Haleakala National Park is a very unique park because it offers a lot of contrasting scenery. There are actually two sides to the park, the west and the east side. On the West side, you can watch the sunrise over the Haleakala summit, the world’s largest dormant volcano and hike through a volcanic crater. On the East side of the park, it is much more green. Here, you can hike through the rainforest and a bamboo forest to several waterfalls. We recommend visiting both sides of the park for the full experience.
Note: The East and West side of Haleakala National Park cannot be accessed from the same road. They have to be accessed completely separately and you would not be able to visit them both feasibly in one day. To be centrally located to visit both sides of the park, we recommend staying on the north side of the island, somewhere near Haiku or Paia.
FYI: This post is based on a trip taken in late October
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What to Do at Haleakala National Park
West Side of the Haleakala National Park
The West side of the park is where you can partake in the ritual of watching the sunrise at the Haleakala (means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian) Summit. This is also where you can hike into the crater of the largest dormant volcano in the world.
Sunrise at the Haleakala Summit
The sunrise at the summit at Haleakala National Park is a surreal experience. The sun rising over the dormant volcano among the clouds is really a sight everyone should see in-person in their lifetime. The colors that illuminate the sky are out of this world. You feel like you are in the clouds at 10,000 feet. Pictures and videos of this sunrise simply do not do it justice.
Get Tickets in Advance
To attend sunrise at the Haleakala Summit, you must reserve advance tickets at recreation.gov. The tickets are available to buy 30 days in advance. These tickets sell out fast so set an alarm for the day and time for when the tickets you want go on sale. Keep in mind, they go on sale at 7 AM Hawaii time so figure out what time that will be in your time zone so you are not SOL.
These tickets are $1 and you need to either also buy entrance to the park (do not have to buy in advance) or an America the Beautiful pass (must buy in advance). We buy an America the Beautiful pass every year because it pays for itself when you visit more than 2 parks in one year and allows you unlimited access to all the parks for one price. One year, we visited 12 National Parks with this one pass so we definitely got our money’s worth.
Arrive at least an hour before Sunrise
Once you have a ticket, you can enter the park between 3 AM and 7 AM on the day of your ticket. You will want to arrive about an hour prior to sunrise to see the whole sunrise. Make sure to check what time the sunrises when you are visiting as it changes throughout the year.
If you want to have the best view at the summit, plan to arrive earlier than an hour in advance. We arrived about an hour in advance and were able to get our own spot but we did not have the most prime spot on the summit to watch the sunrise. It was a fine spot for us to watch the sunrise but with how the viewing platform was set up, it was hard not to get other people in some of our pictures. However, it is not all about the picture as pictures really do not do the IRL experience justice anyways.
The summit at Haleakala is approximately 30° cooler than at the lower elevations where most people are staying. We were well prepared for the 40° weather we encountered that morning but most people we saw there were not. Some people were wearing flip-flops and we can only imagine their feet felt frozen.
Windy Road Leading to Summit
The road you drive on to get to the Haleakala Summit is quite windy (as in curvy). Nothing in comparison to the Road to Hana but anyone prone to motion sickness, beware. Like the Road to Hana, you must drive this road quite slowly at points. Be sure to budget enough time to drive up this windy road before sunrise.
Hike the Sliding Sands Trail
This hike contrasts other trails you may hike on Maui as it takes you into the dormant volcano landscape. Variable colors of this landscape are quite neat to behold. The best views, in our opinion, are actually near the beginning of the trail.
Choose your own length
You can hike all 11 miles of this trail or you can hike just part of it. We hiked 3 miles of this trail round-trip. We had planned to hike to the bottom of the crater, which is 2.5 miles one-way, but with how we were feeling with the elevation, we opted to only hike 1.5 miles one-way. Like we said, the best views of this crator are from the beginning of the trail anyways. The view at approximately 1 mile into the crater is worth walking at least this far.. For someone who just wants to get a short taste of the trail, we would recommend just hiking the 1st mile in. The extra half mile we completed did not add much from a view standpoint.
Tip: Hike the Sliding Sands Trail during Sunrise
If you plan to hike this trail on a day other than the day you watch the sunrise at the summit, try to start this hike before sunrise. That way, you can watch the sunrise while hiking on the trail. You will still be at the high elevation (nearly 10,000 feet still) so you will be able to watch the sunrise over the clouds and will likely have the trail completely to yourself, unlike the Summit. Just be sure to bring your headlamp so you can watch where you are hiking! The trail is well maintained and fairly smooth but trip hazards are always present. These are the headlamps we use and recommend.
Also, remember, if you plan to enter the park between 3 AM- 7 AM, you need a sunrise reservation so be sure to get another ticket for sunrise entrance. These tickets only cost $1 so make an extra reservation even if you are not 100% committed to doing this hike on a different day.
Beware of the Elevation
At nearly 10,000 feet of elevation, this trail feels a lot harder than it would at a lower elevation. We are both in good shape and really felt the elevation doing this trail. We were certainly not acclimated at all to the elevation. Remember, the climb up will be much more difficult than the descent down. Be mindful of how you are feeling. We ended up hiking 2 miles less than we initially planned because of how we were feeling.
Along the road that leads to the summit of Haleakela, there are a lot of different spots that you can pull off onto and soak in the views with minimal effort. Make sure to check these out. The view from the Haleakala Visitors Center is worth checking out as well.
There is also one other trail on the West side of this park, the Halemauu Trail, you can hike. However, based on everything we have read and pictures we have seen, the Sliding Sands Trail views are more impressive than this trail’s views. Also, if you are looking for a full day hike, you can hike from the Sliding Sands Trailhead to the Halemauu Trailhead (parking lot at MM 14) which is an 11.2 mile hike. To do this, you would need either 2 cars or to hitchhike a ride back to the Sliding Sands Trailhead (Haleakela visitors center parking lot) or be overly ambitious and hike 22.4 miles.
East Side of the Park
The East side of Haleakala National Park is located south of the town of Hana and, presumably, would be your last stop while driving the Road to Hana. At this part of the park, there are two different trails that you can hike–the Pipiwai trail and Oheo Gulch trail. We recommend hiking both.
4.0 Miles Round Trip, 650 Feet of Elevation Gain
Unique Rainforest and Bamboo Forest Flora
This hike is super neat because first, you hike through the rainforest and then, you hike through a bamboo forest before coming to the impressively tall Waimoku waterfall. On the hike, you will also see a huge Banyan Tree. The contrasting views are well worth the 4 mile round-trip hike. We would rate this hike as relatively easy as the elevation gain is well spread out.
Oheo Gulch/Seven Sacred Pools
0.6 Miles RoundTrip, 100 Feet of Elevation Change
You can also hike the shorter Oheo Gulch/Seven Sacred Pools trail here that is 0.6 miles roundtrip with minimal elevation change. This trail takes you along the coastline, through the rainforest and past a waterfall. We completed this hike after the Pipiwai trail and found it to be very easy and scenic. The trailhead is at the same spot as the Pipiwai Trailhead.
We recommend arriving to hike on the East side of the park early. When we arrived around 8 AM, we were one of three cars in the parking lot, but by the time we left after completing the hike, the parking lot was full and cars were parking in an overflow lot.
There is nowhere to eat at either part of the park so make sure to bring some snacks. On the East side of the park, take advantage of some of the roadside fruit stands on the way to/from the park. We highly recommend Hana Farms at MM 31.
Where to Stay
As noted above, the East and West side of Haleakala National Park cannot be accessed from the same road. They have to be accessed from completely separate routes and you cannot feasibly visit both sides in one day. To be centrally located to visit both sides of the park, we recommend staying on the North side of the island, somewhere near Haiku or Paia
The Haiku Airbnb we stayed at was in a nice quiet location. It had all the amenities we needed and the host was very responsive and helpful. The landscape at the property was very pretty too.
We hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Haleakala National Park. Anything you’d add to our guide? We’d love to hear your feedback and questions. Please leave us a comment!
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