sunrise from summit
Credit: Eric Turner

My photography skills don't do the sunrise justice.

I spent a week in Maui last September for my honeymoon and as much as we were looking forward to some R&R in the sun, we also wanted to experience more.  We decided to plan one more adventurous and activity for each free day of the trip, which usually left us late afternoons and evenings to unwind and enjoy the culinary scene. The activity we planned for our first full day on the island was a sunrise trip to Haleakala National Park, and a bike ride down a volcano.

Sunrise Bike Ride From Haleakala Summit

One of the top things on any Maui to-do list is to go to the top of the summit of Haleakala volcano, which is within Haleakala National Park.  The views from the peak of the 10,023 foot summit are spectacular no matter what time you are there, but it is most popular to visit at either sunrise or sundown.  Sunrise was especially recommended to us as an unforgettable, breathtaking experience, but required some debate whether it would be worth the efforts.  To get to the top with enough time to ensure we didn’t miss the sunrise, meant we should probably leave the hotel no later than 3 am.  To complicate matters further, the temperature before sunrise at the top of the crater could be 50 degrees cooler than at sea level with wind chills below freezing.  Despite some of the initial hesitation, we knew it was something we wanted to add to the itinerary.

Another popular activity associated with the summit is to rent bikes and ride the whole way down, back into town.  We decided to combine the two events and used the Haleakala Bike Company[1] for this excursion.  The company offers several different packages, but we decided on the Sunrise Special Trip which covered everything we were looking for.  As part of the package, they sent a van to pick us up at our hotel (at 1:45 am!!!) and bring us to their shop on the outskirts of the National Park where they fitted us for gear.  After we had everything together, it was back in the van for a guided tour up the mountainside, which took a bit over an hour.  When we got to the top we were there early enough to claim a spot in the large crowd gathering. 

The summit is high enough that it towers through the clouds below.  It was a chilly wait, but the anticipation in the crowd was electric, and eventually we could start to see light from below.  I’m not a strong enough writer to properly describe the scene, but the beauty of the colors emitting to the clouds and mountainside as the sun rose through the cloud layer was truly special.

SilverswordAfter the sun came up we were given plenty of time to walk around and further enjoy the scenery (which we could finally properly see for the first time).  There was also a small information center at the peak.  Did you know that the image to the right is a rare, fragile plant species called Silversword that only grows on the slopes of Haleakala at elevations above 6,900 feet? Well now you do!

After we had our fill of knowledge, we gathered in the van again to drive to the starting spot of the bike ride.  Recent law changes forbid the bike rides from starting within the national park boundaries, so the van actually drops us off just outside, at 6,500 feet above sea level.  One of the main reasons we booked Haleakala Bike Company was that they allowed you freedom to bike down the volcano at your own pace.  The vast majority of competitors that we looked at required the entire tour group to go down at once.  I really valued that flexibility to go as fast or slow as we wanted, and it also seemed safer not to have 50 people biking together alongside a highway down a steep mountain.  On the contrary, I’m sure some may feel safer knowing their guides or other fellow travelers are always within shouting distance if something went wrong, so this may be a personal preference.

The 23 mile ride down was exhilarating, but not difficult.  Since it was a pretty consistent downward slope, there was actually very little pedaling required.  There were several opportunities to stop along the way to soak in more wonderful views of the ocean and the island below.  There were also a couple small towns along the way to take a break in.  We stopped at one café for brunch which hit the spot after a very long morning.  Not long after that we had reached the base of the mountain and found the rest of our tour group.  We were given a van ride back to the hotel shortly afterwards, where we immediately took a nap by the pool.

Maui from afar
Credit: Eric Turner

View of Maui from 10,000 feet


Plan this trip for your very first sunrise on the island.  I think this was key for us, since our internal clocks were already disrupted from long distance flights the day before.  This allowed us to return to a more normal sleeping schedule the rest of the vacation.

Dress warmly, with lots of layers.  Temperatures drop in the 40s and wind chills can dip into the 20s.  Whatever you think you need for these conditions, bring another layer on top of that.  I had long johns, mid layers, sweatshirt, a winter hat and gloves.  My wife wore more than that.  We saw some people bring entire comforters from their hotel rooms.  If you are doing the bike tour too, you can shed the heaviest layers before your ride and leave them in the van.  Temperatures will change drastically during the ride too, so have several lighter that you can take off as you descend and the day gets warmer.

Don’t stare directly at the sun.  This sounds obvious, but the sun can take you by surprise when it peaks above the clouds and first comes into view.  Plus, your motivation in being there is to see the sunrise, so you are naturally looking for it before it gets there.  You may feel silly having sunglasses on at 5:30 am, but it is better than damaging your retinas.

Stop looking at your camera and enjoy the moment.  Unless you are going specifically for photographic reasons, don’t bother taking four hundred pictures with your cell phone camera.  They are all going to come out terribly, and can just Google an image when you get back to your hotel room and save it to your vacation album instead.  You will enjoy the experience infinitely times more if you forget about your electronics for a little while and just soak everything all in.  Feel the ambiance of the crowd, hold hands with your loved ones, and enjoy a truly unique special experience.

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Was it Worth it?

Yes! I’m not sure if I’d want to do it again in my next trip to Maui (whenever that may be), but I am very  glad I went through the efforts to do it this time.  I wouldn’t say the bike ride is a requirement, but it was a very fun addition to the trip.  It also had the added benefit of dealing with all of our transportation needs.  I really was not looking forward to driving up a mountain at 2 am on my first night in town.  Even if you’re not feeling adventurous enough to do the sunrise tour, taking in the views later in the day would still be a very worthwhile excursion.  However, if you want the entire experience, I definitely would recommend the full sunrise tour and bike ride.