High Above the Clouds at Haleakalā National Park
Passing through the clouds on the way up Haleakalā the sky opens up and turns a deep blue that stretches to the edge of space. At the top of the world, everything feels bigger and more wide open.
The view from Haleakalā is the type of view that inspires people to travel across the globe, to stand at the summit, to look out, and to try and make sense of the immensity in front of them. From the summit, the view reaches to the far edges of Maui and as far as the Big Island on clear days.
As amazing as the view from the top of Haleakalā is the real magic is inside the valley. The valley feels different; when you look across the clouds from the summit it feels like you can see the whole world; in the valley, it’s as if you’ve entered somewhere altogether different. The valley appears as an endless swirl of greys, greens, and reds that hang from the cliffs and burst from the valley floor. The colors are so vibrant that they feel brand new as if time hasn’t gotten around to wearing off the edges and turning them into everyday colors.
From the House of the Sun, the valley appears lifeless, as if the road you traveled to get there started in a lush tropical paradise, took a turn, and ended up on Mars. The valley is full of long sloping hills made of dark black rocks that lead to red cinder cones that rise like tiny volcanos. Hiking into the valley, it becomes clear that as tough as it is to survive at 10,000 feet in the sky on the edge of a dormant volcano – life is tougher. Here and there small plants pop out of the rocks and chukars scamper around the edges.
A part of why the valley feels so lifeless is because the space is so vast. The valley is two and a half miles wide and three thousand feet deep. Couple its size with the lack of trees and buildings and it’s almost impossible to put any of it into perspective. As you hike, rocks that appeared tiny on the horizon become the size of small cars as the clouds climb the cliffs around you trying to find their way across the sky.
Before descending, the Park Service has some very helpful warnings about how weather at the summit changes frequently and how it’s considerably easier to hike down the trail than it’s to hike up. Something confirmed by the constant panting of hikers struggling back to the summit.
Like all the volcanos in Hawaii, Haleakalā is a shield volcano, which means they’re formed through the gradual build-up of lava that rises from a hot spot below the earth’s surface, building land over time that makes them resemble a warrior’s shield laying on the ground.
A hot spot is formed by superheated rock that wells up from below the earth’s surface forming volcanos. As the volcanos erupt the lava they expel forms new land. In the case of Haleakalā, more than two-thirds of the volcano’s height lies beneath the ocean.
The valley at the top, which people often think is a crater, was formed through erosion and landslides. Even though geologists believe that Haleakalā was several thousand feet taller at one time, it is still the third tallest mountain on Earth. Having erupted at least 10 times during the past 1,000 years, Haleakalā is considered a dormant volcano that is likely to erupt at some point in the future.
Planning a Visit to Haleakalā
A trip to Haleakalā from anywhere on Maui takes most of a day. The drive to the summit alone can take forty-five minutes once you enter the park. Driving up is an endless series of switchbacks and hairpin turns that make it feel like you’re riding a roller coaster with consequences; especially when you’re staring at a corner and all you can see is the road running off into the clouds….
One of the best-known activities at Haleakalā is watching the sunrise, which requires a permit from the National Park Service if you’re on your own or coming up as a part of a tour. Most of the tour companies will pick you up at your hotel early enough in the morning to make you wish you’d stayed up all night. Another popular option, that allows a good night sleep, is to watch the sunset and stay to gaze at the stars.
There was a time when tour companies let people ride their bikes down from the summit, but after several deaths, which shouldn’t have surprised anyone who’s driven the winding hairpin turns and wondered if the missing guard rails are afraid of heights. The park service eliminated bike tours in the park. Several tour companies do offer a somewhat saner ride from just outside the park to the bottom of the mountain, which covers 6,500 feet of elevation over 20 plus miles.
If you’re an absolute glutton for punishment, you can ride your bike to the summit on your own. Like a couple I met who rode uphill for eight hours straight to get to the top of the mountain and were bold enough to say it wasn’t the hardest ride they’d ever done. It also looked like there were a few people who had someone bring them to the top so they could ride their bikes down.
The park has over 35 miles of hiking trails that wind their way through a variety of terrains. The Park Service recommends warm clothes, good shoes, lots of water, and suntan lotion, and likes to remind people that at the top of the mountain it can be 20 degrees colder than it is outside the park; so you will want a lot more than the flip-flops and board shorts that you started the day with.
Traveling around the summit and through valley, it’s easy to see why the ancient Hawaiians considered the mountain to be sacred and to be a part of wao akua, the realm of the gods, and not a part of wao kanaka, the realm of man. Haleakalā feels like a place people go to find something, but not like a place we belong.