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Exotic Vacations: Hiking Haleakala

Written by Terri Shaver.

There are exotic backpacking trips, and then, there are EXOTIC backpacking trips! There are places covering the world that may vie for the most exotic, but we think we’ve found one of the top 5, AND it’s in the United States! Imagine hiking down a trail that would rival the surface of the moon, and then no more than 10 miles down the trail, find yourself in a tropical rain forest? Covering about 19 square miles and able to contain the island of Manhattan, the volcanic crater provides exactly what the most serious hiker would like to strap on as a challenge to both bodies and minds.

Visiting Maui for several winters now, we had heard that hiking and camping inside the crater were possible, but had never seriously investigated the idea. This year was going to be different. We’d read a hiking book and article from a Maui magazine, got inspired, and made the decision to make it happen. We’ve hiked previously in places like Jasper, Banff , Lake Louise, and Mt. Robson in Canada , to the Porkies and Pictured Rocks in Michigan , and south to the Smoky Mountains in Virginia , but haven’t had an experience approaching anything like this destination! When one looks into the volcano crater at the visitor’s center at Haleakala National Park, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, you’d never imagine the stark beauty to behold within. In fact, the startling view you see from the visitor center is actually only about 1/3 of the entire “crater.”

Logistics appeared to be the biggest hurdle of the whole trip- making the reservations, shipping gear, arranging transportation and praying for the perfect weather. But after talking extensively with the Park Ranger at Haleakala National Park and visiting with a representative of “The Friends of Haleakala”, we learned of an alternative route, which would eliminate a huge transportation hurdle for us, and make the trip very doable. Preparation for this varying climate can prove challenging. The temperatures deep in the crater can dip below freezing at night and top out in the mid 60 degrees during the day. Rain is inevitable and wind is typical. The terrain varies from ground lava sand to unstable, sharp lava rocks and boulders. The elevation changes from 10,023 ft., down to 6,300 ft. and then back up again, making what I would describe as a rather physical hike. But you will see sights that you’ve never seen before and be enthralled with the landscape at each and every turn.

In years past, we’ve hiked 2 ½ miles down the cinder and ash covered switchbacks on the “Sliding Sands Trail” to picnic on top of a cinder cone named Ka Lu’ u o ka ‘O’O- a spectacular spot for an afternoon picnic “on top of the world.” The colors that assault the eyes from this spot make it worth the breathlessness going into, and most certainly, on the arduous hike back up and out. But this year, when we went down into the crater, and veered off on paths unknown at the junction in that trail, we were filled with anticipation at what was ahead of us for the next three days.

Stopping regularly to admire the stark, “moonlike” landscape, we were treated to many “Haleakala Sliversword” (‘ahinahina) plants at about the 8,000 to 10,000 ft elevation. These protected plants are only found at this elevation, and only inside this volcano, endemic to the island. They are silvery, velvet spiked plants that may take up to 20 years to mature, and then once they bloom between May and October, the entire plant dies quickly, sending its seeds to the ground to multiply. The contrast of the crater quickly becomes evident as you gaze southwest to the cloud enshrouded Kaupo Gap and to the lush, forested Koolau Gap to the north, all as you appear to be standing on the moon itself!

Passing several “cowboys” on horseback, we were shocked to see that there was anyone else inside here with us… we hadn’t seen anyone or heard a sound, but the harsh silence and the chirping of some exotic bird off in the distance. We then learned that there are tours on horseback that go to the first cabin, Kapalaoa, and back out. We may check this out next time! Kapalaoa was a welcome sight and a memorable one. We were cheerfully greeted by several pair of Nene’s (Branta sandvicensis) nesting in the greenery surrounding this cabin. Nene’s are the Hawaiian state bird and were almost extinct, but now are beginning to flourish and reproduce thanks to a vigorous, protection program by the Park Service. Kapalaoa cabin sits at the side of the crater, against a 1000 ft. wall of greenish, brown scrub– looking much like we were in North Dakota or New Mexico and so vastly different than the “moonscape” we’ve been hiking on for the last 5.8 miles. Shedding our hiking boots and socks, sharing a snack of granola bars and juice, we studied our map, and estimated our arrival time at our final destination for the day… Paliku cabin. The jewel of the trip, our reason for being here!

We were “misted” frequently as we continued our descent into Kaupo Gap, intermittently being enveloped in fast moving clouds, we ventured onward towards the prize. The last “leg” of our trip to Paliku cabin involved traversing 3.5 miles across a massive, ‘aa’ lava field, pock-marked with native plants and scrub brush, that somehow have taken hold in the sharp, black rock. This lava field is one of the more recent eruptions on Maui , 500-1000 years ago. A small break in the rolling clouds treated us to a rare view of the peaks of Hawaii , (the “ Big Island ”), towards the southwest, through Kaupo Gap. The typical “fog” of clouds continued to shield us from much of a view, until just before we got to Paliku cabin at the back “wall” of the Haleakala crater, when we truly thought we’d taken a wrong turn into Jurassic Park . Nestled at the base of a cliff over 1000 ft. high, surrounded by lush, tropical trees and plants, sat our home for the night. Shock and awe filled us as we literally ran to the cabin, stunned at the sight before us. We’d come from the “moon” and were now in the jungle, fully expecting monkeys to come swinging by any moment to greet us! We’d made it! 9.8 miles across some of the most stark, dissimilar, terrain we’d ever experienced in one day.

The cabins, all three pretty identical, are very well appointed by most backpacking standards. Furniture is spartan, with basic bunk style beds, and plastic mattresses, so sleeping bags are a necessity, but all kitchen dishes and tools are provided. A massive wooden table fills the main room, with bench style seating. As temps inside the volcano can dip into the freezing level, pressed hardwood logs are filling the storeroom for use in the old-fashioned wood stove. And cooking is comfortably managed on a small propane stove. Water is also provided, compliments of Mother Nature, to the tune of 300 inches a year at the cabin, but must be filtered from the cistern. Not ones for dehydrated backpacking food, we sated our hunger with sautéed, marinated, beef tenderloin and a side of broccoli, cheese and rice for dinner. A feast by any standards!

Sunrise at the volcano is a highlight for many of the 2.3 million visitors to Maui each year, and was no different for us. A brilliant sun peeked through our cabin windows from the edge of the crater, greeting us on Day Two. After descending to 6,400 ft. to Paliku cabin, the 6.5 miles back up and over the crater to Holua cabin was going to be rigorous to say the least. Back through the cloud cover and the lava field then brought us to the trailhead leading us along the north “wall” of the crater and around several mammoth cinder cones, the most gorgeous of which is Puu ‘O Pele (“Pele’s Paintpot”). This cinder cone, standing several hundred feet tall, is draped in vibrant, oranges, browns, rusts and creams, looking very much like the paint running down the sides. The lush vegetation of the rainforest is gone, but now replaced with a riot of color, painted on the hilly terrain of the crater with wild abandon.

Holua cabin offers “entertainment” nearby with an ancient Hawaiian cave 25 ft. up the wall behind the cabin, and about 100 yards away, there is an underground lava tube you can descend into and hike through the 150 ft. with the aid of a flashlight. The flora here is much the same as Kapalaoa cabin, sparse, dry grasses and scrub trees, mixed in with the crushed black lava. Nights inside the crater are cold, but sometimes crystal clear, with a natural light show from above. Braving the cold at 3a.m., we ventured outside to see the sky and were treated to an incredible show of stars and planets. The sky chart we were given at the Ranger Station came in handy helping us identify the constellations we were seeing. So worth the chill in our bones!

Day Three would take us straight up and out of the crater and to our car, which was strategically left at a friendly parking area, some 3.5 miles down the mountain from the summit. Leaving Holua cabin was a bittersweet moment… sadness at leaving this “fantasy” hike behind and the not looking forward to the very strenuous climb out of this “other world.” The climb is only 4 miles out, but almost a continuous uphill over hundreds of rocky, sometimes treacherous switchbacks. But the staggering views make it all worthwhile. With each twist and turn of the trail up the mountainside, hikers are treated to indescribable views of the Koolau Gap and on a clear day, down to the Pacific Ocean shoreline.

Steadily attacking the trail upwards, resting only to breathe occasionally and have a drink, we made it out in only 2 hours and 40 minutes! The trail actually plateaus off at the top and continues another mile or so, but the parking lot at the end is a welcome sight! Emotion always overtakes me when we finish a particularly difficult hike, whether adrenaline or emotion, I wept at the trailhead. What an accomplishment, what a victory, an experience of a lifetime. Go ahead, strap on the challenge!

Shipping backpacking equipment: $63
Camping permits: $75/night
Entrance fee to park: $10
Food and miscellaneous: $65
Sleeping in a sleeping volcano: Priceless