Sunrise above the clouds near the summit of Haleakalā was an absolutely amazing experience. When we first planned the trip to visit Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui we were somewhat skeptical about the value of getting up at 2 a.m. and taking a bus tour to stand in the freezing cold wind on top a mountain in order to be there before sunrise. Not exactly what one thinks of as a Hawaiian sort of experience. To our great surprise, it was more than worth the cost, the getting up in the middle of the night, and the dragging warm coats during our trip all over the tropical Pacific.
The nation’s eleventh national park, Hawaiʻi National Park was originally established August 1, 1916, 24 days before the National Park Service was established by Congress. It consisted of three units: the summit of Haleakalā on Maui and portions of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa on Hawaiʻi. However, it took another six years before any funding was allocated to begin operations there. In the early years, most of the emphasis was on Kīlauea and Mauna Loa for which there was easier access. A road to the top of Haleakalā was completed in 1935. In 1960, Hawaii National Park was re-designated as two new national parks: Haleakalā National Park on Maui and Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park on Hawaiʻi.
Haleakalā rises 10,023 feet above sea level and below the ocean descends another 19.000 feet making it one of the largest mountains on earth when measured from its base. The “crater” atop Mount Haleakalā is not actually a volcanic crater but rather a giant valley which is the result of erosion.
Haleakalā itself is a huge shield volcano on the island of Maui and the national park encompasses the basin and portions of the volcano’s flanks. It was believed that the most recent eruption was in 1790 but more recent scientific studies indicate it could have been between 1480 and 1780.
Haleakalā means “house of the sun” and is a wahi pana: a legendary or celebrated place which is the backdrop for tales of ancient gods and goddesses, chiefs and priests, nature and humankind. One of the most famous stories recalls the time when the demigod Maui stopped the sun. In those days the sun moved so quickly across the heavens that humans led a miserable life. Without sunlight, fruit would not ripen, daily tasks couldn’t be completed and kapa cloth would not dry. With a rope made from coconut husks, from high atop Haleakalā, Maui lassoed the sun. One by one, he broke off the sun’s rays, until the sun begged for life and promised to go more slowly across the sky. The days were long and bright and life was pleasant.
There is very limited parking at the top of the mountain and sunrise is so popular the park service has instituted a system to control the number of visitors any given morning. You can purchase a ticket for a minimal fee for your personal car or you can be a part of a sanctioned tour. Traffic up the mountain from 2 a.m. until 7 a.m. is closed to all other vehicles. Even quite in advance, tickets for personal vehicles were sold out and the idea of the curvy, steep road in the dark made the tour option more attractive.
Our trip up the mountain began with leaving our B&B at 2:30 a.m. to meet the tour bus at 3:00 a.m. Our bus driver Nettie, a native Hawaiʻian, was our guide. She was full of information and obviously loved the mountain Haleakalā. Ascending the mountain, the temperature drops about 3°F. per 1,000 feet in elevation. However, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet there is often a temperature inversion layer which forms when heat rises from the surrounding landmass, cools, and creates a “lid” trapping the moist warm air below. This is responsible for the wreath of clouds that often gently hugs the middle slopes of Haleakalā although clear skies prevail above and below. We travelled above this wreath of clouds. Upon reaching the top, still in pitch darkness, we grabbed a spot at the railing to view the sunrise. It was very cold and very windy on the mountaintop waiting for the “show” to begin. We were quite happy to have warm coats, hats, and gloves and a blanket around our shoulders. We did take turns holding our spot and taking a quick warm-up in the visitor center which was small and crowded. And then it began: the first light over the rim of the clouds. As it progressed the colors on the clouds and reflected in the sky were incredible. It’s difficult to describe but we knew, without a doubt, that the effort and discomfort was more than worth it.
The Hawaiʻian Islands are the most isolated island group on the planet, 2400 miles from the nearest continental land mass. This isolation limited the arrival of plants and animals and, as a result of adaptation, many new species emerged. One of the primary reasons for Haleakalā National Park is to preserve the unique biology of native flora and fauna.
The ʻāhinahina (Haleakalā silversword) is found only above the 7,000-foot elevation on Haleakalā volcano. The silversword grows for an estimated 30 to 60 years before sending up a single, spectacular flower stalk from its silver rosette of leaves. This stalk bears as many as five hundred blossoms, flourishes for a few weeks while its seeds mature, then begins to die. No one knows what triggers the plant to flower or why many silverswords bloom in some years and few bloom in others. Very concentrated efforts have brought the silversword back from near extinction but it has shown a decline in recent years.
In addition to Haleakalā National Park, we did a bit of exploring on Maui.
We visited the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum in Puʼunēnē. This museum is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history and heritage of Maui’s sugar industry. It looks at sugar’s influence on the development of Maui’s water resources and rich multiethnic makeup. The Puʼunēnē Sugar Mill was in operation from 1902 until 2016. As 2016 came to a close, it brought forth the end of an era not only for Maui but the entire state of Hawaii. Hawaii’s last sugarcane company, HC&S, ceased operations. We were told that the plan is to replant the sugarcane fields with hemp, which takes less water. Although industrial hemp and medical and recreational marijuana are all members of the cannabis family, hemp is distinguished from other species by its extremely low THC content. Hemp fiber is known for use in making rope but there are also thousands of other uses for industrial hemp.
The road to Hana is touted as one of the world’s curviest roads and it seems as if some of the tourist info brochures are designed to either scare people away from driving it or daring them to be adventurous and drive it. Being very familiar with mountain roads in the Rockies, we didn’t find it all that hair-raising. That side of the island is rainforest so there was lots of jungle on the uphill side of the road and great ocean views on the down side. It is a pretty drive and there are 56 one-lane bridges and 600 hairpin curves.
Hoʻokipa Beach Park is a resting place for Honu – Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles. The turtles come up on the beach, rest, and go back into the sea. There were so many of them and they were fascinating to watch. The resting area is lightly roped off but the turtles didn’t seem to mind that the rest of the beach was full of people swimming, surfing and wind-surfing. Climb up on the beach, take a snooze, and head back into the water. Seems like a rather pleasant way to spend some time.
For more information: https://www.nps.gov/hale/index.htm