Updated 2022! Here's how to see the sunrise at Haleakala crater without a tour group and make reservations with ease.
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"It is the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.'' This was Mark Twain's impression on the Haleakala summit sunrise and millions of travelers since have shared his sense of awe. Sunrise here is unlike anything else on earth. It all starts with some very unique land; Mount Haleakala is a dormant volcano which makes up 75% of the landmass on the island of Maui, Hawaii. Haleakala National Park encompasses a large portion of that volcano and, at Haleakala summit, you can look inside the slopes of the crater or even hike portions of them.
It's a unique and beautiful place at any time of day but a Haleakala sunrise visit is truly sublime. I have no doubt Twain would be thrilled to learn that modern travelers like Ryan and I loved the experience just as much as he did - but logistics have changed a bit over the years. Here are our best tips to see Haleakala sunrise without a tour group.
Know before you go: Haleakala National Park sunrise viewing reservations.
The most important thing about visiting the Haleakala summit at sunrise is to secure a reservation for your vehicle in advance. It is impossible to proceed without one. The reservation system prevents over-crowding and environmental damage, and ensures that everyone can enjoy the experience.
When making your Haleakala sunrise reservation, take the following factors into consideration:
Coffee cravings at Haleakala crater: How to warm up and wake up.
At the risk of sounding like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, I would be remiss if I didn't offer everyone a hot beverage... or at least some important information about hot beverages! Visiting Haleakala at sunrise means early hours, long drives, jet lag, and freezing cold temperatures... not to mention a fair bit of just standing around as you wait for Mother Nature to start the show. You're going to want something hot to drink! Note that the visitor's center only sells bottled water. There is no other food or drink for sale in the park.
I recommend staring with a small hot drink at home before you hit the road (this is a civilized trip after all...) and bringing a full travel mug with you in the car. We've been travelling with double-wall steel thermos travel mugs since 2010. We love them because they're super durable and environmentally friendly - and also because they keep things piping hot for HOURS. We use Starbucks insulated travel mugs but any thermos style container will work. Sipping near-scalding hot chocolate was a fantastic antidote to the bracing cold air of the mountain top.
We did notice a couple of roadside coffee kiosks as we drove towards the National Park gates. They sell the basics, such as coffee, tea, juice, muffins, and fruit. I personally wouldn't rely on them as your sole source of caffeine and warmth. But it still might be fun to stop for a quick chat with a local resident and enjoy some tasty treats. (Bring lots of small bills - these kinds of road side stands are common in Maui).
PS: If you're really serious about coffee - and why wouldn't you be? - you'll want to bring home some Hawaiian coffee beans. This list covers all of favourites, including a special coffee farm just outside Lahaina that we visited nearly every day.
The Haleakala Summit: Average temperatures, what to wear, and how to stay warm.
Sunrise temperatures at the summit of Haleakala hover around freezing (and sometimes even dip below the freezing point) and the wind is strong. It's hard to describe just how this particular kind of cold feels. Coming from the Canadian winter, we felt rather wimpy that we were so taken aback by Haleakala's own particular brand of chill. (See for yourself! Here's some info from the park on what temperatures you can expect).
It's imperative to dress warmly and in layers. Trust me, you will not regret adding on an extra shirt or pair of pants, no matter how silly you might feel all bundled up. I wore my travel scarf, a t-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, my windbreaker jacket, shorts, jeans, socks, and sneakers - and I was still chilly. Ryan fared a bit better because he has a squish-able winter coat he brought along - but his ball cap was threatened several times by the wind! I saw several people, in desperation, grab their beach towels and use them as a wrap - not a bad idea!
Our excessive layers came in handy later in the morning, as we slowly removed bits of clothing as we made our way towards sea level. I wore jeans and a shirt as we sat in the shade at breakfast and shorts when we finally got to the beach.
Driving to Haleakala Summit: Keep your nerve, keep alert.
You'll be doubly glad you followed my coffee recommendations once you start planning out your Haleakala driving route. Get ready for an early - and I mean EARLY - start. Sunrise times range from 5:30-6:55 am (Google it before you go!) and it can take several hours to get to the summit from various points in Maui. The main culprit is the slow, narrow, switchback-full mountain road that takes you up to the summit. (But that's nothing compared to driving to Hana and then further beyond, as we soon learned) You'll want to take your time! The park staff also recommend you arrive 30 minutes early to stake out a good spot.
It's for this reason that I hugely encourage all North American visitors to visit Haleakala on the first day of your Hawaiian visit. Thanks to the power of jet lag, getting up at 3:00 am will be far less painful on day one than, say, on day five of your visit. With a little luck, you went to bed early the previous night, having tired yourself out on the long flight to the Hawaii. Easy-peasy, right?
Do you need a jeep to drive up to the Haleakala summit? No - but you do need a vehicle that's in good shape, with no-nonsense brakes. Those turns are nothing to joke about. (The photo above was taken after the sunrise - imagine driving the same road when it's pitch black!) Come day break, the highly endangered state bird, the nene, is its own worst enemy as it struts along the side of the road and even on the road itself. They're beautiful but not particularly smart when it comes to self-preservation. Complicating the drive are the cyclists who are whizzing down hill. More on them later!
The Mount Haleakala sunrise experience (yep, it's magical!)
There are several parking lots for viewing the sunrise at the Haleakala summit and my personal favourite is at the official Visitors Center. There's a method to my madness! If you have arrived early - good job, by the way! - you can take a look around the Visitor's Center to learn more about the park. You can also wander in their small gift shop. We picked up some jaunty nene souveniers and the modest cost was well worth it to linger in the warm shop!
We also had plenty of time to get into position to watch the sunrise itself. We wedged ourselves between the exterior walls of the Visitors Center and the fence. It was a great spot! We had a partial wind break and, while we had voluntarily squished ourselves in, we weren't squished by other people. Sometimes that makes all the difference!
This might sound a bit silly, but as the moment for sunrise approached, I kept asking "What that it? Wait, was THAT it?" I think I was expecting some magical moment where the landscape goes from black to brilliantly bright in a second! It doesn't happen quite like that! You can expect things to grow slowly and steadily ever brighter. The colors of the sky, clouds, and slopes of the crater are evolving and changing, sometimes subtly. It's an ever building process and suddenly all the changes stop and you're left with the beautiful breaking day. Mark Twain wasn't exaggerating about his incredible Haleakala sunrise experience!
When you tour Haleakala, remember that it's a spiritual site.
The Haleakala summit isn't just a beloved place for artists, ecologists, and outdoor enthusiasts. It is first and foremost a spiritual site for Native Hawaiians. You may notice Native Hawaiians partaking in traditional cultural and spiritual practices at sunrise and other times at both the summit of Haleakala and at other parts of the park. If you do, remember that this isn't an education or entertainment display for tourists. Please don't be disrespectful or disruptive. Do not take photos or video. Do not interrupt. Do not do anything that would be intrusive.
Many plants, animals, and birds on and around Haleakala are also very precious, both in terms of their spiritual significance and their ecological value. Never walk off trail and follow all signs regarding their care and protection.
One easy way to demonstrate your respect for the land is to carry out all garbage, recycling and disposing it in a responsible fashion.
Stay and explore!
While this blog post is all about making the most of your Haleakala sunrise experience, I would be remiss if I didn't beg each and everyone one of you to spend some extra time in the National Park. On your drive back down the mountain, there are a lot scenic overlooks and chances to pull over and observe nenes (But watch where you drive! Protect plants, birds, and other drivers!)
Even if you're not an especially outdoorsy person, there is a lot to tempt you. The Hosmer's Grove nature walk takes about 30 minutes and you can expect a very calm environment and easy conditions. And, like most National Park, there's a daily schedule of special events, activities, and Park Ranger presentations.
Some folks choose to explore things just a bit differently... which brings us to what it's like to be part of a Haleakala sunrise bike tour.
Haleakala sunrise bike tours: Information and points to ponder.
I know what you're thinking. "There's no way Vanessa biked down Haleakala. She's way too much of a wimp". And you are correct! I am indeed an absolute anti-adventurist and there's no way I would bike down anything that steep. Frankly, I would be terrified. However, I know some of you are wild travel souls and are clamoring for information on Haleakala sunrise bike tours. I'll do my best to help.
Here's what I discovered in my research. Haleakala bike tour companies either pick you up at your hotel (for an extra fee) or you can meet them at their tour office. A van drives you up to the summit for the classic Haleakala sunrise experience. Said van then takes you back down 3,000 feet of elevation to just outside the National Park gates (about 6,500 feet above sea level) where bikes and helmets are waiting for you. There are no bike tours that depart directly from the Haleakala summit. So, technically speaking you are not biking inside the National Park. From your beginning point just outside the park gates, you'll bike 2o some miles or so to return to the tour company shop, all of it on the same steep, twisting road you drove up a few hours earlier.
On the plus side, this may just be the most spectacular bike ride of your life. The scenery is incredible. It's a pretty darn memorable way to start a Hawaiian vacation - a once in lifetime sunrise and then an exhilarating bike ride down hill. The fresh air and exercise will help shake off your jet lag. There are several communities and attractions to visit and explore along the road- some you might have missed if not for the staff describing the local area and providing you with maps. Plus, it's always awesome to have someone else taking care of all the arrangements, including that tiring, crack-of-dawn drive to the summit.
On the negative side - it isn't really so much a Haleakala crater tour as it is a sunrise viewing in the park and a bike ride outside of the park. Maybe this matters to you or maybe not. Depending on your level of biking experience and confidence, the hairpin turns may be exhilarating or terrifying. You may be so focused on not driving off the side of a cliff that you don't get to take in much scenery at all. Especially if it's raining! And because the tour companies are committed to making sure you don't miss the sunrise (in general, a very good thing) you'll arrive at the summit early. Maybe 45 minutes early - or maybe 90 minutes early! Given the already early morning start, this may feel excessive. As will the semi-mandatory chit chat with other participants at such an early hour. Does anyone want to socialize at 3:00 am? I did hear from one person who found the combination of listening to the overly cheerful, chatty tour guide and being seated in the back of the tour van (where they couldn't get the tiniest glimpse of light as the vehicle twisted up the dark road) to be nauseating.
So should you do a Haleakala sunrise bike tour? I think the biggest consideration is if you love to bike and feel confident that this will be a unique experience you'll always treasure. Don't sign up for it just because it sounds awesome or because think it's the best way to see the National Park. The best way to see the National Park is YOUR way. Savvy travelers realize that all tour experiences have pros and cons and that, with a little sleuthing, there's usually a way to mitigate them. For instance, you can do the Haleakala summit sunrise experience on your own one day, and then later in the week you can join the group for just the biking portion of the experience. You'll save money, be more in control of your own time, and still have an extremely memorable bike ride.
When choosing a tour provider, look into what amenities and services they provide (like water bottles, windbreakers, gloves), and how they structure their tours (is it self guided and you can keep the bikes all day if you like or is it more structured?) I couldn't find any companies that provide breakfast or snacks. Pack some granola bars and keep your sanity.
Bike Maui has generally very good reviews online. I have no relationship or experience with them - just suggesting them as it sounds like a good place to start your research.
We're with Mark Twain - A Haleakala sunrise IS sublime!
Maui is one of our most beloved travel destinations. We enjoyed every travel experience on the island and we're so, so glad that we we made visiting Haleakala at sunrise our very first priority. It was a remarkable experience - or sublime, as Mark Twain might say - and we can't say enough good things about Haleakala National Park. We would return there again and again - and we hope you get the chance to visit as well!
After visiting Haleakala, we.....
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