Have you ever witnessed a Haleakala sunrise? Trust us, this is one of Mother Nature’s truly magical moments, and it happens every day on the island of Maui in Hawaii. It’s so beautiful, that some describe their experience viewing it as somewhat of a religious experience. Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Do we have your curiosity piqued? Read on for everything you need to know before embarking on an unforgettable Haleakala sunrise journey!
About Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park extends from the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano, down the mountain to the Kipahulu coast, near Hana. According to the U.S. National Park Service, “No place can prepare you for the experiences and feelings you will have on the summit of Haleakala volcano. The landscape—deeply sculpted, richly colored, and forever changing—is unlike anywhere else on Earth.” It’s true. High above the clouds, the summit and surrounding area is home to native Hawaiian plants and animals, including some endangered species that you’ll find nowhere else.
Haleakala Sunrise: Must-Knows Before You Go
You don’t just “up and go” to Haleakala. The area is beautiful but very remote. The journey to and from the summit is 45 minutes each way, up a winding narrow road. There are no gas stations or places to stop for food. Given the nature of this excursion, it makes good sense to plan well and prepare in advance. Here are six ways to get ready early to make the very most of this amazing trip.
- Grab a Haleakala sunrise reservation in advance. This process was put in place within the last few years to assist with crowd control. Head over to the Haleakala National Park Summit Sunrise Reservations page to purchase a ticket for the day you plan to arrive, up to seven days in advance. (Check for any current COVID-19 restrictions first.) Not sure what day you’ll go? No problem. Pick up tickets for a couple of different days. It’s only $1 per carload. In addition to this reservation, you’ll pay a $30 per carload entrance fee when you arrive onsite. (Only credit cards accepted, so have one ready.)
- Visit on day one. Aim for visiting on day one of your Hawaiian vacation. Trust us, it will be much easier to wake up and get to a Haleakala sunrise on day one, when your body (and internal clock) is still on mainland time, especially if you’re traveling from many time zones away.
- Figure out food. Plan what you’ll eat that morning, and also on your road trip, well in advance. At the early time, you’ll be embarking, nothing will be open – not hotel restaurants, fast food chains, or anything besides gas stations, really. You’ll be lucky if you can find a cup of coffee that didn’t come from your hotel room. Make sure you have snacks figured out. You don’t want a cranky carload on the way up or down the mountain!
- Go early. How early? Think as early as humanly possible. Then go an hour earlier than that! But seriously though, depending on where on the island you are leaving from, it will probably be between 3 AM and 4 AM local time. You must first drive from your hotel to the park entrance, which could be between one and two hours. Then it’s a long, slow journey up the 37-mile road in the dark! Definitely map both legs of the trip, the journey to the base of the mountain and the entire journey up, if you want to arrive in time for an amazing Haleakala sunrise. (And get the best parking spot at the top!)
- Dress warm. What? On an island getaway? Yes, we’re totally serious. At 10,023 feet above sea level, it gets cold, about 40 degrees! And windy, too. Bring layers, lightweight thermal underwear, hats, gloves, a windbreaker, and more. You may want to borrow blankets from the hotel room as well. Stash them in your trunk, just in case. (Just don’t forget to bring them back!)
- Be aware of the altitude. If you’re prone to altitude sickness, know that this could be an issue… Bring ginger chews, ginger ale, a water bottle, whatever might help. On our first trip, we were totally fine, but unexpectedly, on our second journey, one poor kiddo was struck with altitude sickness. (All was fine, but let’s just say all of his memories of his Haleakala sunrise adventure may not be the greatest!)
Pro tip: Make a pitstop at the Kahului Costco when you arrive at the Maui airport (OGG). Grab waters, fresh fruit, mac nuts, seaweed snacks, and more to last your entire trip. They’re great to have on hand for early excursions such as this. Prices are better here than anywhere on the island, too!
Getting to the Haleakala Sunrise (Not for the Faint of Heart!)
Drivers, make sure you’ve had your proper dose of caffeine. Grab the wheel and go. Prepare for 37 miles, 20+ switchbacks, blind turns, and very steep dropoffs – all in the pitch-black darkness – with only your headlights and the stars to illuminate the way. That’s right, two hours up a curving mountain road in the dark. By now you’re thinking, “Umm, why are we doing this again?” You’ll see! Pay close attention to your surroundings and to road signs, which will give you a heads up as to what’s around the next bend. Although this can be a somewhat daunting drive, stay focused on the road, and on what’s in store for you when you arrive at the top.
Pass the first Park Headquarters Visitor Center and head straight for the Haleakala Visitor Center at the summit. When you get to the top, park in the upper lot, if possible. This puts you closest to where the best sunrise views exist, at the Visitor Center. Bring a flashlight too, for your walk from the car in the dark.
The Much-Anticipated Haleakala Sunrise
So, now that you’re there, what can you expect to see at a Haleakala sunrise? Pitch black and beautiful stars everywhere, all around, at least to start. Then, suddenly, in the distance, above the clouds, you will see the tiniest speck of light at the horizon line. As that speck of light grows, from within it will emerge a rainbow of colors. This is when the magic happens.
As each second ticks by, those colors grow and change. One moment it’s blue with a hint of yellow. Another moment, pinks and purples paint the sky. You’ll behold a kaleidoscope of colors, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll capture a small portion of on film for the memory books. But beyond that, literally, just sit back and take it all in. Don’t forget to look left and right, up and down. Every view is different, every shifting cloud and cool breeze changes the entire scene.
Don’t forget to walk around and check out the silversword plants that only grow up here after the Haleakala sunrise is complete. With this landscape, you’ll almost feel like you are on the moon.
READ MORE: Koloa Landing Resort Review and Visual Tour
After the Haleakala Sunrise: An Eye-Opening Journey Down the Mountain
For all of the twists and turns that you experienced on the way up, you’ll be absolutely amazed (and slightly terrified!) at what you drove past, once you see it in the daylight on the way back down from a Haleakala sunrise.
Be sure to stop at each overlook and trailhead along the way, to make the most of your journey. Get lost in time exploring. After all, as a wise man once said, “life is a journey, not a destination.”
Don’t miss the Park Headquarters Visitor Center, where you can see each of the main craters and learn more about the legend where trickster and demigod Maui lassoed the sun. It’ll be worth it to add some history to your Haleakala sunrise experience. Kids can even grab their very own junior ranger badge.
Helpful hint: Make a quick pit stop at the clean restroom while you’re here, too. (It’s a long way down the mountain!)
Once Your Haleakala Sunrise Adventure is Over
Spend the day exploring, hiking, photographing, and just taking it all in. Once you’re done enjoying your Haleakala sunrise and all that this amazing park had to offer, head to the base of the mountain and be sure to enjoy all that’s available to you while you’re on this side of the island.
We’re sure you’ve worked up an appetite witnessing the Haleakala sunrise. Stop by Kula Lodge Restaurant & Bar for a delicious breakfast with gorgeous garden views. Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring Kula Botanical Garden. Head to Upcountry for a wine tasting at Maui Winery, and swing by Ulapalkua Ranch Store & Grill for lunch. Hit Paia or Haiku, two of the quaint and kitschy North Shore beach towns, on your way home. There’s so much to do! Make the most of your time here.
There you have it, a handy guide for what to expect when planning your first Haleakala sunrise adventure! Keep in mind that you should always check park information for updated arrival procedures, weather closures, or pandemic-related protocols before heading out. Beyond that, let us know your thoughts once you experience this once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomenon yourselves!
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Photo credits: unsplash.com
Sources: U.S. National Park Service, Hawaii Tourism Authority, Haleakala National Park Summit Sunrise Reservations, Maui Sun Riders, Kula Lodge Restaurant & Bar, Kula Botanical Garden, Maui Winery, Ulapalkua Ranch Store & Grill, Pride of Maui