Time: 2-3 DAYS
Distance: 20 MILES
Elevation Gain: 2400 FEET
Foot Traffic: LOW
Challenges: Altitude, Shadeless, Some loose rock and uneven footing, Gear weight
Sights: Haleakala, Stargazing
What to Bring: Full backpacking gear, Cold weather gear,
Located on the island of Maui, this backpacking trip allows you to experience the full extent of the otherworldly Haleakala Crater. Trek through the many phases of this diverse landscape, from red, Mars-like sand, to black lava rock, to lush green vegetation. And when you're done with your long day of backpacking, grab a jacket, sit back, and peer out at some of the best stargazing in the world. This magical place is sure to leave an imprint in your memory forever.
Haleakala! My friends Alex, Drew and I were about to embark on a 3 day backpacking adventure through Maui's famous volcanic crater. This trip came together a little last minute. My friend Drew had planned to do a trip to Maui solo and when my plans to hike the Napali Coast fell through, I decided to join him. And then our friend Alex joined and it became a boys backpacking trip. The week leading up to this I could hardly contain my excitement. I'd been wanting to do this trip for some time. Something about backpacking through a high altitude volcanic crater was so alluring. It was even more amazing than I had imagined.
The route we took looked a little like this. Day 1 (RED): 9.8 miles fromVisitor's Center to Paliku. Day 2 (Blue): 6.3 miles from Paliku to Holua Day 3 (Yellow): 3.9 miles from Holua to Hakemau'u Trailhead.
The Night Before: Permits and Hosmer's Grove
The first obstacle is obtaining your permit and planning your logistics. Planning the route isn't too hard since this trip is popular, but it's not quite as simple as just parking and starting your hike. To camp within the crater, you need a permit. The permits can be obtained at most one day before you start your trip, and they are done on a first come first serve basis. The NPS website says they have 25 permits available for wilderness camping at both the Holua and Paliku campsites. We had no problem obtaining them for our trip, even on a holiday weekend. They are actually free--the only thing required is to watch a short video about leaving no trace.
There is another option and that is staying in the Wilderness Cabins in the crater (there are three total). This does cost money ($75 per night) and you can make reservations 6 months out. However, these cabins are extremely popular so it is often hard to book them.
Since we got our permits in the afternoon, our crew wasn't planning on starting our hike until the following day. Instead, we decided to camp at Hosmer Grove before starting the trek the following morning. Hosmer is located outside the crater at around 7,000 feet just inside the park gate. The site is basically an open field with some grills and bathrooms. No permit is required to camp here, just drive up, find an open spot and set up camp.
And for a free spot, it's pretty amazing. This was our first taste of that high elevation. Living at sea level, the low 40 degree temperature felt quite frigid (luckily, we picked up a couple beers in town to warm us up). This was also our first taste of what the stargazing would look like up here. With such little light pollution and almost no moon, the milky way was very clear through the trees. And this was just a taste of what was to come. Eventually, the cold got the better of us, and we retired to our warm sleeping bags for sleep, ready for our big day tomorrow.
Day 1: Visitor Center to Paliku Cabin: 9.8 Miles
After some breakfast and a cup of coffee, it was time for the adventure to begin. Some logistical challenges faced us to start the day. Our planned route began at the top of Haleakala at the Visitor Center, but we planned on ending at the Halamau'u Trailhead. With only one car, that means there would have to be some hitchiking. Drew volunteered for the task (he's the prettiest after all). After dropping us off at the trailhead, he made his way back to stage the car at the trailhead and hitch a ride to the visitor center. Hitching is common practice here, so I wouldn't be too worried if this is part of your plan.
Welcome to Mars, Population: Matt Damon. Our destination is out there somewhere, among the red sand and beyond the clouds. We are essentially hiking to the "back wall" of the crater-- Paliku.
Well time to stop dilly dallying, let's do the thing. Drew and Alex will be my primary models for this adventure, sporting their brigh colored rain covers and dry bags.
And so begins leg 1, the Sliding Sands Trail. We are basically descending 3000 feet to the base of the crater and then hiking all the way to other end. Much of the first part of this trail looks like this, beautiful red dirt with large mounds AKA spatter cones, created from more recent volcanic activity. I'll say it again--otherworldly.
Similar to the first time I was here, I was amazed by the silence. Other than the conversation of a passing hiker, the only sound you really hear is the crunch crunch of the trail beneath your feet.
This adventure is brought to you by Hi-Chew. Bursts of happiness in one bite. Totally kidding, not sponsored, but ever since I was introduced to these treats during my first backpacking trip on the Kukui Trail, they are now a required item on the backpacking list. Those sugary little chews are perfect breaks along the trail.
And they go great with a view. This shot shows Drew's goofy rain cover (would come quite handy actually), but it also does a good job of showing the majority of the crater. We are basically hugging the right side all the way towards the back, where Paliku is located, that is partially covered in clouds. Tomorrow, we will be coming back, hugging the left side of the crater and heading towards those clouds on the left, leading to the Holua campsite.
Seriously though, where are we again?
One little gem to look out for on the hike is the 'ahinahina or the Silversword. It's a uniquely adapted plant able to survive at this high altitude. And it's endemic to Hawai'i, so you can't see it anywhere else on earth!
After reaching the base, the landscape starts to transform. It changes from a red sand to black and begins to get more green with plants lining the trail. The other thing that changed-- the weather. Like most places in Hawai'i, rain can come on suddenly in Haleakala. And we got to experience it first hand. The skies opened up and gave us a nice downpour as we trudged along.
Luckily the rain was short lived and soon we got some nice sunshine to dry us off. Perfect timing too, because we had reached a great spot to take a break and ring out our clothes, the Kapalaoa Cabin. Unlike the other two cabins (Paliku and Holua), Kapalaoa does not have a campground nearby for tent camping. You can only stay here by reserving it in advance.
And just as we were about to continue on the trail, the skies opened up again. We found a little space underneath the roof overhang of the cabin to stay dry. But this downpour was significantly heavier than the first one. And then the questions started swarming, was it going to be like this the next few days? Did we make a huge mistake? We actually saw two groups divert their plans and head towards the crater exit, anticipating the weather to continue. We decided to just wait and see...
And our patience paid off, soon the skies cleared and we were on our way again. As we continued the green landscape became more and more pronounced, with increasingly dense foliage lining the trail. It was as if we had left Mars behind us and were now entering some volcanic rainforest.
And then we pop out of the bushes and black lava rock! The variety of this landscape was just crazy.
We're almost there!
Nene spotting! This is the only animal you will encounter throughout the crater. You may see them waddling around or flying through the crater. In my mind, they're basically land ducks.
The final stretch to the campsite.
And we are here! The "campgrounds" are basically this hilly field, tucked back in Paliku. There's multiple patches of open grass where you can set up camp. We were surprised to see that many of these grassy areas were already taken by other backpackers. We had to share space with some women on one of the bigger plots of grass. And we ended up having another couple join our plot once the sun went down. So bottom line, expect to make some friends if you're doing the tent camping.
The other option is to utilize this cabin, as mentioned before, but that does require advanced reservations. I would love to come back and do that at some point. It was just so beautiful to look at, this cabin nestled next to these green ridges deep within the crater. I was definitely a little jealous of the cabin dwellers, especially when it started raining on us yet again...
But that jealous quickly faded as a rainbow appeared right next to our campsite. This is one of those, "is this real life" moments? Hawaii is always seems to create magical moments like this. And when it requires a 9 mile hike into a secluded place like this, it makes it even more special.
And after the rainbow faded, we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the sky lit up with pinks, purples, and yellows. An incredible natural show to enjoy with our dinner.
But the entertainment wasn't quite over. Haleakala is famous for its epic stargazing and similar to last night, there was very little moon, so we got another clear view of the stars. I decided to give night photography a try. Some of my first attempts were hh less than stellar. No, Alex's tent isn't on fire, this was just poor timing during the long exposure...
After a few attempts, I finally got the hang of it. No, this is not what it actually looked like with the naked eye, but it was by far the clearest view of the Milky Way I've ever seen in my life. And with a little technology, we can unlock our universe's even more impressive secrets. Soon, today's demanding adventure got to us, and our bodies told us it was time for bed. I drifted off to sleep, still dreaming of the great beyond.
Day 2: Paliku to Holua Cabin: 6.3 Miles
I woke up at first light to see what sort of colors the sky would reveal. Gorgeous. And it was so clear, you could actually see all the way to the summit, where we had started our journey yesterday.
The morning was a little chilly and damp. We were still seeing some on and off rain showers. So how do you counter cold and wet? Coffee! Alex had lugged his heavy duty espresso maker the entire journey. I can't believe he was willing to put up with that extra weight, but I was thankful. That coffee was delightful! And sipping on that rich, warm liquid as I stared at these views was simply blissful.
It was a slow morning for us. We didn't get underway until after 11. We decided to wait until the sun was fully out and with only 6ish miles there's no rush. Paliku is so mesmerizing I could easily have stayed there for several more hours.
That said, 6 miles is 6 miles. And we could definitely feel the effort we put in yesterday. So nothing to do except keep moving.
And maybe pick up a few treats along the trail. These 'Ohelo Berries can be found sporadically throughout the crater and are edible. They're a bit tart, but nothing beats fresh fruit. I hear the Nene like them as well.
While the first part of this leg is very green, the terrain changes back to that volcanic landscape.
And then there's this, also known as Bottomless Pit. Take a look to see why....
This section was probably one of my favorites to photograph. This was the first time the trail felt like a ridge with a nice dropoff on one side. And the colors had a nice gradual gradient, from black to orange to red (and a little yellow thrown in).
Back to feeling like a Martian.
Enter the barren wasteland. Ok, not totally barren, those spatter cones are just off to the left. But this section did have a different feel to it.
Kinda like we are hiking into some cloudy abyss. Wonder what is beyond those clouds? The end of the world?
Nah, just some more green. This is the final stretch before the Holua cabin. If you look closely, you can actually see the cabin tucked against the mountains.
Fast forward...there it is! Again, we would not be staying in the cabin, but on the open campground. Unlike Paliku, the campsites were not conveniently located close to the cabin. Instead, we had to hike a few minutes up a hill (to the left of this photo) to get there. The water source (which should still be filtered) is located down here, so if you don't want to walk back down the hill, I recommend filling up now. Luckily, there is a bathroom up the hill.
This is where we set up camp. Most of the open areas here were full of dirt, but we managed to find a grassy space near a fence. Those jagged peaks created a nice backdrop.
The scenery here was quite different. This area, known as the Ko'olau Gap, looked like the mountain dropped off into the clouds. We enjoyed some more of this natural entertainment with a hot dinner. The simplicity and beauty of these moments are the reason I am willing to backpack 20 miles to experience places like this.
And the pictures help to bring me back to those moments.
Before we turned in for our final night, I did a bit more astrophotography...at least until my camera died. I actually think this spot was even better for star gazing. It was more open and you could see the full extent of the milky way. Another awe-inspiring moment from our amazing galaxy.
Day 3: Holua Cabin to Halemau'u Trailhead: 3.9 Miles
Our final packup before the final leg of our trip.
We had to ensure an early start today. With our flight back to Oahu departing around 11, we didn't have time for a slow morning. Luckily, this is the shortest leg of the trip at only 3.9 miles.
However, it also has the most elevation gain. See that mountain? We get to climb it. A solid 1400 feet in elevation to close out the adventure. Nobody said this journey was easy.
Luckily, it's not a straight shot up. There's around 20 switchbacks that allow us to gain the elevation.
And while it is the end of the journey and it is tempting to just focus on getting up the mountain, this is definitely a time to pick your head up. This may be one of the most scenic parts of the entire trip. You have beautiful green switchbacks in the foreground, a field in the middle, and then those volcanic cones in the back. Unreal.
It was finally time to leave that world behind. Because it's time to get back to real life.
But I'm sure, back in the "real world," my mind will return to this adventure, to this place. Because those three days in the other world of Haleakala are truly unforgettable.
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Also Check Out:
- NPS website about Haleakala