The Butt Crack of Dawn

The Journey Begins

“Honey, you’re going to have to drive, I took an Ambien last night and I’m really groggy,” my wife said. So began our trip to see sunrise at the top of Haleakala. My lovely wife, who had done ALL of our driving for the previous two weeks while we island hopped from Oahu to Kauai to Maui had just informed me it was now my turn. As we prepared for a drive that included 20 miles of white-knuckle-hairpin-turn roads. At 2:00 in the morning. We learned a long time ago our trips are much more harmonious if she does the driving and I do the navigating. Today we were to remind ourselves why that is so.

WaileaCredit: Ramona Hacker

We were staying in the Wailea area of Maui and heading to a projected 5:51 a.m. sunrise at 10,023 feet above sea level. We had done this four years ago when it was just the two of us but wanted to take our 10 year old son to see it this time, although a big part of each of us was hoping he would opt to sleep in on this, our last day in the islands. No such luck. We had read it is good to arrive an hour before the projected sunrise to be sure you are be able to get into the parking lot at the summit since the park service closes the lot once it reaches capacity. Doing the math and trying to guess at the drive time from Wailea we figured we had better be on the road by 2:30 a.m. to get there with a bit more than an hour to spare. We actually beat that departure time by 5 minutes, an odd occurrence for us (just ask any of our friends or anyone in our extended families).

We knew it was going to be an adventurous trip once I got behind the wheel, adjusted my seat, and figured out how to adjust the side mirrors on our rental. I pulled out of the condo complex, forgetting it’s a right turn, and drove straight across the street into a parking lot. “This is not going to go well,” I thought. Did I mention I hadn’t driven in two weeks? Not surprisingly, traffic on the island at that time of day is very pleasant – there are only 100 dog-tired souls on the roads, all heading for the same destination. We made unexpectedly good time from Wailea to Haleakala Road and on up to SR377. The roads were all wide open, multi-lane, mostly straight stretches of pavement. Once on SR377, however, the driving started to get a bit challenging due to a few more pronounced curves, nothing too hairy, and slower speed limits. At one point we passed through the cloud level and visibility quickly, but briefly, went to zero.

Shortly before the entrance to Haleakala National Park in the parking lot of Kula Lodge there was a vendor with his trailer set up selling coffee, Danishes, water, and other breakfast goodies specifically for the Haleakala sunrise crowd. This was nothing fancy – literally Costco items (at 3x the price…gotta love capitalism!) – but just right for getting to the top of the volcano. The man behind the counter advised we were about an hour from the summit and let us know he would be open until 7:00 a.m. should we want anything on the way down.

After we turned into Haleakala National Park (onto SR378) the driving got scary. The road is a series of hairpin turns, and as you might imagine (since you are traveling to witness sunrise) it is quite dark. I am no wimpy driver – have done miles and miles of winding mountain roads, we did the Road to Hana with zero tension, and the Road Beyond Hana with relative ease, but this drive was a bit much. Back and forth through the 15 mph turns we went, with each progressive turn my fingers buried themselves deeper into the steering wheel and portions of the car seat bunched up more and more in uncomfortable places. Starry NightThere are no lights of any kind along the way, so my imagination filled the void of darkness by envisioning shear drop offs on either side of the road, a vision enhanced occasionally by the tiny cluster of city lights that was Kahului 7,000 feet below. The entire experience was amplified by my dear wife, who although too groggy to drive apparently wasn’t too groggy to repeatedly ask why I was driving so slow while letting me know I needed to hurry up (apparently the sun comes up on time on a pretty reliable basis). There were no guardrails and occasionally we would see signs warning of the possibility of cows in the road. Fortunately I had purchased a cup of coffee at the overpriced-Costco-stuff-breakfast-trailer so I would be alert for this challenging part of the drive; UNfortunately, the hairpins were spaced at such intervals that I was unable to take one hand off the wheel long enough to drink my coffee. At one point along the drive we came to the park entrance gate - the guard station is unmanned at this time of the morning and there is a self service kiosk to purchase your park pass. We had visited Kipahula (Seven Sacred Pools) which is part of Haleakala National Park the day before and since that pass was good for 24 hours we didn't need to stop to purchase the pass.

The winding road continued in the same manner until reaching the visitor's station near the summit. The station, which includes a gift shop and park information, was not yet open but the restrooms were. Don't be fooled into thinking you've reached the summit, however. The road continues (stay to the right as you enter the visitor's station parking lot) up another few hundred feet to the summit parking lot. We got to the summit with plenty of time to spare, we were the third car in the parking lot.

Now What?

I looked at my watch and it was 3:50 a.m. - exactly two hours before sunrise. So then the question became, "What the heck are we going to do in the pitch dark for two hours?" Mother Nature quickly provided an incredible answer for us. The sky is perfectly clear at that elevation with minimal to no light pollution and millions of stars are plainly visible. The Perseid meteor shower climaxes on August 12/13th each year and since our trip to the summit occurred on August 2nd, we were treated to the early stages of the meteor shower. My son counted 19 shooting stars in less than 10 minutes. When we weren't witnessing meteors, we were able to see satellites passing overhead with our bare eyes. Outside of that the other things to do while waiting included: traveling back down to the visitor's station restrooms to drop off our used coffee (there are no facilities at the summit), experimenting with the "Starry Night" scene setting on our camera, figuring out how to maintain our core body temperature while wearing clothing meant for warm sunny tropical islands, making a note to get another hour's sleep the next time we do sunrise at Haleakala, and then making another note for our next trip to Maui to witness sunset at Haleakala instead of sunrise.

People slowly began arriving and gathering atthe summit during the hour leading up to sunrise. Approximately 30 minutes before scheduled sunrise the sky's hue began to transform from absolute black to midnight blue, and then through a wide range of blues into pinks and oranges. 


We were fortunate there was widespread cloud cover below us as this served to amplify and reflect the broad spectrum of colors the rising sun generated. At 5:50 a sliver of the sun appeared, and then a semi-circle, and within minutes the sun was fully above the horizon. We could clearly see the peaks of the Big Island's volcanos as if they were only a few miles from us. By that time the population at the summit had grown to about 100 people or more, and we were able to see a multitude of other people down at the visitor's center. As the sun continued its ascent people were snapping pictures and touring the small circular building at the summit which contains information about Haleakala and the surrounding scenery.

Many of the tour groups who visit Haleakala for sunrise witness the spectacle from the visitor's center below. Once the sun is up they travel to the summit, so things got pretty crowded for us soon after sunrise. Since the air temperature was 49 degrees, it was entertaining to see what passes for cold weather fashion, and how creative people can get with their rain gear when that's the only thing they packed to do anything but go to the beach or dinner. At some point you'll want to take your picture in front of the "Elevation 10,023'" sign - but prepare to wait your turn as EVERYONE who's up there will be taking the same picture of themselves.

But Wait, There's More

With daylight came the ability to experience the other amazing things the Haleakala summit has to provide. The landscape is desolate and barren, closely resembling the images of the surface of Mars. However, among this desolation are some plant and animal species that only exiHaleakala SilverswordCredit: Bart Sontagst in this one location, most notably the Haleakala Silversword, or ʻāhinahina. Once abundant on the island of Maui, this plant is now an endangered species due to overgrazing and its existence is limited to the 2500 acres atop Haleakala.

Once we had our few hundred pictures taken of sunrise and the views from the summit we traveled back down to the visitor's center. By this time we were starting to feel the effects of the altitude, or lack of sleep, or both. The visitor’s center includes an interesting display of the volcanic history of Maui, along with souvenir offerings of books, posters, and trinkets. If your child participates in the National Park Service’s passport program, you can get your cancellation stamp at the visitor’s center as well. We perused the shop for a brief time, snapped a few more dozen photos, and then began our descent – my wife drove this time, careful not to hit the dozens of people on bikes who for some reason find screaming down a volcano a fun way to start the day. Along the way we stopped at some of the scenic overlooks, where you can hike into the crater if you so desire. Because of how bad we were starting to feel we opted for snapping a few more pictures but really felt the need to get back down to a lower elevation.

On the way back down to sea level we stopped at Kula Lodge for breakfast with a restaurant full of other sunrise watchers. For us one of the unexpected benefits of the Haleakala sunrise experience paid off the following day. Since our Haleakala visit was on our final morning in the islands and we headed back to Orlando later that day, getting up at 2:00 a.m. was the same as getting up at 8:00 a.m. at home, so we overcame the six hours of jet lag in nearly a single day!


The Highest Point on Maui

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Haleakala National Park, Makawao, HI 96768, USA