Life List: Haleakala Crater, Maui

Venture away from beaches and into Maui's massive shield volcano inside Haleakala National Park.
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Venture away from beaches and into Maui's massive shield volcano inside Haleakala National Park.

WE LEFT EARTH LESS THAN AN HOUR AGO. A black- and red-colored moonscape stretches as far as I can see, interrupted only by the sheer drop-off ahead. I weave between a few scattered silverswords—the only sign that I don’t need an oxygen mask up here—and peer over the lip of the crater. Below, the whole scene is shrouded in mist. A clump of clouds floats across the cavity, revealing 500-foot-tall, black cinder cones and a maze of ancient lava flows in its wake. As I plunge down the narrow path into the eerie belly of the volcano, I can’t help but second-guess myself. Shouldn’t I be lounging on a beach, applying sunscreen?

My husband, Kevin, and I intended to spend our first vacation in Hawai’i sipping mai tais, snorkeling, and sleeping in. But we’re hikers, and it felt foolish to ignore Maui’s famed volcanic trails. Since the trek to the first of the three backcountry cabins inside the Haleakala crater is a mere 3.7 miles, we tried, albeit half-heartedly, to book it two months prior to our departure date. But when we landed a night in the Hōlua Cabin, we didn’t think twice about trading another day of postcard-worthy tropical scenery for an overnight inside the largest dormant volcano in the world.

After a windy drive up the flanks of 10,023-foot Haleakala, we set out on the Halemau’u Trail at around 8,000 feet. A quick, mile-long walk to the crater lip leads to the sheer drop where the trail snakes 1,000 feet down the to the crater floor. As we descend the switchbacks, I drag a hand across the crumbling wall more for emotional support than real protection. (While the exposure is attention-getting, the footing is secure.) Primordial red ferns grow trailside, but no trees. And all I hear is the sound of the whistling wind and the volcanic rock crunching under our feet.

We gingerly traverse the sharp lava to our home for the night: the Hōlua Cabin, a rustic wood shelter that sleeps 12. Camouflaged amid the moonscape, it seems to pop out of the ground like the scrub brush around it.

Yet, it’s oddly charming. It’s not the honeymoon suite, but $75 nets you the whole cabin, so we spread out among the dozen bunks. We cook dinner on the antique wood-burning stove and catch the famed sunset from the picnic table outside.

A gaggle of curious nēnē geese waddle past, while u’au birds break the silence with their cooing mating calls. Dusk brings a bright pink sky and, soon, stars begin multiplying overhead. The temperature drops into the 40s—more than 35 degrees cooler than the beach we came from earlier in the day—and cinder cones glow under the moonlight. As Kevin and I savor the lunar scenery surrounding us, we know it’s not the moon, but it might as well be another planet.

DO IT:

Trailhead: 20.752357, -156.228295; 18 miles east of Kula

Permit $10 park entry; pick up backcountry permits (free) at the visitor center. Reserve cabins up to six months in advance at recreation.gov ($75/night for the whole cabin). Designated camping areas are near each of the three cabins (free).

Season Year-round. Catch the crater floor’s blossoming silverswords and nesting U’au birds in summer; be prepared for rain in September and October, as well as light snowfall on the summit in winter.

Contact (808) 572-4400; nps.gov/hale