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Exploring The Parks: Haleakala National Park

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The spectacular Haleakala Crater. Photo by QT Luong,, all rights reserved.

Looking for a new adventure? Where better to find one than on a gorgeous Hawaiian island?

The winter months are a great time to explore Haleakalā National Park, particularly if you're looking to flee the snow, ice, and cold temperatures on the mainland.  But come prepared for a very diverse experience and plan to spend a great time hiking around getting to know the park.

Haleakalā -- which translates to "House of the Sun" -- is found on the island of Maui and is divided into three different sections: the Summit Area (mountain), Kīpahulu Area (coastal), and the Wilderness Area (mountain). Each region displays its own beauty and unique qualities; however they all offer a multitude of activities for visitors of all ages.

One of the most popular activities to partake in at this park is sky-watching. Whether it be day or night, the clouds and stars form picture-perfect skies that will leave everyone speechless. This also leads to a bounty of photography options, everywhere throughout the park.

Throughout Haleakalā, you will have the opportunity to view a multitude of wildlife species. Along the shores of the Kīpahulu area, keep an eye out for whales, turtles, dolphins and sea birds. Ever heard of nēnē or endemic honeycreepers? They are unique species that can be found in the lower, wetter parts of the wilderness area.

Summit Area

If you enjoy hiking, there are more than 30 miles of trails broken down into short, long, and overnight wilderness hikes that showoff this part of Haleakalā. You can hike for a half hour or all day, but wherever you head, go prepared for varying conditions. Hiking at the very top of the park, for instance, can wrap you in temperatures 30 degrees cooler than what you'll experience along the coast.

This lofty landscape presents some unique high-elevation ecosystems. The very roof of the park has been described as a "moonscape" due to past volcanics that built the Hawaiian islands. Trails lead to the lip of the Haleakalā Crater at 10,023 feet. From there you can gaze down nearly 3,000 feet to the floor of the crater. All about you are rich ruddy soils and hardened lava flows that reflect past eruptions. (The most recent was most likely sometime between 1480 and 1600, according to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

If you decide to hike here, bring some binoculars, for this is a great place for bird watching, given the plethora of species and breathtaking desert landscape that will surround you. Most of the birds you'll see are not native to the island, but late arrivals. Species you might spot include Skylarks, finches, Cardinals, and even Ring-neck pheasants, which like the grasslands.

Visitors to the Summit region commonly spend their time hiking or talking to park rangers for more information and demonstrations. Some forgoe hiking altogether, and simply drive all the way to the Haleakalā Visitor Center and the nearby Pu'u'ula'ula overlook. Trivia fans will be glad to know that if you drive from the park headquarters to the Haleakalā Visitor Center you'll pass through as many ecological zones as you would on a journey from Mexico to Canada.

Kīpahulu Area

The Kīpahulu Area offers a half-day hike to explore the lower pools and coastline, or a more extreme option, the all day hike, to adventure through the upper pools, waterfalls, and bamboo forest. This region is great for photography, hiking, and gaining some insights on native Hawaiian culture through programs offered at the Visitor Center.

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A waterfall in  'Ohe'o Gulch. Photo by QT Luong,, all rights reserved.

The rainforests and freshwater streams and pools create a tropical setting and display many ways in which the Hawaiians have interacted with the land for hundreds of years. The hiking here is self-guided and very rewarding.

No visit to the Kīpahulu Area is complete without a walk down the Pīpīwai trail, which extends 4 miles through the 'Ohe'o Gulch (which some refer to as the Seven Sacred Pools area) and ends at the 400-foot Waimoku Falls. Worried about the tropical weather making it too hot to hike? Many visitors swim in the lower pools to cool off before, after, or even during long hikes to give themselves a break.

Just be careful if you go for a dip, as downpours can produce flash floods. Sadly, back in 2003 and father and his 7-year-old son drowned when they were washed out of one of the freshwater streams in 'Ohe'o Gulch and into the Pacific Ocean. In 2007 the Park Service settled a negligence lawsuit for $2 million.

A second lawsuit led to a larger settlement, of $5 million, in 2009 in connection with the deaths of a man and his daughter.

Of course, hiking along the coast means hiking in humid conditions, and there's always a chance for gusty winds or sudden downpours. But you'll also have a chance to see whales or dolphins off-shore.

Kīpahulu Campground

The Kīpahulu campground is about 1/8 mile south of the Kīpahulu Visitor Center. It overlooks ocean cliffs and is a short walk from ʻOheʻo Gulch. In the evenings, the sound of the ocean waves makes this a peaceful place. The campground has picnic tables, BBQ grills, and pit toilets. No water is available at Kīpahulu Campground; However, drinking water is available at the Kīpahulu Visitor Center restrooms.

There are two general stores in the nearby town of Hāna (10 miles away) where you can purchase water and basic food supplies. Be prepared for rain, harsh sun, and mosquitoes.

Wilderness Area

The Wilderness Area will have you feeling as if you are on top of the world. This region encompasses the bulk of the 29,093-acre park and includes several microclimates, which can lead to some extreme climate changes. Differing from the mountains of the Summit Area, this part of Haleakalā is full of brown and red cinder cones towering hundreds of feet into dry, cold desert air.

This area can be accessed by two mountaintop trailheads: Halemau’u Trailhead at 8,000 feet and Keonehe’ehe’e, also known as the Sliding Sands Trailhead, near the summit at 9,740 feet. Eventually, both trails merge and lead down the southeast side of the volcano to the unpopulated coast in the Kaupō district.

To provide some simple comforts during extended explorations of this section of the park, you might want to rent one of backcountry cabins. To reach the cabins, which offer plank bunkbeds, you must hike a minimum of 3.7 miles from the Halemau'u Trailhead the to Hōlua Cabin, 5.6 miles from the Haleakalā Visitor Center to the Kapalaoa Cabin, and 9.3 miles from the Haleakalā Visitor Center to the Palikū Cabin.

"Hōlua Cabin, the closest cabin, lies at 6,940 feet (2,115 meters) in the shrubland near Koʻolau Gap, 3.7 miles down the Halemauʻu Trail or 7.4 miles down Keoneheʻeheʻe Trail. Visitors staying at Hōlua can enjoy day hikes into the central Wilderness Area. The landscape around Hōlua supports a native shrubland which colonized the lava flows. There is also a campground at Hōlua.

Kapalaoa Cabin, 5.5 miles down the Keoneheʻeheʻe or 7.3 miles from Halemauʻu Trailhead, lies at the base of the cliffs on the south side of the valley. The view from Kapalaoa takes in brightly colored cinder cones, subalpine plants, and dramatic cliffs.

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The ʻuaʻu, or Hawaiian petrel. NPS photo.

In the spring and summer months, the endangered ʻuaʻu (Hawaiian dark-rumped petrel) can occasionally be heard and seen near the high cliffs. This cabin lies at 7,250 feet (2,210 meters). There is no campsite near Kapalaoa cabin.

Palikū Cabin, at 6,380 feet (1,945 meters), is at the east end of the wilderness valley at the base of a rain forest cliff. The cabin is reached via a strenuous 9.3-mile hike on Keoneheʻeheʻe Trail, 10.1 miles on Halemauʻu Trail, or 8.6 miles up the Kaupō Trail.

Clouds and fog often roll over the top of the cliffs behind Palikū. The extra moisture makes this spot exceptionally cool and lush. There is also a campground at Palikū."

With a little planning and some good trail maps, you can piece together a great loop hike of several days. From the Sliding Sands Trailhead near the Haleakalā Visitor Center you can head east 5.6 miles to the Kapalaoa Cabin, and then on to the Palikū Cabin 3.3 miles away, and return via the Halemau'u and Sliding Sands trails, a trek of about 10 miles. Along the way you'll pass a few volcanic craters that dot this landscape.


Camping in the Wilderness Area requires a permit and cabins must be reserved ahead of time.

Front-country Camping

Hosmer Grove Campground

Hosmer Grove lies in the cloud belt of Haleakalā, just below the 7,000-foot level in the summit area. Be prepared for rain and cold weather. Nighttime temperatures can drop into the to near freezing; daytime highs average 50-65°F (10-18°C). The campground has picnic tables, BBQ grills, drinking water, and pit toilets. Sites are close together in an open, grassy area near the forest and shrubland of Hosmer Grove. A self-guided nature trail begins and ends at the campground. The forest comes to life in the early dawn with the many native birds in the area, making this a beautiful early morning hike.

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The nēnē, Hawaii's state bird, is endangered. NPS photo.

Unique Wildlife

While the landscape certainly is captivating enough, there are two species of birds you should watch for. One is the nēnē, the native Hawaiian goose, and the other is the ʻuaʻu, also known as the Hawaiian petrel.

The nēnē, Hawai‘i's state bird, is a medium-sized goose with a black head, bill, tail feathers, legs, and webbed feet. Unfortunately, it's listed as an endangered species due to predation, declining habitat, and being run over by motorists.

The petrel is a seabird that flies over land at night and is thought to navigate by the stars, according to the Park Service. Unfortunately, the petrels sometimes are confused by lights on the island. "The seabirds fly around the lights, become tired and fall to the ground," the park notes.

The subalpine shrublands and coastal strand communities within Haleakalā contain many plant species and assemblages found nowhere else in the world, including plants such as the spectacular ‘Ähinahina, or Haleakalā silversword. 

Kipahulu Scientific Reserve

A fascinating region of the park, but one that is closed to most public entry, is the Kipahulu Scientific Reserve. This area, which covers the eastern third of the park, includes two broad valleys bordered by steep walls, not unlike a box canyon. 

"In 1967, a group of scientists sponsored by The Nature Conservancy made a preliminary exploration of the remote valley. They discovered rare native Hawaiian birds, one previously considered extinct (the Nukupu`u), and made sightings of the very rare Maui Parrotbill," notes the Park Service on Haleakala's website. "Ninety percent of the plants they recorded were native. They found 75 species of ferns and fern-allies, all but one native to Hawaiʻi, and recorded a dozen species of native lobelias, all unique to Hawaiʻi. They concluded that the valley was outstanding from a botanical and ecological standpoint and should be preserved.

"Through effort of TNC and Laurance Rockefeller, Kīpahulu was added to Haleakalā National Park. The upper valley is currently managed as a scientific preserve with entry restricted to resource managers and scientists conducting management and studies deemed necessary for preservation of Kīpahulu's native ecosystems."

As you can see, Haleakalā is not a "windshield" park that you can truly experience from inside your vehicle. It begs you to get out and explore the landscape and all within it.

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