Sunrise at Haleakala – What You Should Expect

           Did it ever cross your mind that you could freeze on a tropical island? Well, if you don’t think that’s possible try a road trip at the summit of Haleakala Volcano on the island of Maui at 4 o’clock in the morning. But is it really worth driving up the winding mountain roads for a couple of hours in the dark, just to catch a glimpse of the mighty sun showing its first rays behind the crater?


Just before sunrise

We asked ourselves the same question the first time we went, especially after struggling for over 15 minutes to find a parking spot. But a few minutes later, as the sun peeked through the horizon, all the discomfort and the inconveniences we experienced have been forgotten. The feeling was so uplifting, so spiritual, it was almost surreal. The “ahs” and “ohs” that filled the air confirmed that all those present were in agreement about that. But before you venture on this memorable trip, there are a few things you need to be prepared for. 

Sunrise at Haleakala

Sunrise at Haleakala

Start Early      

The success of this road trip relies on the starting time. What can be more disappointing than arriving 3-4 minutes after the sunrise, or missing it because you can’t find parking? What you should know is that every single day of the year hundreds of visitors overflow the few parking lots at the top of the mountain long before dawn. So arriving early is essential. Plan to be at the summit at least 45 minutes before sunrise to secure a spot. Depending where your starting point in Maui is, driving up the Haleakala Highway (HI37) can take up to two hours. 

This is after I took off the first layer of cloths …

This is after I took off the first layer of cloths …

Dress Warmly       

The temperature at the summit of Haleakala is in the low 30s, but the wind chill factor makes it feel below freezing. It is unbelievably COLD! The first time we went I just brought a light jacket and I was frozen stiff. Dressing in layers is the best strategy, because once the sun is up the temperature rises considerably. Dress like for winter: gloves, a knit beanie, two layers of pants and a hooded jacket will keep you warm enough to enjoy the experience. We saw some people wrapped up in hotel blankets or beach towels, but they didn’t seem to be too comfortable.    Pack Breakfast There is no food or gas station in the National Park, so fill up your tank before you start the 11 miles ascent and bring some food and water. If you really die for a cup of coffee, there is a place on the way to the summit where you can stop for a $4/cup mediocre coffee, but I wouldn’t waste precious time there. It is basically a stand on the side of the road, open between 2:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.


View of the crater

Bring Your Camera       

If you want to catch some stunning pictures of the sunrise, you need to come prepared. Photographing a mountain at dawn is not an easy task, so for good clear shots you will need a tripod and a zoom lens.  The best view of the crater is from the visitor center, but finding a good spot at the pavilion is difficult unless you arrive very early. But if you hike the little path to the right of the parking lot, you will find an excellent spot which is way less crowded.


View of the crater

Plan to Stay Beyond Sunrise      

Most of the people rush to leave right after they saw the sun rise, without even looking around. But once the sun is up, an incredible show of form and color is revealed. The dark red colors of the rocks around, mostly basalt, the ash and the cinder cones that cover the crater, will make you feel like you are on another planet. The view from the summit is breathtaking, 360° of spectacular landscape. On a clear day you can see the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes on the Big Island. As you start your descent, there will be several look-out points where you can stop for great pictures and some more exploration.  


View of the ocean from atop the Haleakala

Hiking the Haleakala Crater       

There are over 30 miles of hiking trails in the summit area, ranging from just 10 minutes to multi-day overnight trips. If you are planning to hike, be advised that the air is very rare up at over 10,000 feet, so you might need some adjustment at the  high altitude before you proceed. Also, bring lots of water as it will get very hot during the day.  


Walking the crater trails

      I hope the information I provided will help you plan your Haleakala trip better, so that you can fully enjoy the experience. However, if you feel overwhelmed and uneasy about driving up the mountain at night, don’t worry. You can book a guided tour for the summit that will pick you up from your hotel and then bring you back. 

How much of your comfort and convenience would you be willing to sacrifice in order to see a spectacular place?


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29 Comments on “Sunrise at Haleakala – What You Should Expect

  1. Those sunrise photos definitely make an early start (and a long drive!) worth it. Your tips for the Haleakala sunrise trip are also great for most other sunrise trips – I’m yet to master sunrise photography but it’s definitely a goal. Thanks for the tips! 🙂
    Liz recently posted…Chasing Summer: Travel to Bintan Island, IndonesiaMy Profile

    • Photographing the sunrise and sunset may be a little tricky if you want good pictures, but if you have a tripod it’s not very difficult.

  2. We watched the sunrise a few years ago and totally froze even though we did bring some warm clothes. I saw people with hotel blankets and wished I had done the same. I wrote an essay about it, it is published on Mountain Gazette. When I was doing research I found out that one of the park rangers who is a native Hawaiian sings a traditional song at sunrise. Made me wish we’d been where she was so we could hear it. No one in my group wanted to stay around after sunrise so I need to go back and explore the park.
    Lara Dunning recently posted…The King and Prince Resort: Bask in Southern Oceanside LuxuryMy Profile

  3. Anda, just how winding was the ascent? I tried ascending Mount Washington by car once (we tried would be correct) and turned back! it was just too scary. In Maui we had a much quieter week since I was pregnant with my daughter and did not want any extra excitements:)

    • The ascent was not difficult, Victoria. It’s windy only at the very top of the mountain, if you stay outside. But even there is quite all right in the car. Besides, when the sun comes up the weather changes completely.

  4. This looks fantastic. I would never travel with a tripod, but I love your shots. It’s so important to remember that Hawaii has a lot more than just beaches and pineapple cocktails (though after this hike, i would enjoy one of those).

  5. Hello, Anda, and thx for this post. I have not seen the sunrise there, but have been to Haleakala and found it breathtaking. It was not clear on the morning we were going there, so need to rush for the sunrise. But yes, it’s cold up there! So often, these locations where it is said to be there at a certain time, are not worthy of the hype. The sunset at Oia in Greece comes mind.

    • There is parking further down, but then you have to hike on foot to the Observation Deck and it’s not an easy hike. Besides is freezing cold and very windy.

    • It’s hard to get the kids going at 3:00 a.m., Mary, I agree with you. We went there 3-4 times so far and every time I felt it was a big sacrifice to get up so early. And what makes it very stressful is that if you don’t move fast enough you can miss it.

  6. That looks amazing! I am not good at early starts but always manage it in Africa for game drives! I think for me getting up early is the hardest thing but its worth it with views like that! #TheWeeklyPostcard
    Tracy Collins recently posted…A day in MontenegroMy Profile

  7. As usual your images are absolutely stunning. I love the “Walking the crater trails” one especially, above the clouds. I would kill to be up there with my camera. Another for the dreamlist! Honestly, I’m quite willing to sacrifice a fair bit of comfort and convenience if there is a spectacular pay-off – there’s not much I won’t do for a good view…

    • It is freezing cold and very windy up there, Ruth. If you ever go pack a warm jacket, gloves and a hat. It warms up quite fast after the sun rises, however.

  8. Anda , excellent photos ! Thank you ! Thanks for memories we shared with “Mama” too ! Dad .Marin

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