Anyone who hikes across Haleakala Crater will swear they could be on the moon, but surely not Maui. The crater basin is a 19-square-mile volcanic panorama crisscrossed by colorful cinder cones and 28 miles of trails. It’s a place of adventure and of silence. More important, this high-altitude moonscape is also home to the best hiking on Maui. If you’re an outdoors enthusiast, no trip to Maui is complete without tackling at least one of Haleakala’s trails. With that thought in mind, here’s a rundown of the best hikes in Haleakala National Park, listed from shortest to longest (all mileage is round-trip).
If you don’t feel like sharing the visitor center lookout with 400 other people at sunrise, take this five-minute trail to the top of White Hill for a little more breathing room (although you’ll be huffing on the walk up there). This 0.4-mile trail departs from the parking lot at the summit visitor center and offers views down into the crater floor below.
At Leleiwi Overlook, the view down into the crater is the same as from the summit—but it isn’t as far, and it isn’t as cold. Halfway between the park headquarters and the summit, pull off into the parking lot at mile marker 17.5 (about 8,800 feet in elevation) and follow a 0.5-mile trail through the subalpine brush. At first it won’t look like you’re going anywhere exciting, but after a few minutes you reach the rim of the crater and are awarded with colors that spring from the earth. This is a nice option if you are running late for the sunrise, and as an added bonus there are rarely more than a handful of people watching the spectacle with you. Since this lookout faces east, however, sunset isn’t as nice.
Hosmer’s Grove Nature Trail
Unlike other trails in the park, the Hosmer’s Grove Nature Trail is at the lower park boundary just after you enter the park. This easy, 0.5-mile trail leads you through a stand of trees introduced in 1910 to see if any would be good for commercial lumber. There are more than 20 different species here. Here you’ll see Jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, eucalyptus, Norway spruce, Douglas fir, and Japanese sugi. Several signs are posted along the trail to explain about the trees, and this is also a good spot to look for native birds. To reach the trailhead, make a left on the road pointing toward the campground immediately after entering the park. The walk should take a half hour over mostly level ground.
Ka Lu‘u O Ka O‘o
If you don’t have a full day (or couple of days) to devote to a hike across the crater floor, a nice option is the 5.5-mile descent to the Ka Lu‘u O Ka O‘o cinder cone. This hike departs from the Sliding Sands trailhead and drops two miles down into the crater, or about halfway down Sliding Sands trail.
Sliding Sands Trail (Keinehe‘ehe‘e Trail)
Starting at the summit visitors center (at 9,800 ft. in elevation) Sliding Sands descends 2,500 vertical feet to the crater floor below. Sliding Sands is a barren, windswept, shadeless, and stunning conduit from the craggy summit to the cinder cone desert before you. If you just hike down to the crater floor and back, it’s an eight-mile round-trip, although continuing to Kapalaoa Cabin tacks an additional 3.5 miles on to the hike.
Switchback Trail (Halemau‘u Trail)
Beginning from an altitude of only 7,990 feet, the first 1.1 miles of this trail meander through subalpine scrub brush before eventually bringing you to the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff. The view down into the Ko‘olau Gap is better here than from the summit area. Although the trail is well-defined, the drop-offs can be disconcerting for those with a fear of heights. After losing over 1,000 feet in elevation, the trail passes Holua Cabin after 3.7 miles and continues on to Silversword Loop, a section of the crater floor known for its dense concentration of ahinahina, or endangered silversword plants. While it’s possible to connect with the greater network of trails from this point, Silversword Loop usually marks the turnaround point for this 9.2-mile round-trip hike.
Sliding Sands-Switchback Loop
If you’re a fit person, have an entire day to spare, and want to experience the best of Haleakala Crater, then this is hands-down the best day hike in the summit area of the park. Since this is a point-to-point trail, you’re going to end up six miles from where you started, so either drive two cars up the mountain or sweet-talk a fellow visitor into letting you hitch a ride.
While the loop can be hiked in either direction, the most popular—and far less strenuous—route begins at Sliding Sands trailhead and exits via ascending the Switchback Trail. Along the path of this 12.2 mile-journey you experience the full spectrum of Haleakala wonders, from the frosty, mystical summit, to the otherworldly solitude of the crater floor.
The trail is also perfect for a night hike. Depending on what time the moon rises there are two variations of this hike: If the moon rises early, depart the summit at sunset, and if the moon rises later in the evening, begin at about midnight and finish your hike at sunrise. There are few more surreal feelings than walking completely alone, bundled against the chill of the night air, hearing the crunch of volcanic cinder beneath your feet, bathed in moonlight amid a panorama of geological wonder, only to cap off the experience by watching the sun gradually set the colors of the mountain ablaze. Should you attempt to hike the crater by moonlight, it’s best to be overly prepared. Bring a backpack full of extra clothing, carry extra water, pack an extra flashlight. You’ll be exposed to windchills that can dip below freezing at any time of the year.
“Shooting the gap” is the most extreme hike on the island. It takes two days, covers 17.5 miles, and has an elevation drop of 9,500 feet. In order to complete the hike you need to be in prime physical condition and comfortable in the backcountry. The majority of hikers spend the night at Paliku Cabin, which at a distance of 9.2 miles from Sliding Sands trailhead is the remotest—and lushest—of the crater’s three backcountry cabins. For those without a cabin reservation, there is a primitive campsite at Paliku; free permits can be arranged at the park headquarters. On the second day of the hike you’ll make a steep descent from Paliku, pass through a gate that marks the park boundary, and continue across private land (which is allowed) from here until Kaupo Store. Once outside of the park boundary, keep a lookout for axis deer and feral goats as they will occasionally leap across the trail. You finish the hike in the semi-deserted outpost of Kaupo at a distance of 53 road miles from where you started, so if you ever want to make it back to civilization, you either have to arrange a ride or convince the rare passerby to shuttle your sweaty, backcountry body all the way to the other side of the island. If you’re up for the challenge, however, pack accordingly, be prepared, let someone know where you’re going, and take lots of pictures. There aren’t many places in America as pristine as what you’ll find out here.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.