One of the most popular activities for Maui visitors is a middle-of-the-night drive to the summit of Haleakala, a sunrise viewing, and then a bike ride down the mountain. I have seen some glorious photos of the view, and many friends gush about how this is their best experience on Maui.
I’ve been to Maui over 10 times and have never seen the sunrise. Not on Haleakala, or anywhere else. I am just not a morning person. I can’t bring myself to ever wake up at 3 AM while on vacation to drive up some unfamiliar territory only to see a sunrise that may not be that awesome, if you see it at all. And considering that Haleakala is about an hour’s drive and 10,000 feet above Kihei and Kaanapali, where you are most likely staying–it’s hard to predict the weather and conditions on top of Haleakala.
So no to the sunrise, but I have seen many sunsets. Most of them have happened without my making any extra effort, usually while I’m at the beach, loathe to leave the water but content to sit on the shore watching the sun dip beneath the ocean. On our last trip to Maui, David and I decided to finally make the drive to the crater. After all, it was something we had never done.
Tips for going to Haleakala summit
- You’re 10,000 feet up. It is COLD here. Freezing. Wintry. Occasionally snowbound. Bring cold weather gear: a hat, gloves, scarf, and a good warm jacket, at the very least. I suggest layering.
- Check the weather conditions. If it’s raining, you might want to pass it up this time and try again tomorrow.
- Go with a full tank. There are not many places to get gas anywhere on the mountain.
- Bring snacks and water. The drive is about an hour each way, depending on where you’re coming from. And if you plan on staying at the summit before or after viewing the sunrise or sunset (which you should), you’ll get hungry at some point.
Visiting Haleakala at sunset
We decided to do it on the same day we landed. After all, we hadn’t done anything that day except sit (and eat, and nap) on a plane for five hours. We were ready to get our Hawaii on, and if this didn’t work out, we’d have another couple days to try. So we checked in at our AirBnB, got some ono grinds (read: delicious local food), and we started up.
Tip: don't leave too late. The sun sets shortly after 5:30 PM most days. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, enjoy the mountain as you go.
Along the way, we found a rainbow. And the even cooler part is that we actually saw the end of it, which is the first time I can ever remember having that experience. Sadly, the end was in the middle of the road we were driving on, so no photo.
Since we had plenty of time, we made two stops, first at Leleiwi Overlook and then at Kalahaku.
To get to the Leleiwi Overlook, you have to follow a trail just a short distance from the road. There’s a small parking lot and a sign that marks the beginning of the trail. (Here’s the National Park Service website; the map is a link on the lower left column.)
We followed the trail to a small shack that was only big enough for about a dozen people to huddle together. It was extremely foggy while we were there, which made for some cool photo ops.
Higher up now, the fog had cleared and we were treated to an amazing sight. We could see the mountainside through a sea of clouds! The views from both the overlook and the parking lot were amazing. We also experienced a rare phenomenon where the sun is shining behind us and we cast a shadow on the clouds, also known as the Brocken spectre. Evidently this can happen from Leleiwi Overlook as well.
The sun was going down at a dangerously fast rate, so we headed to the top. We parked at the visitor center. It’s easy to see where to hang out to watch the sunset: there’s a ridge that looks out to the sun and the sea. There’s a well-worn path heading in that direction and you can easily see the people who have arrived before you. I can only imagine the crowds at sunrise! In the Friday afternoon when we were there, it was hardly a crowd–perhaps a couple dozen people altogether, enough to share the ridge and take in the otherworldly view.
Avoid the enclosed building that looks over the parking lot. You’ll be a tad warmer, but your view is also less awesome.
I’d say that coming to Haleakala at sunset was worth it. I was completely relaxed, we had a pleasant drive up the mountain (and thus knew what to expect on the way down) and we were able to enjoy a beautiful evening. On the way down, after the sun had set completely, we turned off at a point in the road to stargaze a little. The night sky in Hawaii, especially on the mountain away from the city lights, is incomparable. And best of all, we enjoyed all that without having to get up at the b*ttcrack of dawn.
So if you are heading to Maui and don’t feel like you want to do the sunrise viewing, don’t worry! The sunset is just as gorgeous. And after all, it’s Hawaii. Hang loose!