When you picture the landscape of Hawaii, you might be imagining a few things. Beaches and waterfalls, certainly. Maybe a lush forest or two? And oh, yeah. Dry, barren rocky volcanoes.
Even if these things don’t seem to go together (and in typical climate zones, they don’t), at Haleakala National Park, all aspects of the Hawaii in your head come to life in the most beautiful way.
There are two very distinct areas of Haleakala National Park, located on the island of Maui. The more popular Summit Area, the site of the Haleakala Crater, is arid and cold, while the Kipahulu Area, to the south of the summit, is wet and much hotter. Of course, to get the full picture, we recommend you visit both.
You will sense the most obvious difference in the two areas of Haleakala as soon as you step out of the car. Down in the Kipahulu area, the temperatures were similar to those all around the coast: 70s to 80s. The air is thick with humidity. A danger of the area is flash flooding, which can occur without warning and become hazardous to those swimming in the Ohe’o Gulch pools.
However, travel up to the Summit Area, feel the 30-40 degree temperatures, and you will not be thinking of swimming. Of course, much of this is due to the 10,000 foot altitude. The air is much drier, but it does rain here. We were warned often of this, as rain and cold can quickly cause hypothermia on a longer hike without rain protection.
Of course, we try to be prepared for these situations. (We don’t always succeed, hashtag weforgotourheadlamps). But thankfully, we were blessed with fantastic weather as we hiked, camped, and explored both areas of our twenty-second national park.
Things to do at each area of Haleakala were similar in category, but so different in application. At Kipahulu, the most popular activity is the four-mile Pipiwei Trail, which traverses through a Bamboo Forest and ends at the gorgeous 400-foot Waimoku Falls. We highly recommend this, as it was a great way to immerse ourselves into this area of the park. The other activity that seems like a must-do is swimming in the Ohe’o Gulch pools, also known as the “Seven Sacred Pools.” We regret not doing this after hiking, but we had left our swimsuits behind and weren’t really feeling it. The area also has a Visitor Center with guided hikes and ranger programs, but we didn’t have any luck in timing for these programs.
We also weren’t able to hit any ranger programs at the Summit Area, although they have at least one talk each day. We were able to participate in the most popular activity, which is seeing the sun rise over Haleakala Crater. This is said to be a sacred spiritual experience for many, and it was clear why. We chose to view the sunrise from the Leilawi Overlook instead of the crowded summit, and were completely alone. This is saying something if you have ever seen the massive line of cars heading up the switchbacks of Haleakala.
While we were at the summit, we also planned out our long backpacking trip into the crater. With the help of a knowledgeable volunteer, we planned a two-day, 19-mile loop from the summit to the Paliku campground and up to the Holealua Trailhead (and hitched a ride back to the summit from the designated Hiker Pickup area along the road.) We obtained free permits to camp at Paliku, and we were off.
The hike was moderate, but since we hadn’t hiked much in the last couple months (with all these beaches and winter break, we’re soft), we were more than ready to call it a day after the first day’s nine miles. We relaxed at the beautiful campground, hung out with a few endangered nene, and the next day we walked the remaining ten miles on sore but happy-to-be-back muscles.
If the activities weren’t enough to keep us happy (they were), the camping made us jump for joy. Mostly because the campgrounds at both Kipahulu and the Summit (called Hosmer Grove) were free.
At Kipahulu, try to set up before night and snag a spot with a view of the coast. There is no water directly at the campground, but you can drive a quarter mile to the Visitor Center and get water there, 24/7.
At Hosmer Grove, the sites are nestled up to the surrounding woods, and water is available at the campground.
Again, both drive-up campgrounds are totally free. Enough said.
A final huge difference between the two distinct areas of Haleakala lies in an area that’s hard to define: the experience. It’s especially hard for Cole to define, since the vibe of a place doesn’t affect him much. (Back in KC, I had to explain the difference in experience of shopping at Sprouts versus Walmart, for example. He still only kind of gets it).
But to me, the vibe of a place speaks volumes. In Kipahulu, the atmosphere was much more laid back, with many locals at the campground playing music (even live ukulele) and friends taking a dip in the pools of Ohe’o. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry or concerned with getting a perfect picture. I don’t think I saw a single selfie stick.
Up at the Summit however, the selfie sticks were flying. Lines of cars waited to climb the switchbacks just before sunrise. People of all ages peered over the edge of Haleakala Crater. The campground was quiet in the evenings.
To me, having both of these experiences during a vacation is good. Balance. Don’t skip the summit just because there will be tourists there. (Seriously, if you go to Maui and don’t see the Haleakala sunrise you are severely missing out!)
But know when and where to get off the beaten path for a bit. Take a hike. Interact with the locals. Slow down. See how people actually live in a place.
Haleakala National Park is a great example of how you can have two totally distinct experiences in the same national park.
To finish, here are a few tips to keep in mind when visiting Haleakala:
- Pack for lots of different temperatures and weather. Layers. Rain jackets. Sunscreen.
- Combine visiting the Kipahulu Area with your drive along the famous Road to Hana. The park starts about twelve miles past Hana.
- Get gas before driving up to Haleakala Summit.
- Set up camp in the daylight so you can pick out a breathtaking spot, especially in Kipahulu.
- Start hikes early. We saw almost no one on the Pipiwei Trail until our way back, when we passed dozens.
- Don’t be afraid to watch the Haleakala sunrise from somewhere other than the summit. All the overlooks have great views, too, and they were all but empty.
- If you are hiking into the crater and staying a night, we suggest Paliku as the best scenery.
Enjoy Haleakala! We surely did.
And check out our Haleakala video for footage of the sunset, waterfalls and our trip into the crater!