You don’t expect to find peace standing on a volcano of all places. You think, maybe I’ll get a good photo of the sun or two, or a thousand. You think of (or forget) the lava way, way beneath you and when this hot spot might get going again, hopefully NOT in our lifetime. As popular Hawaiian myth goes, the volcano goddess Pele created the Hawaiian Islands through the forges of lava. Also according to legend, Haleakala – Maui’s dormant shield volcano – was the pivotal place where the demigod Maui did battle with the sun god La. So to find peace and calm atop Haleakala’s summit is quite a surreal thing. Sunset at Haleakala header photo by Falco Ermert.
The stories of Haleakala sunrise are downright legendary and ridden with hyperboles. “Heavenly”, “otherworldly”, “the most beautiful/magical/spectacular thing I’ve ever seen”.
Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of aloha for Haleakala sunset – a hyperbolic experience in its own right.
There’s no one to blame. Sunrise and Haleakala go together like spam and rice. Most people prefer sunsets on a boat or at the beach. Therein lies the problem, and a collective headache amongst locals and regular visitors.
Haleakala has gotten so over-crowded in mornings that, to mitigate demand, the visitor homepage for a time boasted the equally sublime spectacle of the park at sunset. It doesn’t help that the park logo is that of a sunrise.
As a local, I had only ever visited the summit at dawn. It’s the only thing people talk about. Mark Twain wrote about it. Oprah Winfrey witnessed it for herself. It just never occurred to me to try Haleakala at dusk. You think, how different can the sunset be? Then again, that’s what we all thought about the sunrise.
To get to Haleakala in time for sunrise, you have to wake up 3 a.m. If I haven’t lost you there, it’s then a 90-minute drive to the top. A significant portion of that drive involves a winding 38-mile road. You go from sea-level to 10,000 feet in those 38 miles, making it one of the steepest roads in Hawaii. There’s at least a half-hour of waiting to get in because there will be a long line of cars who made the trip up with you. Did I mention how cold it gets in the early morning at that elevation?
You don’t have to worry about ANY of that at sunset, I’ve found. You can sleep in all you want, actually enjoy the drive and do so at your leisure. And, this is the best part: no crowds. That means zero waiting and take-your-pick parking. (A colleague mentioned those 3 things and I nearly headed to the summit right then and there.)
It wasn’t until the occasion of a few visiting friends that I decided to see what it was really like. “Let’s do something we’ve never done before,” they suggested in a group chat – a hard request to live up to on an island where we’ve seen and done almost everything.
I said let’s try the sunset at Haleakala. Everybody was game.
The sunrise at Haleakala had been a ritual for us since high school. You know that scene in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio stands at the front of the ship and yells, “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!”? We’re not fans of ill-fated voyages, but the summit was the highest point of the world for all we knew. Everything feels that way in high school, but there was something about standing above the clouds and overlooking an entire island, arms out, that made you feel like you ruled.
There’s something mythic about Haleakala in general. When you live in South Maui, the enormity of Haleakala is in your back yard. Living in Central Maui is a lot like being in its front yard. And when you’re Upcountry, you’re at its doorstep. Haleakala is simultaneously leagues away yet always within reach. The same could be said of the sun.
Our Sunset at Haleakala Experience
My friends and I drove up slack-jawed the entire time. The narrow road, winding turns and steep drop-off were still palm-sweat inducing. Knuckles white, we watched as the subtropical weather and palm trees gave way to a cool, subalpine desert. The drive, at least, was much smoother in the afternoon. We made it to the summit in an hour.
“Looks like you’ve got the place to yourself this evening,” the park ranger said at the entrance.
Save for a few stragglers of the day, the parking lot was empty – already a wonderful sight to see. Mornings are so jam-packed with rentals and tour vans, it becomes a puzzle to get out. Here at 4 p.m. and the summit was ours for the taking.
Friendly reminder: remember to take deep breaths. We forgot how much thinner the air gets up there, so our brief hikes up nearby mounds wore us out fast.
It’s amazing how a lack of buildings and technology (and people in general) can immediately transport you. Being among the few souls wandering a lone, empty mountain, it was mysteriously quiet, blissfully serene.
A peek of Old Hawaii. Nothing but untouched land spread out before you, save for the roads and observatories. We wondered what ancient Hawaiians thought of this place, if they felt like they had truly reached the place of the gods and, moreover, how they navigated their way back down using only the stars as a guide. Wayfinding, they called it. We used Google Maps. (It had been a while since we last came.)
Everything about Haleakala felt sacred. The silverswords sprouting as tall as people, the rocks beneath our feet, the paths we strolled, the horizon, even the sun god himself, now in position for the moment we came to see.
The low-hanging sun lit the entire vista. You get dizzy for a second thinking the sun was moving. In fact, it was, fast descending – its rays outstretched like arms yawning.
For a moment, the sky was awash in colors. Deep orange, a lingering blue from the day and black heralding the night. The light grew smaller and smaller, and before we were ready for it, the sun drew for a close beneath the comforter of the clouds.
We might get old, but these Maui sunsets never do.
We yearned for an encore and, looking up, it was like the gods had heard us. Stars were strewn across the night sky in constellations we didn’t know how to make. Where we felt alone, suddenly the stars were there to keep us company.
One thing I didn’t know about Haleakala, it’s a prime stargazing spot. Unencumbered by the pollution of big city lights, the view of the stars is much, much clearer at 10,000 feet. As night came down, we could make out the aural mist of the Milky Way. We saw shooting stars streaking across the canvas. The moon, too, beamed brighter than we had ever seen it.
The coolest part by far was a one of a kind laser show we hadn’t expected to see.
The Maui Space Surveillance Complex recently installed a guided laser system for the summit’s state-of-the-art telescope. Every so often, a beam of green light shoots into the stratosphere acting as an aid whenever the telescope loses focus. At least, that’s what a fellow stargazing couple had explained to us when they heard us oohing and aahing.
We took blankets and spread them on the pavement for us to lay down and ponder our place in the galaxy. Our heads were above the clouds, firmly in the heavens. We were free to draw our own constellations, most of them emojis and Disney characters. (A friend swore he could make out Maui’s hook.) At that elevation, there truly were no worries; no noise except for our gasps, and zero distractions from our phones. Just us and what the universe was happy to show.
You come out here and the sun and the stars reset you. Like completing a journey, or beginning a new one. We still had to make it back down the mountain, this time in total darkness, but we weren’t in a rush. Beneath the great compass of the cosmos, I knew we’d find our way eventually.
Adrian Manuel is a freelance writer. He’s published articles on Thought Catalog, written a flash piece for A Quiet Courage, and submitted feature essays for The Good Men Project and Mamalode. He also runs an entertainment news blog where he reports on film, television, and music. He lives in Maui.