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Haleakala. The name means "house of the sun" in Hawaiian.

According to local legend, this mountain is where the demi-god Maui lassoed the sun to lengthen the day, so his mother, Hina, could dry her giant swath of tapa cloth. Maui released the ropes only after the sun promised it would go more slowly across the sky.

Aerial view of clouds pouring into Haleakala crater
Aerial view of clouds pouring into Haleakala crater
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tradition also holds Maui responsible for the ring of clouds that frequently crowns the summit of Haleakala. Apparently, the clouds used to hover so close to earth that they'd block out the sun, causing Maui's inhabitants to live in semi-darkness.

Maui raised his strong arms high and began to push up the clouds. Using all his strength, he stood up to his full giant size and thrust the clouds up to the top of Haleakala, where they remain today.

The clouds, however, never stay low for long. They remember the great strength of Maui and fear he will return and send them far away from their beloved island.

Many years later, Mark Twain, the great storyteller and traveler, extolled Haleakala. He called the mountain "the sublimest spectacle I ever saw." And no wonder.

Haleakala is the largest dormant volcano in the world. The crater, alone, measures 12 kilometers long, four kilometers wide and more than 900 meters deep. The area of Haleakala crater (19 sq. miles) is nearly as large as the area of Manhattan Island (23 sq. miles).

Driving up Haleakala

There are several ways to explore Haleakala. The most popular is the drive up the road that climbs in a series of contorted switchbacks through Upcountry Maui to Haleakala National Park. Driving time from Kahului to the Haleakala summit is 1.5 hours.

Park Headquarters is 1.5 kilometers from the entrance, and the Visitor Center is 16 kilometers farther up. There are no overnight motel accommodations, restaurants, stores or service stations within the park, so visitors must bring sufficient gas, food, drinks and clothing. You can overnight in two wilderness campgrounds or three historic cabins, but permits are required and time limits apply.

The summit is at least 20 degrees C. cooler than sea level and winds can be chilling, especially at sunrise when crowds gather to see the day's first light over the crater rim.

Because the drive is a couple hours from Wailea and three hours from Kaanapali, you should be prepared to leave your warm bed before 3 am.

Cinder cones viewed from helicopter
Cinder cones viewed from helicopter
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

You take your chances on whether the 3,055-meter summit is free of clouds, at that hour, but the peak is usually clear until mid-morning and then again in the late afternoon.

Hiking in Haleakala crater

Inside the crater, you can take short, self-guided walks, longer, guided tours and day-long hikes, or hire horses to crunch across the cinders of the crater floor.

Visitors should be prepared for unpredictable weather on Haleakala. The crater can be very hot and sunny or cold and rainy, often in the same day, so bring sunscreens and raincoats, as well as comfortable hiking shoes.

The terrain is a mix of caverns, lava, ash flows and richly colored cinder cones. The highest cone is two-thirds the height of the Empire State Building.

Haleakala horseback riding

Park rangers, guides (and wranglers on horseback tours) point out sights such as Bottomless Pit, an old spatter vent, and Pele's Paintbox, a palette of red, yellow, gray and black.

Strange birds, plants and animals, which live nowhere else on earth, make Haleakala crater their home. Among them are the nene, or native Hawaiian goose, and the red i'iwi bird, whose long curving bill reaches deep into flowers for nectar.

The rare silversword plant may grow to be 2.5 meters-high and 20 years old, but it dies after blooming only once. Called ahinahina or "gray-gray" by the Hawaiians, this spectacular plant develops a cluster of 100 to 500 reddish-purple flower heads atop its silvery dagger-like leaves. A member of the sunflower family, it probably descended from ancestors whose seed was carried by air currents across the Pacific from the Americas.

Maui helicopter tour

The most awesome way of exploring Haleakala, however, is by helicopter.

Our helicopter tour combined the crater with an aerial tour of the sub-tropical rain forest, waterfalls and pools of Hana. A tour of the lush valleys and waterfalls of West Maui completed our helicopter trip.

Sheltered from the cold by the aircraft and listening to classical music on our headphones, we agreed that whatever route selected, a helicopter tour was certainly the most comfortable way to explore the crater.

After soaring over sugarcane fields, we gained altitude over the snake-like Haleakala Highway. The theme song from Chariots of Fire reached a crescendo as we skimmed over the razorback crest of the crater.

Haleakala crater

A spectacular lunar landscape, with black and ocher pinnacles, filled the gaping chasm below us. The setting is so moon-like that NASA astronauts have used it as a training site.

Clouds nuzzle the crater, and pour over the edge like foam from a just-opened bottle of champagne. As streaks of flamingo-pink paint the sky, the clouds tear apart like pieces of cotton candy.

Our eyes, however, were riveted on the eastern edge, where the sun rises, tingeing the crater's somber earth colors with gold. Our pilot flew our bionic butterfly in donuts around the cinder cones. From a distance, they seemed like mere bumps, but as we approached more closely, we saw that they were more like small mountains, up to 180 meters high.

Science City buildings on ridge
Science City buildings on ridge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On one side, we viewed the gleaming white Science City, a complex of observatories, experimental stations and satellite dishes, used to peer into the universe. Farther out, we glimpsed the islands of Lanai and Molokai, on the horizon, and the snow-capped summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, on the Big Island.

Below us, a faint line skirted the edge of Haleakala. "It's a fence," said our pilot. "Park rangers have fenced the entire 34-kilometer circumference to protect the fragile ecosystem from goats and wild boars."

The fence is part of an animal and plant control program implemented by the Park Service to protect the natural balance of native species in Maui. (Only small brown bats and monk seals occupied the island, until the early Hawaiians brought in wild pigs, and Europeans introduced goats. If allowed to graze within the crater, they would threaten the survival of native flora and fauna.)

We followed a lava flow to a break in the crater. "Haleakala last erupted in 1790," our pilot explained. "That makes it dormant, but not extinct." He pointed to a lava flow and asked: "Do you remember the movie Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman? Scenes from the film were shot there."

Haleakala rainfall

We thwacked, thwacked, thwacked our way into the Keanae Valley. The contrast was striking. The northern and eastern slopes of the volcano are a verdant rain forest. Haleakala gets more than 760 centimeters of rain a year.

Helicopter view of rainforest and double waterfalls
Helicopter view of rainforest and double waterfalls
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Gliding through steep valleys, covered with forests of kukui, mango, guava and bamboo, we reached Koolau Falls. The helicopter rose, as strains from 2001: A Space Odyssey resounded from our earphones. We admired the cascade from the pristine pool, at its base, to its frothing crest.

West Maui

All too soon, we left the misty valley. Rainbows danced over the cane and pineapple fields as we concluded our trip with a flight into West Maui.

Our helicopter pilot guided our Plexiglas™ bubble into the inner recesses of Waihee Valley. We hung like a Christmas tree ornament amid multiple waterfalls that cascaded from one to another, until finally splashing into a pool on the valley floor.

Incredibly romantic music poured from our earphones as we approached the 300-meter waterfalls that stream from lava tubes lacing these emerald mountains. We ventured so close, that spray misted our windows. Slowly circling over the Iao Needle, a lava monolith, we marveled at a 360° rainbow — a fitting end to a most memorable flight.

Whether it's by helicopter, horseback, car or on foot, a trip to Haleakala, the "house of the sun" is, indeed, the high point of a visit to Maui.

In more ways than one.


Maui Visitors Bureau: www.visitmaui.com

More information on US National Parks:

Guide to the National Parks of the United States

The National Parks - America's Best Idea

More information on Maui:

Lonely Planet's Maui