Visiting Haleakala National Park on Maui

Hale-a-ka-la: House of the Sun. Few places are more aptly named in the Hawaiian language than this 10,023-foot volcano. Dormant since its last eruption in 1790 (the summit area has been inactive for 600 years), Haleakala has been the site of grandiose experiences since before the arrival of humans. Bubbling over 30,000 feet from the seafloor below, only one-third of the mountain’s mass exists above water. Along with neighboring Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—two peaks on the Big Island visible from the summit—Haleakala ranks as one of the largest mountains on earth.

Everyone should experience a Haleakala sunrise at least once in their lifetime.
Everyone should experience a Haleakala sunrise at least once in their lifetime. Photo © Kenny Louie, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Stoic and spellbinding, its lofty summit was where the Polynesian demigod Maui captured the sun in mythology. Legend states that since the sun would race across the sky far too quickly to allow any crops to grow or any daily tasks to be accomplished, Maui snared the sun with his great net and only agreed to let him go if he promised to slow his path, thereby providing enough warmth for farmers to grow their crops and for life on the island to continue. Today, scores of visitors make the predawn sojourn to the summit to watch the sun illuminate the eastern horizon, squinting in excitement as it crests the clouds and bathes the crater in a brilliant orange light.

When to Visit Haleakala

The biggest question surrounding Haleakala is not if you should visit, but when. Sunrise is the most popular option, and although everyone should experience a Haleakala sunrise at least once in their lifetime, by no means does that mean that it’s the only time to visit. While the sunrise can indeed be spectacular, it’s also crowded, tough to find parking, requires waking up at 3am, and is often near or below freezing. To see a light display nearly as colorful but without all the crowds, visit for sunset. Although you don’t get the benefit of watching the sun emerge from the horizon, there are often only 20 people instead of 400 and it isn’t as cold. Visit in the middle of the day to give yourself time to hike down into the crater or explore the forests of Hosmer’s Grove.

Map of Haleakala National Park, Hawaii
Haleakala National Park

The largest factor, however, is working around the weather. Unfortunately, since Haleakala is a windward-facing mountain, the weather can be fairly unpredictable. Though rain (or even snow) can fall at any time of year, summer is usually a safer bet than winter, when there is the chance of a big storm rolling through. Statistically the sunrise is visible on 85 percent of days, with the other 15 percent being socked in with clouds, so at least the odds are with you. If, on the other hand, you’re planning on heading up during the day or for sunset, a good rule of thumb is that if you can’t see the mountain itself, then you probably shouldn’t bother. On the other hand, if you can see the mountain itself, but just not the top, then you know you’re going to be in for a fabulous sunset.

During the midmorning to afternoon hours, a cloud layer known as the mauna lei creeps its way across the mountain between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. Although you will be driving through the clouds on your way up to the top, on most occasions you will pop out above the clouds to watch the sunset from your own floating island, awash in a sea of white. Or, to take the guesswork out of the equation, simply call the National Weather Service hotline for Haleakala summit (866/944-5025, ext. 4) for an up-to-date weather forecast, or check out the Intistute for Astronomy website for up-to-the-minute weather data (including windchill, wind speed, visibility, and rainfall) before taking off for the summit.

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