Backpacking Haleakala Crater
Three-day backpacking loop in Maui’s Haleakala National Park
December 31, 2017-January 2, 2018
Every day before sunrise on Maui, a motorcade of rental cars creep up to the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakalā and throngs of bleary-eyed tourists spill out to shiver through the sunrise. It really is a sight, but when I first visited Maui on a family vacation in 2003 I was more struck by the view the other direction: off the summit and into the vast volcanic Mars-scape of Haleakalā crater, studded with colorful cinder cones and striped with black lava. We had beaches to lie on and luaus to attend so off we went down the mountain, but the memory of hiking trails winding down into the surreal crater stuck.
It took fifteen years to get back to the summit of Haleakalā–this time with a pair of backpacking boots, tents, and three days worth of food, fuel, and spiked cider to ring in the new year. Between December 31 and January 2, my hiking partner and I completed a big wedge-shaped one-way route through the park, covering most of the crater floor. We started at Haleakalā Visitor Center and walked the Sliding Sands Trail to the Palikū Cabin campground the first day, tromped the Halemau’u Trail to Hōlua the second day, and on our last day climbed the (in)famous switchbacks out to the Halemau’u Trailhead.
Day 1: Sliding Sands Trail to Paliku Cabin
Haleakalā is a national park, and that means permits. Only 25 campers are allowed in the crater per day, and they have to show up in person to grab free first-come-first-served permits. I’d called the National Park visitor center twice to asked if permits ever “sold out” early, and was told both times that we’d have no problems. But when we showed up around 9am, the ranger told us that yes, they did max out and in fact we’d gotten some of the last available permits for the day. We watched the short mandatory safety video on an iPad, answered a few easy questions (“Do you plan on collecting rocks or plants in the national park?”), and filled our water bottles.
We drove a short way up to our finishing point at the Halemau’u Trailhead, and finished packing our bags.
It’s so common for hikers to park at Halemau’u and then hitchhike the rest of the way to the Sliding Sands (Keonehe’ehe’e) Trailhead that the park built a designated pullout for hitchhikers. We watched for five or ten minutes as vacationers zipped past us (“Do we need to hold a sign that we’re at the beginning of our trip? I swear we don’t smell yet..”) until a friendly Navy contractor on vacation from Oahu pulled over and waved us in.
We jumped out of the car at the Sliding Sands Trailhead, just below the white crown of observatory domes near the summit of Haleakalā.
And we were off! The tourist-thronged trail rounded a volcanic nubbin called Pä Ka’oao and then the views blasted wide open. Because this route started us at the highest elevation we’d ever reach, we got the best “summit views” within the first five or ten minutes of the whole trip.
The Sliding Sands Trail steadily dropped us from the summit area down to the floor of the crater. Despite its name the trail surface was more of a fine, hard-packed gritty gravel, and the footing was excellent.
Every few zig zags in the trail introduced us to a different type of volcanic landscape.
One of the best things about this trip was experiencing all of the different types of lava: how the fields looked from above, how they crunched underfoot, all of the different colors, textures, and sounds. After the trip I tracked down a geological map online, combined that map with its key and overlaid all of the trails to create a geologic trail map of the park. I didn’t include much trail information (so bring a proper trail map too) but this should be enough that you can see what type of rock you’re in. Feel free to download and use the map below however you’d like.
There isn’t much vegetation in the higher elevations of the crater, but silverswords are a vivid exception. These fantastical relatives of the sunflower only live in Haleakalā crater. They can live for decades, and only flower once (generally between July and October) before dying.
As we passed Pu’u o Pele cinder cone the trail switchbacked down to a long, flat bench partially covered in sediments washed down from the headwall.
The trail between Pu’u o Pele and Kapalaoa Cabin was as good as a trail can possibly be. Flat, firm, impossible to lose and spectacularly scenic. Truly a walk in the park.
In the mid-afternoon we rounded a corner and came to Kapalaoa Cabin, nestled against the crater headwall south-southeast of Pu’u Maile cinder cone. There are three historic cabins in the Haleakalā summit area: Kapalaoa, Palikū, and Hōlua. The cabins cost $75 a night and can be reserved 180 days in advance. We were told that the cabins always book out early, so last-minuters like ourselves are stuck with wilderness camping and fatter wallets.
At the Kapalaoa Cabin we had our first run-in with Hawaii’s official state bird, the nene. Nene are a mid-sized species of goose unique to the Hawaiian Islands. Their population was once down to only about thirty, but they have since rebounded and are so ubiquitous in some places that I started to see them as a sort of Hawaiian pigeon. Nene didn’t seem to have much fear of people, and those we met around buildings and campsites would often waddle right up to us, probably hoping for food.
Past the Kapalaoa Cabin the trail narrowed to single-file-width and struck out across an expanse of ragged lava between Pu’u Maile and ‘Ō’ili’p’u cinder cones.
As we rounded the north face of ‘Ō’ili’p’u cinder cone we abruptly found ourselves in thick Hawaiian vegetation.
And then, at last, Palikū. Palikū is a little oasis at the edge of the lava fields, nestled into the base of tall, lush cliffs. Palikū’s amenities include a cabin, five or six dispersed tent sites, water faucet, horse pen, and an unmanned ranger station. We set up our tent in a cozy spot next to some dense foliage and went exploring.
As soon as the sun set the temperature dropped so fast we could nearly feel it on our skin, finally bottoming out at about 35 degrees. We put on our down coats, pulled our sleeping bags outside and stargazed till the the moon crested over the peaks and washed the valley in silvery light. Some time a while before midnight, the occupants of the cabin lit sparklers and banged out a few well-intentioned covers of 90’s hits on a travel guitar. If anyone stayed up later than that I don’t know, as we entered the new year snug and sound asleep in 20-degree sleeping bags.
Day 2: Palkiu to Holua
The first sun of 2018 flipped the temperature back into the mid-80’s and turned our tent into a nylon oven.
After breakfast we wandered over to the Palikū Cabin. All of the cabins looked more or less identical and all of them were in scenic locations, but I think this one was my favorite. It was almost eye-rollingly picturesque, tucked into a lush grove at the foot of tall cliffs, its bright green lawn minded by an attentive crew of nene.
All of the cabins had a running water tap outside, but signs warned us to boil or filter the water before drinking. As we filled our bottles a nene ran up to the faucet and began drinking. Is it unethical to water the nene? We weren’t feeding them. And certainly it would be illegal to physically shoo it away (if that’s even possible–they’re pretty persistent). In the end, we decided that sharing a drink with the wildlife was, at most, a minor and unavoidable indiscretion.
We doubled-up on sunscreen, shouldered our (now slightly lighter) backpacks and headed out into another warm, sunny day.
For the first 1.1 miles, we backtracked on the trail between Palikū and ‘Ō’ili’p’u cinder cone. From this part of the trail we could see straight down the Kaupō Gap, all the way to the Big Island.
A bit past Honokahua, the trail reached a fork and we took the northern trail toward Honokahua. Strangely, this section of trail was missing from the Gaia GPS maps on my phone. It was included in the park’s official trail map–but that map was missing the signed “Unmaintained Trail” heading north from Pu’u Naue, and also the busy trail around Ka Lu’u o ka ‘Ō’ō below the Visitor’s Center. It was surprising to find so much inconsistency in trail maps in such a well-established area, and I was glad we’d brought multiple maps.
The trail rounded Honokahua and continued following the base of the tall cliffs to the north.
Off-trail hiking isn’t allowed in Halekala National Park, and the NPS goes to great lengths to reinforce this message for visitors. Aside from any scientific or environmental justification, it was clear that this landscape scars easily. Old trails were clearly visible, especially around the visitor center at the rim. We were grateful that the volcanic dunes weren’t covered in footprints, and did our best to respect the rule ourselves. The photo below is one of the only “side views” we took the whole trip–it was taken from another trail, a few dozen feet from the intersection.
Most of the cinder cones in Haleakala National Park sit on a line running east to west, between the Sliding Sands trailead to Palikü. The cluster of big cinder cones in the middle of the valley, from Ka Moa o Pele to Pu’u Nole were the most impressive in the valley. The well-developed network of trails wrapped around them allowed us to really take in all of the colorful volcanic topography. If time allowed, it would be worth it to just loop and zig-zag through this entire area so you can see everything, even if that means hiking some short sections twice.
From Kawilinau we decided to go the “long way” around the southern side of Halāli’i so we could look back up the Sliding Sands trail that we’d traveled yesterday.
After rounding Halāli’i we were going to continue north, but a splash of color caught my eye and we headed back up around the north side of Halāli’i. The colors here were the most memorable of the whole trip. While researching Haleakala Crater online, I’d seen many photos processed so heavily that the landscape looked like it was made of melted Skittles. The real colors of the landscape–the pastel grays and purples, rusty oranges and roses were much prettier than the gaudy photos would suggest.
By now the afternoon sun was diving toward the crater rim, and we had to leave the colorful cinder cones behind or risk stumbling into camp at night.
The section of the Halemau’u Trail northwest of Halāli’i was one of my favorites. The sun had lost some of its strength and the trail was flat, fast, and expansive. At times it felt like we were strolling through a well-curated sculpture garden.
We found the Hōlua campground up a spindly path above the Hōlua cabin (and unfortunately, a short trek from the cabin’s water faucet). We’d heard that many people had camped here for the New Year, but tonight there were only two or three other groups and everyone seemed ready for a quiet, early night.
Looking out on the sea of clouds rolling below Ko’olau Gap, it was tempting to wonder what the people down at the beachside condos and resorts might think about backpackers up on the mountain. That we were marooned up here in the clouds? Shivering away through the alpine night? More than likely, they didn’t think about us at all. And to be honest, after just two days up here in the crater I almost had to remind myself that there were tens of thousands of people down there, too. The summit area of Haleakalā might as well be its own island.
Day 3: Holua to Home
Just before reaching the Hōlua campground the previous night, the trail had passed the entrance to a wide lava tube. In the morning we grabbed our headlamps and cell phones and went to check it out.
I’m not sure whether the Park Service frowns on people entering this lava tube, but there was a well-defined trail to the edge and then down into it, and no signs suggesting that it was off-limits. So down we went.
It’s hard to appreciate how scratchy and rough lava is until you’re sliding on your belly through a lava tube squeeze. Needless to say, after the first few sections we felt we’d experienced enough of this and headed back to daylight with a few good scratches and significantly more torn-up clothes. We’d been told a family had traversed the whole lava tube yesterday and I’m sure it’s do-able, but it’d be a lot more pleasant with proper caving gear (burly clothes, gloves, caving helmet, etc.)
Back at the Hōlua Cabin, we packed up our headlamps and filled our water bottles. Access to water was one of the biggest concerns on this trip since there is virtually no surface water anywhere in the park. In fact, the only running water we saw during the whole trip was a small stream next to the Paliku Cabin. Even the wells at the cabins can occasionally run dry. The NPS recommends that people carry 3-4 liters of water per day. Luckily the temperatures rarely get too hot even on a sunny day due to the high elevation, and about two liters per day did it for me (of course, you’d want to have extra for others or in case of an emergency).
The Halemau’u Trail north of the Hōlua Cabin was pleasant, dropping down a lava field and then crossing a gentle field full of nene trails. But it was hard to totally relax here: straight ahead of us were the infamous switchbacks up the crater wall to the Halemau’u Trailhead.
At the base of the cliffs we passed a wildlife control gate, chugged some water, and started out on the 1,100 foot climb to the crater rim.
We’d expected a grueling high-altitude slog, but to our surprise the climb was almost a breeze. Though the summit of Haleakala tops out over 10,000 feet, we were only starting out at 6,600. And because of warmer temperatures near the equator, the troposphere (the part of the atmosphere that we can live and breathe in) is far thicker here than it is at the poles–hiking at 7,000 feet on Maui isn’t like hiking at 7,000 feet in Alaska. After several days in the crater we’d probably acclimated to the elevation, our hiking legs were back, and truth be told, we were subconsciously craving (ok fine, excitedly talking about) shave ice and showers.
The Halemau’u Trail switchbacks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930’s. The way the trail was carved into the hillside in some places and built up with stonework in others, both enthusiastically exploring and also aggressively modifying the landscape, is typical of depression-era trails and reminded me of similar paths in Yosemite. The fact that this hand-built trail is still in such good shape eight decades later is a testament to the dedication of the builders (and, no doubt, the continued attentiveness of the NPS). Though trail-building philosophies have changed, it’s hard not to appreciate the work that went into the Halemau’u switchbacks. They don’t make trails like this anymore.
As we climbed higher the vegetation began to return. Just before the final switchbacks we crossed a breezy catwalk, with expansive views over the cinder cone-dotted crater to the south and endless rolling clouds to the north.
The final leg of the trail simply wrapped around the hillside to the parking lot. It’s always fun to see the people just starting their trip at the trailhead. They see you with your heavy pack and dirty clothes, camera full of photos and your trip successfully done; you see their fresh faces and excited bounding too-fast pace. It’s hard to know who to be jealous of.
We found our rental car waiting for us in the parking lot, seats hot like they’d been under a broiler and the food we’d left in the back seat all but cooked. After peeling off backpacks and sharing the last of our water, we headed down the mountain, back to the “other” Maui.