. Tours often include stops in other areas, such as Makawao, Kula, or another area surrounding Haleakalā. Roberts Hawai‘i and the Haleakala Sunrise tour are safe bets for a reliable, professional tour experience.
Another popular way to experience the summit area of Haleakalā is a bike tour down its slopes. Tour companies shuttle bikers to the top of the Haleakalā Highway, then send them off back down on a bike. Specifics of each tour vary slightly – some keep you together as a group, for example, and some let you ride at your own pace – so consider what’s best for your ability level. Also, some tours combine a sunrise viewing with the bike tour, so again, be sure to consider your preferences.