Located on the Island of Maui, Haleakala National Park is visited by over one million people each year. Although the park is vast (over 33,000 acres) and offers countless opportunities to experience Maui’s wild side, it is best known as one of the world’s best places to watch the sunrise.
I recently visited the Haleakala summit and compiled this list of four tips (along with a few other insights) to help you view the Haleakala sunrise like a pro.
TIP 1: ARRIVE EARLY
Arriving early is essential. To plan your arrival, you’ll first want to find out when the sun will be rising during your stay.
Next, you should know that it takes 1.5 hours to drive from Kahului (where the airport is) to the summit according to the National Parks Service. You’ll then need to tag on the time it takes to get from where you’re staying to Kahului (30 minutes from Wailea and 45 minutes from Kaanapali — two of the most popular areas to stay on the island). Be sure to check current traffic conditions and exact times before leaving.
Once that’s taken care of, you can start working backwards to plan your departure time. When I found out what time the sun would rise (6:20am in November), I thought I could wake up at 4:00am and leave at 4:20am. That was wishful thinking.
I was staying in Wailea, woke up at 2:30am, was on the road by 3:10, and still I should have left about 25 minutes earlier.
3 REASONS TO LEAVE EARLY:
The road to the summit is one lane in each direction and there are about 20 switchbacks (zig zags — follow road 378 down the mountain on the map below to see for yourself). This being the case, traffic can build up at points.
When you near the summit, you’ll first reach the visitor center parking lot. In the darkness of the early morning, it’s easy to think this lot is as high as you can go. But right before the entrance to the visitor center lot there is a road that goes up to the summit — that’s where you want to go.
The summit parking lot only has 40 spots and a lot more than 40 cars want to park there. When I got to the lot, every spot was taken. After driving half way back down to the visitor center lot, I turned around and decided to double park in the summit lot. Within no time people were double and triple parked and parking along the road leading to into the lot.
Thinking about traffic and parking, especially in relation to your trip to Hawaii, is not fun. What is fun is thinking about the insanely incredible stargazing you’ll be able to do if you get here early. Remember, you’ll be on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at 10,000 feet elevation and there’ll be no light pollution to mess up your view. That’s probably why they built the Haleakala Observatory here.
TIP 2: WEAR WARM CLOTHES
Yes, if you’re visiting Haleakala for sunrise, you’re going to want to bring a coat with you to Hawaii. It sounds absurd, but trust me it’s a good idea. Still don’t believe me? Temperatures at the summit can reach 30°F (-1°C).
TIP 3: AVOID THE CROWD
To the left side of the parking lot and up a set of stairs there is a pavilion where everyone views the sunrise. And just like it’ll be hard to find a parking spot if you arrive late, it’ll be hard to find a good spot to stand at the pavilion too.
That’s why I recommend heading to the right side of the parking lot where a very short path will take you to a great spot to view the sunrise without the crowd (unless a lot of people read this article and catch on).
*I wouldn’t even attempt to walk up the path and view the sunrise from this vantage point if you don’t have a flash light. It’ll be pitch dark and the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself…or you know, fall of a mountain. Seriously, use caution.
Extra Tip: Bring a flashlight.
TIP 4: STAY AWHILE
I couldn’t believe when I saw people leaving and driving back down the mountain literally two minutes after the sun came above the clouds. Within 20 minutes after sunrise, the parking lot was 75% empty.
You’ll have woken up at 2:30am, driven all the way up here, and will find yourself standing in one of the most beautiful spots on earth…STAY AWHILE! Don’t pull out your Hawaii ‘to-do’ list and check off “see sunrise at Haleakala” and high tail it out of here.
Stay and watch the sun get higher in sky, watch the light change, watch the clouds change, walk around, read the signs and just generally soak in the experience of being at the top of Maui.
I stayed for an hour and a half and nearly had the place to myself. It truly made the experience for me.
SO SHOULD I DO IT?
Yes. I know this list of tips might seem to take the magic out of the experience, but being in traffic, not finding parking, missing the stars, being cold, being crowded and missing out on the beauty that comes after the sunrise is what will really take the magic out of it. It’s best to be prepared!
And yes, getting up that early in the morning might not sound appealing, but you’ll be glad you did it in the end. Plus, chances are you’ll be in Hawaii on vacation and have the luxury of spending the rest of your day napping by the pool or on the beach.
Extra Tip: I’d recommend making your trip up to Haleakala on your first morning in Hawaii if you’re coming from the east (i.e. the continental Unite States). Why? Because when you wake up at 2:30am, to you’re internal clock it may feel later (+3hours later if you live on the west coast, for example).
WHAT ABOUT SUNSET?
Haleakala isn’t just great for sunrises, it’s also a prime spot to watch the sunset. Besides not having to wake up early, the weather at this time of day is warmer and more predictable than in the morning. Plus, there will be far fewer people there.
EXPLORE THE AREA
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