The exotic Haleakala National Park, on Hawaii's Maui island, is known in legend as the god Maui's "house of the sun." The park offers opportunities for hiking, camping, stargazing, bird watching, and more -- all amid landscapes you can't find anywhere else.
Entrance fees: $20/vehicle for seven days or $10/individual for seven days
Visitor centers: Haleakala Visitor Center, Kipahulu Visitor Center, and Park Headquarters Visitor Center are open year-round.
Other services: Three cabins in the crater and two campgrounds
Accommodations: Hosmer Grove Campground and Kipahulu Campground are available year-round and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. Backcountry camping is also available all year. Reservations for three wilderness cabins are available through a mail-in monthly lottery.
Visiting Haleakala National Park
Haleakala sleeps on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This huge, dormant volcano is a wild moonscape that extends for 33 miles in one direction and 24 miles in the other.
At the top of this great mountain is a 19-square-mile circular crater. Its floor, which is 2,720 feet below the summit, is a starkly beautiful and forbidding landscape of cinder cones and sculptures of lava colored with startling shades of red and yellow. Haleakala is a volcano that has grown cold, but its enormous crater is filled with unearthly shapes and profiles that are vivid reminders of its fiery past.
Light from the sun comes early to the rim of the vast crater, and it remains here long after darkness has fallen on the lower slopes of the mountain.
Haleakala means "house of the sun," and according to legend, the mischievous demigod Maui tamed the sun in the great mountain's summit basin.
The legend tells that long ago there were only a few hours of light each day because the sun was so lazy that it hurried home to rest. The demigod's mother was unable to dry her clothes during the few hours of sunshine, so Maui climbed to the mountain's summit, where he caught the sun by trapping its first rays as they crept over the crater's rim at dawn. He released the sun only after it promised to move more slowly across the sky.
Haleakala National Park is rich in natural beauty. Keep reading to learn about the sights you can enjoy at the park, including its unique flora and fauna.
Haleakala National Park Facts
Established: 1916 (as part of Hawaii National Park); became an independent national park in 1961
Size: 29,094 acres
Terrain: Volcanic mountain and rain forest
Highlights: Haleakala Crater and Kipahulu Valley
Wildlife: Nenes (Hawaiian geese), honeycreepers, parrotbills, and hundreds of other bird species
Activities: Ranger-led walks and talks; hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and backpacking (by permit).
The Haleakala Crater at Haleakala National Park -- which geologists quickly point out is not really a crater, but a canyon -- is a dry, desolate terrain where it can be unbearably hot during the day and frosty cold at night. The bowl is pocked with small craters and studded with cones formed of cinder and ash. Puu O Maui, the tallest of these multicolored figures, rises more than 800 feet above the stark topography.
A landscape that is more inhospitable to plants and animals would be hard to imagine, but in one corner, where a break in the crater wall allows moisture to seep in on waves of clouds, leather ferns, called 'ama'u, thrive along with other unusual plants. In other places you will find silversword, an endemic plant with dagger-shaped leaves that grow out in silky, symmetrical balls. This rare plant takes four to 20 years to grow to maturity, after which it sends out a single, magnificent flower stalk in a burst of summertime bloom, then withers and dies.
Although the crater is the centerpiece of the park, as well as its major attraction, Haleakala also has regions of coastline and mountain desert. The park has been designated a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve.
The road to Haleakala's summit rises from close to sea level to more than 10,000 feet in just 38 miles. It is believed to be the steepest route for automobiles in the world. The ascent passes through a number of climatic and vegetation zones. At lower elevations, it is humid and tropical; a little higher up, the terrain becomes subalpine. Here, mamane, a yellow-flowering brush, brightens the slopes, and small birds seem to be everywhere.
If you are lucky, you might see some of Haleakala's famous honeycreepers. These brightly colored birds are believed to be descended from the first birds (other than sea birds) to have reached Hawaii. Since their arrival, they have evolved into at least 47 species.
From the eastern summit of the crater, the park's other major attraction, the rain-forested Kipahulu Valley, drops thousands of feet in a great sweeping curve down to the coast. The upper valley is a protected wilderness that is home to a profusion of animals and plants as well as an array of insects found nowhere else on earth.
As with the other Hawaiian Islands, all flora and fauna arrived here by swimming, flying, or floating on debris. This has made the park a mecca for conservation biologists, who, increasingly, are seeing many of the world's great ecosystems, from Yellowstone to the Serengeti, slowly becoming island-habitats like Haleakala.
Haleakala National Park Photo Opportunities
The unusual landscapes and indigenous plant and animal life of Haleakala National Park offer countless spots from which to snap that perfect picture. Here are a few suggestions:
Puu O Maui: Rising 800 feet above the crater floor, this is the tallest of the multicolored cinder cones in the Haleakala Crater.
Kipahulu Valley: Unlike the desert landscape of the Haleakala summit, this valley shelters a rain forest, freshwater ponds, and waterfalls. It is accessible by car and by foot.
The Pipiwai Stream Trail: This four-mile hiking trail (round trip) winds through such beauties as the 180-foot Makahiku Falls and the even more spectacular 400-foot Waimoku Falls.
Hosmer Grove: Native Hawaiian birds abound in this area. The easily traversed half-mile hiking trail is perfect for families with young children.
Visiting Kipahulu Valley The lush Kipahulu Valley begins at a narrow piece of parkland on the southeastern coast of Maui. This coastal area was farmed more than 1,000 years ago, and throughout the valley, you can see archaeological remains of stone walls, temples, and shelters. This is a primal landscape dominated by green forests, meadows, and cascading waterfalls.
The gorge of the 'Ohe'o Gulch cuts through this section of the valley. This defile is filled with picturesque pools, with water cascading from one to the other. Until the 1920s sugarcane was grown along both sides of the 'Ohe'o Stream, and wild cane still grows in patches.
From the gorge, the Pipiwai Stream Trail leads to the lovely Makahiku Falls, which is more than 180 feet high, and then on to a double waterfall. Along the trail you can pick mango and guava fruit.
Higher still, through a luxuriant forest that includes a dense stand of bamboo, which clatters mysteriously in the wind, you arrive at your destination, the Waimoku Falls. Drawing visitors for centuries, this solemn cascade, 400 feet high, fills a jungle clearing with mist and the perpetual sound of falling water.
Like the rest of Hawaii, Haleakala National park is full of plants, animals, and geologic formations you won't find anywhere else in the world. To learn why Hawaii's environment is so unusual, you need to know how this area came into being. Go to the next page to learn about the tumultuous and fiery beginnings of Haleakala.
History: How Haleakala Was Formed
Haleakala has not had a major eruption since about 1790, according to both Hawaiian legend and records kept by Europeans. Maps and charts made by early European explorers show significant changes in the island's topography that probably resulted from the flow of lava. But even though Haleakala is dormant, nobody would call it extinct.
Earthquakes on Maui indicate to geologists that the great volcano still rumbles far below the surface, and islanders adamantly believe the sleeping mountain will wake up breathing fire again within a century.
Haleakala's gigantic crater was not created by the kind of explosion that blew the top off Mount St. Helens in 1980. After thousands of eruptions built up the mountain from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, a climatic change brought long-lasting torrential rains. Water flowing down the sides of the peak turned into huge rivers pouring from the summit. These raging streams cut long, deep valleys down the flanks of the mountain. The crater was created as two of the valleys joined at the mountaintop and eventually eroded it into the vast amphitheater.
The Formation of a Pacific Volcano
For centuries, Hawaiian legends have explained the way these volcanic islands have been formed: Pele, the goddess of fire, moves from place to place around the islands. As she tells others the story of her travels, she stamps her foot, making the earth tremble and forming a new island.
Geologists know that there is some truth to this legend. The spot where an island is likely to appear does move from place to place. Scientists explain this with a theory of "hot spots" and plate tectonics. For some unknown reason, there are more than 100 hot spots beneath the earth's surface. These places produce more molten rock, or magma, than is produced elsewhere. The Hawaiian hot spot, it turns out, is one of the largest.
The hot spots are stationary, but the dozen or so great plates that make up the crust of the earth are not. The Pacific plate is in constant motion at the rate of about four inches a year. As the plate moves over the Hawaiian hot spot, enough magma rises to create a new island. This young island is pulled away from the hot spot by the movement of the plate, and in time another island forms over the hot spot.
Haleakala National Park is an environment that is truly unique. It offers sightseers peeks at lush rain forests, stunning waterfalls, and unearthly volcanic landscapes.