Thanks to the colorful cinder cones and trails that crunch underfoot, anyone who hikes across Haleakala Crater will swear they could be on the moon. Covering a total of 19 square miles, the crater basin is a vast wilderness with 30 miles of trails. It’s a place of adventure, mythology, and silence—and home to Maui’s best hiking. If you love the outdoors, no trip to Maui is complete without a spending a day on the crater floor.
Hikers need to be prepared, however, as temperatures can range from 30°F to 80°F over the course of a single day. The hiking is at high elevation, 7,000 to 10,000 feet, and hiking back up generally takes twice as long as the hike down. Hike Maui (808/879-5270, $179) is the only company that offers commercially guided hiking tours. Should you go on your own, here’s a rundown of the most popular hikes, listed from shortest to longest. All mileage is round-trip.
If you don’t feel like watching the sunrise with 200 other people, huff your way up the five-minute Pa Ka‘oao Trail that leaves from the Visitors Center parking lot. The view from the top looks down toward the crater, and it’s better than from the parking lot. Bring a flashlight for the walking the trail before sunrise.
Running late for sunrise? Consider hiking to Leleiwi Overlook (8,840 feet). Located by mile marker 17.5, Leleiwi has smaller crowds and is usually warmer. The view looks down on the crater floor and the sheer multihued cliffs, although since the lookout faces east, it isn’t as good for sunset.
Hosmer’s Grove Nature Trail
Unlike other trails in the park, the Hosmer’s Grove Nature Trail is at the park’s lower boundary just after you enter the park. The short trail loops through a dense grove of trees, planted in 1910 as part of an unsuccessful experiment to test the viability of the lumber industry. Surrounded by sweet-smelling pine and fir, grab a fleece and go for a stroll through the 20-plus species of trees, listening for forest birds that flit around in the treetops. To reach the trailhead, make a left on the road pointing toward the campground immediately after entering the park. The walk, over mostly level ground, should take 30 minutes. To extend the trip, hike the Supply Trail for 2.3 miles to where it meets with the crater rim.
Halemau‘u Trail (Switchback Trail)
Beginning from an altitude of only 7,990 feet, the first 1.1 miles of the Halemau‘u Trail meander through scrub brush before 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, and although the trail is well-defined, the drop-offs can be a bit disconcerting. After 3.7 miles—and a 1,000 foot drop—the trail passes Holua Cabin, where you can turn around. Tack on another mile by continuing to Silversword Loop, a section of the crater known for its numerous ‘ahinahina, or endangered silversword plants.
Keinehe‘ehe‘e Trail (Sliding Sands Trail)
Starting at the summit visitor center at 9,800 feet, Keonehe‘ehe‘e descends 2,500 vertical feet to the crater floor below. This trail is barren, windswept, without shade, and a stunning conduit to the cinder cones. You can turn around anytime you want to hike out. Continuing to Kapalaoa Cabin adds 3.5 miles round-trip.
Sliding Sands-Switchback Loop
If you’re in good shape and have a full day to devote to exploring the crater, this is hands-down the best day hike in the summit area. Park at the Halemau‘u trailhead, then hitch a ride to the top, where you’ll hike down to the crater floor on the Sliding Sands Trail. Follow the signs toward Holua Cabin and the Halemau‘u Trail, where a leg-burning, switchbacking, 1,000-foot climb leads back to the car.
If you really want an island adventure that you’ll never forget, consider hiking the trail at night in the light of a full moon. For this night hike, bring a backpack of extra clothing, carry extra water and a flashlight, and dress for windchill that can drop below freezing any time of year.
Of all the hikes in Haleakala Crater, none are more legendary, or more extreme, than “shooting” the Kaupo Gap, a two-day trip, with a stay at Paliku campground, that drops 9,500 vertical feet over 17.5 miles. Permits are required for camping at Paliku, in the crater’s remotest corner, 9.2 miles from the Sliding Sands trailhead.
On the second day of the hike, you’ll descend from Paliku outside the national park boundary, and legally continue across private land until you reach Kaupo Store. Along the trail, keep an eye out for goats and deer that roam the windswept grasslands. When you finally finish the hike in Kaupo, it’s best if you’ve prearranged a ride. If not, you may have to convince the rare passerby to shuttle your sweaty body all the way to the other side of the island. Despite the logistical challenges and the grueling backcountry terrain, this is a unique and memorable hike.
Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Hawaii.