Seeing the sunrise at Haleakala volcano is one of the most sought-after experiences on the Hawaiian island of Maui for a reason. It’s not something that you’ll forget in a hurry, not only because it is freezing up there before daybreak at any time of year.
Haleakala is a dormant volcano on the island of Maui that rises 3,058 metres (10,032 feet) above sea level. It’s one of the islands most prominent features, and so it draws the crowd that its stature demands. Standing at the summit and watching the sky slowly turn a golden pink before a sliver of the golden orb peaks out from behind fluffy clouds and the volcano’s crater.
Be ready to be awed by the surrounding landscape as well. You’ll be staring down at rich, dark soil that hugs the volcano’s craters and dips. I can only compare it to feeling as though you’re standing on the surface of the moon.
As Mr M and I were working out exactly what time we’d need to be up the next morning to catch the sunrise at Haleakala, I started having second thoughts. Was it really going to be as good as a 3.30AM wake-up would require? Did I want to deal with being tired and crabby for the rest of that Wednesday?
If you’re having those same thoughts, stop right there. It was worth the annoying alarm clock, driving for an hour in the rain (don’t worry, it was clear at the top), sitting in traffic on the way up the volcano, and finally, cramming in with lots of other eager sunrise-watchers draped in towels and blankets.
Don’t give it a second thought, or try to talk yourself out of it. Seeing sunrise at Haleakala is a beautiful experience that you’ll regret missing!
SUNRISE AT HALEAKALA
The most important thing to know about seeing the sunrise at Haleakala is that you’re going to have to plan in advance. You can’t just decide to show up on the day and get into the National Park. It’s a very popular activity and as such, there are restrictions on how many cars can enter the park between 3.00AM and 7.00AM each day. With that being said, you don’t need a parking or entry permit if you plan to visit after 7.00AM.
This post aims to prepare you for every eventuality so that you can enjoy the sunrise over the volcano and live in the moment without having to worry about anything.
Making a reservation for your group to enter the National Park for the sunrise is simple and quick but it will take a little forethought.
Once you’ve worked out exactly which morning you want to be hauling yourself out of bed early and driving over to the volcano, head to the Summit Sunrise Reservations website. Plug in the date you want to visit and the number of tickets you need. Remember that each car requires one ticket, it’s not based on the amount of people in the car.
Pay your $1.50 reservation fee and print out the confirmation email. You’ll have to show it at the National Park entry gate and you don’t want to be relying on your phone at that time of the morning.
Depending on the time of year you’re vising, you’ll want to get your booking done early. We managed to find a spot two weeks in advance, but checking the bookings for May today, it’s booked out at least a month in advance, so be prepared early.
Learn from my mistakes: Don’t do what I did and pick your date, press enter and print your confirmation without triple checking the date you booked for. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to book for the day after I thought I had. I think the booking site skipped to the next day because the Wednesday had sold out. The lovely park attendant in the booth saw the horror on my face when she told me what I’d done and kindly let us in anyway. But I wouldn’t count on that happening every time.
Baby, it’s Cold Outside
Do not underestimate how cold it can get atop Haleakala before and during the sunrise. Mr M and I showed up at about 5.00AM on a mid-April morning to a chilly 42°F (5°C). That doesn’t sound so bad to my Celsius-loving ears, but trust me, the wind chill is killer.
I was wearing the same down jacket that kept me warm in Canada during February, but for some reason, I was still bouncing around to keep warm as we waited for the sun to peek out over the clouds. Mr M, being the All-American, no-cold feeling, strapping gentleman that he is, wore a hoodie. I think he may have been a little chilled as well.
Keep this in mind as you’re packing. Sure, Maui is balmy and you’re going to feel stupid shoving a winter coat into your bag, but you’ll thank me as you’re shivering atop a volcano. Here’s what I would bring:
- A warm winter jacket with a hood
- If you don’t have a hood, bring a beanie
- Gloves or mittens
- A scarf
- Double layers of socks
- Long pants
- A long sleeved shirt
If you’ve arrived on the island already without thinking this part through, don’t fret. The amount of people we saw up on Haleakala wrapped in hotel towels, blankets and beach towels was pretty high. You’re not going to look out of place if you make-do with what you’ve got. The last thing you want to have to do is scurry back to your car and miss the fun just because you couldn’t feel your hands and your eyeballs froze over.
What Else Should You Bring?
There are bits and bobs that you might not think of until you’re way up in the sky, nestled above the clouds, so let me help you out here.
Firstly, and most importantly, Haleakala is a long way from just about everywhere on the island. Maybe not in distance, but certainly in time spent winding your way up and down switchbacks. It takes an hour and 20 minutes to drive there from Kihei, and an hour and 50 minutes from Kaanapali. That’s not taking traffic into account, and trust me, there will be traffic the closer you get to the volcano. I’m telling you this so that you don’t set off with half a tank of gas in the car. Fill up the night before to be safe.
Learn from my mistakes: We thought we could fill up on the way to the volcano that morning. Surprise, surprise, the gas station was closed at 4:00AM on a Wednesday. We made it up the volcano but couldn’t use the heater and we spent most of the drive back down coasting, not touching the accelerator for fear that we’d putter to a stop. It wasn’t pleasant, so don’t do it to yourself.
Remember how I said that it’s cold up on Haleakala? Well I don’t think there’s any tea or coffee amenities up there either. So think ahead and bring your own thermos of tea, coffee or hot chocolate to sip while you wait. This is also a great idea if you’ve got kids and need to keep them busy while you’re waiting for the sun to come up.
Do not forget your camera. Be it a camera phone or one of those proper point-and-shoot things that I hear people still own nowadays. Make sure they’re charged to the hilt as well, you don’t want that flashing “no battery” warning coming up as you’re videoing the volcano-scape. Make some room on your memory card as well. But don’t get too caught up in documenting the whole thing for later. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you experience it through your own eyes and not constantly through the lense of a camera.
There are no lights in the Haleakala car park, so arriving before dawn and making your way to the paths and down steps can be a little tricky in the dark. Bring a flashlight to make sure you don’t stumble or fall along the way. Also, if you’re an avid star gazer, maybe think about bringing a pair of binoculars so that you can enjoy the star-spangled sky before the main event. The lack of light pollution up there means that you’ll get to see a lot of stars if it’s not overcast.
Get Up & Go
I highly recommend planning your route at least the night before and working out how long it’ll take you to get there. Don’t forget to factor in the traffic winding up the volcano and stopping at the gates to pay the entry fee. Look up the sunrise time and then plan to be there at least half an hour before that.
It’s popular and there will be lots of people lined up to watch the sunrise at Haleakala, so if you want a good spot you’ll have to be a little early. Plus, you don’t want to put in all of that planning effort only to arrive a little late because of traffic and miss the best part. It’ll mean setting your alarm a little earlier, but it’ll be worth it!
National Park Fees
That $1.50 reservation fee you paid online does not cover your entry to the National Park. It just reserves your car a spot in the parking lot. About halfway up the volcano, you’ll stop at a little toll booth where the attendant will check your reservation and ask for the park entry fee.
At the time of writing, you’ll spend $25 per vehicle to get into the National Park and $12 for pedestrians and cyclists. Unlike the reservation fee, this one stands whenever you visit the park, and isn’t just for the 3.00AM to 7.00AM time slot.
If you’re paying cash, make sure you have the right change. The National Park prefers that you pay with a credit card to keep the line moving smoothly though. If you spend a few extra dollars, you can get the Tri-Park Pass which is valid for a year and allows you entry to Volcanoes National Park, Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, and Haleakalā National Park. It’s great value if you think you’re going to be too tired or cold to stick around and explore the volcano that morning.
National Park Rules
Remember that even though it’s a volcano and has sparse vegetation, this is still a National Park and the same rules still apply. Stick to the designated pathways so as not to damage native vegetation or erode the soil. Take your rubbish out with you and be mindful of everyone having a good sunrise at Haleakala experience.
Don’t go off climbing rocks or off the path to try to get a better view if you arrive late. You’ll just get yelled at by the staff, who I’m sure don’t enjoy having to repeat the same thing every morning. Arrive early and you’ll get a good vantage point.
What to Expect
As you can imagine, the sun bleeding over the top of the volcano, surrounded by mist and clouds is beautiful. What you might not know is that the colours of the sky before the sun even makes its appearance are gorgeous, and somewhat heightened by the presence of clouds, so don’t be disappointed if you see some cloud cover on the horizon.
We were lucky enough to have two people singing in the sunrise, as is tradition for the native people of Maui. I couldn’t see if they were Park Rangers, but their singing really added to the awe and hush that fell over the crowd as the sun began to rise. The chant is called the Mele Oli, and it goes like this:
E ala e Ka la i kahikina
I ka moana
Ka moana hohonu
Pi’i ka lewa
Ka lewa nu’u
Aia ka la.
E ala e!
For those who’d like the English translation:
The sun in the east
From the ocean
The ocean deep
Climbing (to) the heaven
The heaven highest
In the east
There is the sun
I wished that sunrise would have taken hours, it was such a beautiful experience to share with a crowd of people who seemed to be just as awed as we were by the experience. I’ve never been in such a large crowd who were at once so silent without having something prolonged to listen to. The sunrise at Haleakala made as all fall silent. It was truly beautiful.