Haleakalā: Maui’s House of the Sun

By: Jacob Hakim

Haleakalā National Park, situated from slope to summit of the easternmost volcano of Maui, is one of two national parks located in the Hawaiian islands (the other is Volcanoes National Park, on Big Island). Traveling into the park from Kahului, the largest municipality on the island, the volcano looms over everything, rising up to the clouds and beyond. Most people who visit Haleakalā are attracted by its famous sunrise; the daily event is so popular that the park had to implement a reservation system starting in 2017. Though the islands are basically closed to visitors from the American mainland because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the park still receives a moderate amount of traffic, with 50-100 visitors coming into the park every day for sunrise alone. 

Sunrise over Haleakalā National Park attracts visitors from all over the world and is one of the most popular Maui activities

And the sunrise is spectacular. The view from the summit, at 10,000 feet above sea level, is magnificent long before the sun crests the horizon. In summer, the sky starts to glow in the east at around 4:45 AM. Between then and 5:50 AM, when the sun rises over the clouds, the sky slowly morphs with fantastic patterns that glow all the colors of the rainbow, from deep red at the horizon to the deep violet of the last chunk of night sky. 

It helps to have a little bit of geological background to understand how this fantastic mountain came to be. According to prevailing geological theory, we can attribute the creation of the Hawaiian islands to something called the “hot spot.” According to the hot spot theory, there is a weakening in the lithosphere at a certain point, where the crust is exposed to magma that is hotter and more mobile than the area around it. As the Pacific plate moves little by little (see Plate Tectonic Theory for more information about that) it glides across the hot spot, which is constantly pushing magma up through the crust, forming volcanoes. This resulted in a very neat line of islands, stretching perfectly northwest from Hawaiʻi’s Big Island (Hawaiʻi Island) as a result of the plate’s steady southeast movement. The hot spot now resides somewhere off the coast of Big Island, where the newest volcano, Lōʻihi, boils beneath the waves. The proximity of the hotspot also keeps many of the Big Island’s volcanoes active, including Kilauea, which was recently brought to the world’s attention as it suddenly opened lava flows inside of one of Big Island’s residential areas in 2018. 

The volcanoes of Maui were also formed this way, and are slightly older than the volcanoes of the Big Island. Because of the way the hot spot pushes lava up through the crust, the Hawaiian volcanoes are shield volcanoes, which trickle lava over a very long period of time and result in huge, wide volcanoes that resemble a shield lying flat on the sea. This is opposed to composite volcanoes, such as Mt. St. Helen’s, which erupt violently after pressure builds up inside them. Haleakalā is one such shield volcano, and viewing it from below, the mass of its slopes affirms the story of its creation. 

One of the other famous features of the park, Haleakalā’s vibrant and alien Wilderness Area, was formed during the next stage(s) of volcanic activity. Often erroneously referred to as a crater, the backcountry was actually formed totally by erosion; there is no longer any geological remnant of what once would have been the main volcanic crater. After the shield phase of volcanic activity, which formed the main bulk of the volcano (and the island), the mountain underwent hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. The “crater” is actually the result of two huge valleys, eroded over time, coalescing. 

Inside the crater are beautiful, moonlike volcanic cinder cones. These are evidence of volcanic activity that has occurred since the giant valley eroded. Along and between the cones, called puʻu (hills) in Hawaiian, a huge black expanse of recent lava flow can be seen clearly from the summit (or from two lesser known but equally stunning viewpoints, the Kalahaku and Leleiwi Overlooks). 

The cinder cones of Haleakalā’s Wilderness Area can be made out even from the great distance of the summit

Normally the Wilderness Area is open to backpackers, who must obtain a permit, and there are even cabins and campgrounds located in different parts of the backcountry. However the backcountry is totally closed right now because of limited park and EMS support during the COVID-19 crisis. 

I am lucky enough to live in park housing near park HQ at 6500 feet above sea level. The weather is cool, and it is easy to forget that I am still on a tropical island isolated in the middle of the sea. The stars are clear, and I have been lucky enough to see the NEOWISE comet near the Big Dipper almost every night, right after sunset. (Sunset viewing is also a famous activity up at the summit, but the park closes at 5 PM right now due to limited park support.) 

Lastly, I wanted to highlight another of the park’s residents: ʻāhinahina, the Haleakalā Silversword. 

A group of ʻāhinahina in the summit area of Haleakalā National Park

This plant, which only grows in the alpine desert, in the most lofty regions of the slopes of Haleakalā, is a very fragile, endangered species which can be seen dotting the rust-colored expanses of the mountain. This plant, which has long, slender leaves, can live several decades before blooming; each plant blooms once in its life before it dies. The blooms are dramatic, with a huge single stalk rising quickly up from the plant to stand high above the ground, sometimes over six feet tall. The stalk, which has hundreds of tiny purple flowers, releases thousands of seeds before the plants die. Once nearly extinct as the result of wild goats grazing across the mountain, the park now has an intense program of preservation and rehabilitation for this fascinating species. 

These are only a few of the wonders that can be found only here at the top of Haleakalā.

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