SAMPLE TRIP - The Backpackers Guide to Hawai`i

8. Haleakala

Type: Mountain
Length: 2-4 days, 20.0 mi loop
Elev. Gain/Loss: 2,400/4,200 ft
Difficulty: Medium
Location: Maui: Haleakala National Park
Topo Map: Kilohana, Nahiku



Haleakala (house of the sun) is a once active volcano with a vast eroded crater, much like an amphitheater. On this loop trip through the crater, you see towering cliffs, colorful spatter cones and dark lava tubes. Much in evidence are two threatened species, nene, the Hawaiian goose and `ahinahina, the Haleakala silversword.



Call or write the National Park for a brochure, trail map and camping information. The Park Headquarters phone number is (808) 572-9306, and the address is Superintendent, Haleakala National Park, P.O. Box 369, Makawao, HI 96798. There is also a recording of general park information at (808) 572-7749.

You can take this trip any time during the year. Winter (November-April) is predictably rainier and colder than summer (May-October). Be prepared for large temperature swings. At night the thermometer drops to the thirties in winter and forties in summer at Holua. On a sunny day the crater warms up quickly to the seventies or eighties.

Bring a three-season sleeping bag and four layers of clothing. The outer layer should protect you from wind and rain. Include gloves or mittens and a hat or balaclava.

The driving instructions start from Kahului Airport. All major rental car firms have booths there.

Coleman fuel (white gas) is available at 7-Eleven Stores and major supermarkets in Kahului. You can also find fuel at Foodland Super Market in Pukalani on the drive up to the National Park.

Stop at Park Headquarters to pick up a backcountry use permit. Headquarters is open from 7:30 A.M. to 4 P.M. daily. Fill your water bottles there for the first day as the trailhead has a limited supply.

The trip narrative assumes you are staying at the campgrounds each night. There are, however, three cabins in the crater at Kapalaoa, Paliku and Holua. Each has 12 bunks with mattresses, a table and chairs, and a kitchen area with a sink and wood cookstove. Nearby outside are a water tank and a pit toilet. The cabins are very comfortable and very popular. If you're interested, write to the above address 90 days in advance of your trip. State your first choice of dates and cabins and then include some alternates. The Park Service conducts a monthly lottery to select the winners. Good luck!


Trailhead Directions

Distance (Kahului Airport to Sliding Sands trailhead) - 37 mi
Driving Time - 1 1/4 hr

Exit Kahului Airport on Keolani Pl. (Rte 380).
At the first traffic light turn left on Hana Hwy (Rte 36). (To the right Rte 36 leads into Kahului town.)
At the next major intersection turn right on Haleakala Hwy (Rte 37).
Ascend gradually through sugar cane fields.
Pass turnoffs to Pukalani on the right and Makawao on the left.
The highway narrows to two lanes.
Turn left on Rte 377 (still Haleakala Hwy).
Climb steadily through lush pasture land and stands of fragrant eucalyptus trees.
Pass Kula Lodge on the right.
Turn left on Haleakala Crater Rd.(Rte 378).
Ascend steeply on a series of short switchbacks through pasture land belonging to Haleakala Ranch.
Enter Haleakala National Park and pay the fee at the entrance station.
Pass a road leading to Hosmer Grove campground on the left.
Stop at Park Headquarters on the right (elev. 7,030 ft). There, get a backcountry permit for the trip and ask about current trail conditions. Remember to fill your water bottles.
On the left pass the parking area for Halemau`u trailhead (elev. 7,990 ft) (map point T). The trip ends there.
Pass Leleiwi and Kalahaku overlooks, both on the left.
Turn left into the parking area for Haleakala Visitor Center. Park your car in the near right corner of the lot close to a horse loading ramp (elev. 9,780 ft) (map point A). If you have two cars, drop off people and packs and shuttle one car back to Halemau`u trailhead.


DAY ONE - Visitor Center to Paliku

Length: 9.8 mi
Elev. Loss: 3,400 ft

Start early today so you have time to enjoy the scenery. The route is long, but the trail is well graded and all downhill. The initial high altitude should not cause any major problems because of the quick descent to a much lower elevation.

From Haleakala Visitor Center is the first panoramic view of the crater. To the northeast, below Leleiwi Pali, is Holua Cabin. Beyond is Ko`olau Gap, descending to the north coast of Maui. To the east is today's route through the crater. At its far end lies Paliku below the green crater wall. To the right of Paliku and out of sight is Kaupo Gap, descending to the south coast of the island.

Haleakala is a dormant volcano, but its "crater" is not really a volcanic one. The vast double amphitheater below you is more the result of wind and water erosion than volcanic activity. From opposite sides of the island two streams eroded headward and met to form a "crater". Lava from vents near the summit partially filled both deep valleys to create the wide Ko`olau and Kaupo Gaps. More recent volcanic activity produced the colorful spatter cones dotting the crater floor. Haleakala erupted for perhaps the last time in 1790. In that eruption two small flows from the southwest rift zone outside the crater reached the ocean.

Once in the crater the first plant you see is `ahinahina, the Haleakala silversword. It has narrow silver-green leaves and a tall flower stalk. The leaves are covered with tiny hairs to conserve moisture and protect the plant from the intense sun. Other adaptations include a deep tap root to anchor the plant in high winds and a wide network of surface roots to collect water. The silversword usually grows for 15 to 20 years before flowering. The flower stalks usually appear in summer or early fall and have purple blossoms. After the seeds develop, the entire plant dies. Silverswords are endemic to Hawai`i, meaning they are found nowhere else. Don't approach mature plants too closely, and don't step on the baby ones!

At Kapalaoa Cabin you may see your first nene, the Hawaiian goose. Some like to hang around the cabins so look for them at Paliku and Holua, too. The nene has a black face and head and a gray-brown body. It lives on dry, rugged lava flows at high elevation and so has lost much of the webbing on its feet. Like its Canadian counterpart, the nene is a strong flyer and often honks in mid-flight. The nene is a threatened species and should be treated with respect and awe.

Between Kapalaoa and Paliku Cabins the vegetation gradually reappears. It's mostly native dry-land shrubs, including pukiawe, `a`ali`i, pilo and `ohelo. Pukiawe has narrow rigid leaves and small white, pink or red berries. `A`ali`i has shiny leaves and red seed capsules. Pilo is low lying with orange berries. `Ohelo has rounded leaves and juicy yellow-red berries, about the size of blueberries. Both nene and hikers love `ohelo berries. Try them; they are especially delicious ice cold in the morning.

The campground at Paliku is a grassy field on the left just before the cabin. The water supply is from a faucet on the trail to the cabin. Boil, filter or chemically treat the water. The pit toilet is behind the cabin.

Paliku is a very special place. The pasture and towering pali are so lush and green after the colorful, but desolate, walk across the crater. Evenings at Paliku are magical. Watch the lingering color of the sunset on the cliffs and clouds above Kaupo Gap. Listen for the honk of a pair of nene making their last flight of the evening. Look for the moon rising through a notch in the crater wall. Can life get any better than this?

In Hawaiian, Haleakala means house of the sun. According to legend, the sun traveled so quickly across the sky that the farmers and fisherman did not have enough time to plant crops and catch fish before night fell. The demigod, Maui, went to Haleakala where the sun's rays first struck the island. There Maui snared the sun with 16 great ropes. In return for his freedom the sun promised to travel more slowly across the sky. Maui let the sun go but left some ropes tied to the sun to remind him of his promise. The people now had more time to catch fish and grow their crops. At sunset you can still see the white ropes trailing through the sky.


Route Description

The Sliding Sands Trail starts by a wooden bulletin board next to the horse loading ramp.
Briefly parallel the paved road leading to Pu`u `Ula`ula (Red Hill), the summit of Haleakala at 10,023 ft.
Bear left away from the road around Pakao`ao (White Hill).
Reach the rim of the crater and the first of many awesome views.
Descend gradually on five long, lazy switchbacks. The trail crosses an area of grey-brown and then red-brown cinders known as keonehe`ehe`e (sliding sands).
Pass a group of silverswords on the right. The only other vegetation in the vicinity is scattered pukiawe and kupaoa.
Reach a signed junction (map point B). Turn right, between two boulders and a lone `ohelo. The side trail straight ahead leads down to a view into Kalu`uoka`o`o (the plunge of the digging stick) cone.
Continue the descent on three switchbacks. The trail briefly crosses rough `a`a lava. Watch your footing on the loose rock.
Pass a patch of silverswords.
Cross a relatively flat area covered with red cinder. Silverswords line the trail. Kama`oli`i (small native cotton bush) and Pu`u o Maui (hill of Maui) cones are on the left at a distance.
Pass Pu`u o Pele (hill of Pele), a red cinder cone, close by on the left.
Descend to the crater floor on two switchbacks (map point C).
Reach a signed junction by a hitching post and a mamane tree (map point D). Continue straight on the Sliding Sands Trail. (The side trail to the left leads across the crater to Halemau'u Trail and Holua Cabin and campground.)
The main trail straightens out and is wide and sandy in spots.
Pass more silverswords on the left. Well behind them is Kamoa o Pele (the chicken of Pele), a large red cinder cone.
Cross a field of kilau (bracken) ferns and native bunch grass.
Reach an obscure junction (map point E). Again, continue straight toward Kapalaoa Cabin. (The side trail to the left leads across the crater to Halemau`u Trail and Holua Cabin and campground.)
Reach another signed junction. Continue straight on the main trail. (The side trail to the left leads across the crater to Halemau'u Trail and Holua Cabin and campground.)
Almost immediately, reach Kapalaoa (the sperm whale) Cabin (map point F). Water is available from a tank in back. Boil, filter or chemically treat the water. No tent camping is allowed.
After leaving the cabin, the vegetation gradually reappears. You can see pukiawe, `ohelo, `a`ali`i, and pilo.
Wind through an `a`a lava flow on a rough trail. It briefly parallels an eroded gully on the right.
Work left around Pu`u Maile (maile hill), a vegetated cone.
Descend steadily through broken up `a`a lava (map point G). Watch for loose rock on the trail. Look for a lone `iliahi (sandalwood) on the right.
Cross a mostly barren `a`a flow.
Go left around a vegetated cone, known as `O`ilipu`u (hill appearing).
Reach a signed junction with the Halemau`u (grass house) Trail (map point H). Turn right on it toward Paliku (vertical cliff). (To the left is the route tomorrow to Holua campground.)
Continue around the base of the cone.
Descend gradually on old pahoehoe lava through pukiawe and `ohelo.
Reach a signed junction (map point I). Keep left to Paliku. (The trail to the right leads down Kaupo [landing at night] Gap to the town of Kaupo along the south coast.)
Reach Paliku campground and cabin (elev. 6,380 ft) (map point J).


(DAY TWO and DAY THREE omitted)



There are several variations of this trip. You can, of course, do the loop in reverse, stopping at Holua first and then Paliku. However, that makes for a long, hard third day up the Sliding Sands Trail. It is well named; for every two feet up you slide back one.

Groups with limited time can make a two-day trip. Descend to Paliku on the first day and climb out of the crater past Holua on the second. It's a pity, though, to miss camping at Holua, which is so very different from Paliku.

Parties with extra time can spend a layover day at Paliku or Holua. Both areas have some superb side trips. From Paliku you can take the Lau`ulu Trail to the crater rim and a view of the back of remote Kipahulu Valley. The trail starts from the water faucet, skirts the campground and begins climbing the ridge behind the cabin. Another shorter route to the rim is the steep Notch Trail. It starts in the pasture beyond the ranger cabin. From Holua you can take the trail across Ko`olau Gap to the Waikau Cabin site. The start of that trail is described in the Day Three narrative.

All of the side trips just mentioned use unmaintained trails, which are sometimes rough, narrow and obscure. The Park Service neither encourages nor discourages their use. Try them only if you are an experienced hiker with good route finding skills.

The last and perhaps best option is to continue from Paliku down Kaupo Gap to Kaupo town on the south coast of the island. The hike is a foot-pounding, knee-jarring descent of about 6,000 feet in 6.8 miles. The trail is maintained but is rough and rocky in spots. The main problem with this option is the complicated 100-mile shuttle necessary to leave a car at Kaupo. If possible, arrange to have someone pick you up at the trailhead. Otherwise, it's a long hitchhike back to the National Park.


Copyright: University of Hawai`i Press

Last Update: 09/30/99