Watching the sun rise above the clouds at Haleakala National Park is a unique and memorable experience that I highly recommend you see. Haleakala is a Hawaiian name that means house of the sun. It is truly an awesome place to watch the clear night sky and stars fade away as the sun lights up the sky and earth.
There are so many people who go to watch sunrise on Haleakala hurriedly as if it was just another thing to mark off their “to do list”. Do you remember the scene from National Lampoon’s Vacation when the Griswolds saw the Grand Canyon in all of about 30 seconds? There have been so many people who treat sunrise on Haleakala the same way. I’d like to encourage you to really enjoy your time on Haleakala. So, I’m writing up my best tips for getting the most out of your early morning at more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
NEW: Book a sunrise reservation
Beginning February 2017, visitors in personal or rental vehicles wishing to view sunrise at Haleakalā National Park will need to make sunrise viewing reservations ahead of time at recreation.gov. The online reservation system was implemented to ensure visitor and employee safety, protect natural and cultural resources, and provide a quality visitor experience at the summit during sunrise hours (3am to 7am). At last check, the reservation fee is $1 per car, but check for any updates to that cost.
The one-day sunrise reservation is not sold at the park but is available online. How far in advance that you can book a reservation has varied. Check recreation.gov for the current options. They have generally offered the tickets in two different batches. Check www.recreation.gov for their current policies as it is subject to change.
A sunrise reservation is only available via www.recreation.gov and cannot be transferred. To enter the Summit District between 3am and 7am, the reservation holder must be present and show both the one-day sunrise reservation receipt (for that day) and a photo ID.
Note that a reservation is not required if visiting prior to 3am and after 7am.
I highly recommend you map out your route at least the day before you go while you are alert and in light. What might be even easier is if you are bringing a GPS navigation system (see my post on Hawaii GPS stress savers), check your unit to see if it has the Haleakala crater or summit stored in the system.
Please note that there are two Haleakala visitor centers on Maui — one on the summit, which is where you want to go. The other one, which you do not want to go to for Haleakala sunrise, is past Hana in Kipahulu.
You can create your own custom directions to Haleakala summit for sunrise. Write out, print out or download the directions including both the highway’s name and number. This advice may sound silly, but it will save you from having to navigate on-the-fly from the map in the dark. You’ll likely be sleepy and less alert when you’re in the car on your way, so by having your directions all laid you, you’ll save yourself from stress and possibly prevent making a wrong turn.
Make sure you have plenty of gas the day before you go. You certainly don’t want to trying to find a gas station that is open in the middle of the night. Be advised that there are no service stations in the park.
The road to the summit is well paved and marked. Be aware that the road that leads up to the crater is very curvy and steep and there are no street lights.
The lower elevation of the road runs through open range cattle farm, so it’s possible that cows could be in the road from around September through March. We have seen cattle very near to the road. Be especially careful driving around the blind curves in the grassy, lower elevations.
How much does it cost?
In addition to the $1.50 sunrise reservation fee, the entrance fee to this national park is currently $25 per car for a car. The fee allows you to have valid entrance for three days. Here is a link to the fee structure to verify the current pricing. Take note of how long your park entrance slip is valid. Then, aim to plan your day to drive the road to Hana within the valid date so that you can present your entry slip at the Haleakala visitors center at the Kipahulu region and not have to pay the fee again.
What’s it like to drive the road?
After a mid-day visit to Haleakala, we created this video of driving down Haleakala. A few things to notice is that the road is on the cliff edge and there aren’t guard rails.
When to go
I like to plan to see the sunrise at Haleakala on the first or second day of my trip to Maui. I travel to Maui from the east, so I’m jet lagged anyway and getting up in the wee hours of the morning is not hard to do particularly early on in the trip.
Some folks prefer to go to Haleakala at sunset. Personally, I like sunrise. In this link, we look at the pros and cons of Haleakala sunrise versus sunset.
Most people will look at the sunrise times for Haleakala and the drive time and allow the minimum time to get to the summit. They rush straight to sunrise barely getting there before the sun appears. These people really miss out on the beautiful and serene show that God provides beforehand.
I love to get to the summit around 5am so that I can do some stargazing before the sky starts lighting up. The summit of Haleakala is actually one of the best places on earth to stargaze. It is also one of the most easily accessible places in Hawaii to get a world-class view of the night sky. You will most likely see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life — unless you are there on a full moon night. Watch for shooting stars.
As the stars start to fade and the night sky lightens, take note of the direction the light is coming from. Then take a seat along the rock wall towards that direction. You’ll then have the “best seat in the house” for watching sunrise. Notice all the subtle changes in color in the sky and land. (Note: if you see lights off in the south east direction, that will most likely be from the Big Island.)
Weather might also factor in your decision of when to go to see sunrise. Call this toll free number to access the National Weather Service’s Haleakala summit forecast. That toll-free number is (866) 944-5025.
What to bring
- The summit of Haleakala is over 10,000 feet above sea level, so it is cold and often windy. Check the current summit weather conditions at this link. If you have room in your suitcase to stuff in a warm coat or windbreaker, bring it. Packable, puffer coats are ideal. At a minimum bring a warm scarf, socks, gloves and a hat that’s not easily blown off. Those items don’t take up much room in your luggage. You might consider bringing thermal underwear, if you have it. Wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirt. (It’s always a good idea to have long trousers in Hawaii anyway.) If you can, wear layers of clothing. Bring beach towels and blankets to wrap around you. Trust me, it’s going to be cold, even in the summer. It could also be windy, so be as prepared as you can for those conditions.
- A camera for taking photos of sunrise and the volcano’s summit.
- A flashlight for navigating your way from the parking area up to the observatory steps.
- Binoculars to get a closer view of the stars, planets and distant terrain.
- You might want to bring water and/or a light snack as there are no food services at the park. If you’re staying in a condo, you may have access to a thermos for bringing a warm beverage.
What to do after sunrise
- Take in the views of the island that were most likely dark when you arrived.
- See the endangered silversword plant — usually seen in the summit parking lot.
- Go to the summit visitor center, which is just below the very top of the summit. There, you can learn more about the history and geology of the area. Park rangers are generally on hand to answer questions. Be sure to see the view of the crater floor with its barren but colorful terrain.
- The summit area of the park offers over 30 miles of hiking trails for taking in the views, seeing native shrubs and plants, and possibly seeing some wildlife. We saw the endangered Nene when we were there.
- After leaving the park, my favorite thing to do is to have some fluffy macadamia nut pancakes with coconut syrup at the Kula Lodge restaurant. Breakfast is good here, but the views are even better!
See my article, If you are wondering whether you should see Haleakala sunrise or sunset.
If you’re someone who likes to learn more about a site before you visit it, check out this USGS page about the geology and history of the volcano Haleakala.
I hope these tips will help you get the most out of your sunrise experience. Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments.
See more ideas of what to do and see on your Maui vacation.