I never thought that I’d feel so close to getting frostbite in Hawaii – but it happened on our trip to Haleakalā National Park. The peak is cold, windy and the weather is raw. Despite the cold, I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat. My expectations for our excursion to watch the sun rise were really high…but the experience exceeded my wildest dreams. In this post I’ll share some information you need to know before visiting the summit, along with some pre- and post-sunrise activities to consider. I’ll close with some tips for capturing breathtaking and moving photos of the sunrise and the natural beauty of the mountain.
Haleakala National Park
Haleakalā, also known as the east Maui volcano, is a volcano that forms approximately 75% of the island of Maui. In the Hawaiian language, its name means “house of the sun.” According to Hawaiian mythology, the volcano was the birthplace of the grandmother of the demigod Māui. Research shows that the volcano has been dormant since somewhere between 1500-1600 AD. A giant caldera or crater is at the summit of the volcano. The caldera is 7 miles (11.25 km)across, 2 miles (3.2 km) wide, and nearly 2600 feet (800 m) deep. It’s a barren expanse of rocky land that almost seems like the surface of another planet.
Know Before You Go…
We visited Maui as part of a cruise around the Hawaiian Islands on Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). We picked several of our excursions before we left home, and I absolutely knew that we had to take the trip to view the sunrise at a vantage point above the clouds. Fortunately, NCL provided us with lots of information to make us ready for the trip. Some things you’ll want to know before you go:
- The main viewing area of Haleakalā is at 9,740 feet (2,969 M). It can get cold and windy before sunrise, with temperatures often down to 20F (-6C). You will want to be prepared, as we were, with a coat or heavy sweater, long pants and a hat and gloves.
- Since Haleakalā is part of the National Park system, visitor fees are collected as you enter the park.
- The National Park Service has instituted a reservation system to keep the summit from being overcrowded and dangerous during sunrise viewing. Visitors entering the summit area between 3AM and 7AM each day must make a reservation for a summit pass no more than 60 days prior to their visit.
- You’ll want to arrive as early as possible to secure a good viewing spot. We were fortunate to have a spot directly in front of the edge of the crater which gave us an unobstructed view.
Our excursion left the ship at 3AM, because it’s a long trip to the mountain from just about anywhere in Maui. According to the National Park Service website, Haleakalā is about 2.5 hours by car from Kaului, 3 hours from Wailea and 3.5 hours from Lahaina.If you are driving, head toward Kāpahulu where you can catch the road into the park. The last 30 minutes or so of the trip consists of roads in the park. The mountain is steep, so there are a lot of switchbacks.
Waiting For Sunrise
Other than being in a plane, I’ve never had the experience of being up above the clouds. The visitors’ area on the summit gives you some amazing views of the stars and constellations well before the sunrise. On the day we visited, a group of native Hawaiians played drums and sang an ancient chant to their gods. There are always other tourists around to talk to and to swap stories with. The light from the pre-dawn sun continuously changes in subtle but dramatic ways. Even if you get cold, there’s a visitors’ center at the edge of the crater so you can duck in and warm up without giving up the view.
Here Comes The Sun…
As the pre-dawn morning progresses, the sky is just bright enough to start making out cloud formations and the edge of the crater. The hues of blue, orange, red and pink are amazing. Because the winds are high at and near the summit, the clouds move and change very quickly so the view is never boring.
Finally, there’s that magical moment when the sun peeks up above the clouds and illuminates the edges of the crater. It’s one of the most beautiful views I’ve seen in my life. Some of the people watching along with us actually started clapping out of joy and appreciation of nature’s beauty. It was truly an amazing site, one I feel blessed to have experienced.
As the sun rises and warms the ground, the clouds begin to dissipate. However, there’s still more to see on the summit. The Haleakalā Observatory is just a short jaunt from the crater. Because of its location the observatory is a perfect location for observing the cosmos. The air at the summit is still and has little or no moisture. The summit sits below nearly 1/3rd of earth’s atmosphere, and there is almost no light pollution in the area.
From the summit, you can also see the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both located on the island of Hawaii. These peaks are 80-100 miles away from the summit of Haleakala, but the clear air gives you an unobstructed view of both peaks.
The summit and the park itself is also home to some amazing plant and animal life, including silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense sub. macrocephalum). Silversword is found only on Haleakalā, and lives up to 80 years. It’s delicate and beautiful. All told, HaleakalƒÅ National Park contains over 850 species of plants and animals, many found only in Hawaii.
The park also contains many miles of hiking and walking trails at all elevations. Don’t be too quick to leave the park after viewing the sunrise, as there’s lots to explore.
Tips For Photographers
- Make sure to bring a tripod. There are some spectacular views of stars and constellations before the sunrise, and having a tripod will allow you to capture long exposures.
- Consider taking some long exposures of the pre-dawn sky to capture star trails.
- Shoot high dynamic range (HDR) images if your camera supports it. There’s a lot of variance in the luminosity of the sky versus the interior of the crater. HDR imaging will allow you to capture a broader range.
- Shoot with a wide lens to capture as much scenery as possible.