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.