Watching the sunrise from 10,000 feet – Haleakala National Park, Maui

If you’ve read enough about Maui or have talked to people who have been to Hawaii, you have probably heard and read many times about the famous watching of the sunrise from the top of the Haleakala summit, which tops out at 10,000 feet above sea level. It is truly a remarkable and unforgettable experience, and I strongly recommend if you make it to Maui to make it a point to watch it. That being said, there are a few things you should know as you prepare to go, and they will make your experience an amazing one, instead of a miserable one:

As of 2017, the park now requires an advance permit, which is $1.50 per car and you must obtain in advance, with reservations opening up 60 days prior to your visit, so get it as soon as the calendar opens. Spots are limited (I’ve seen as little as 120 cars). This permit is required and in addition to the normal park entrance fee. You will not be allowed in before 7:00 a.m. without this permit, and you cannot buy it on the spot. You can obtain the permit at

If possible, go on your first night on the island:
Since you will likely be coming from the U.S. mainland, your internal clock will be thrown off, and you will more likely than not be awake at 4 or 5 in the morning anyway. Take advantage of that first night, go to bed early (you will be tired), and wake up between 2 or 3 am, depending on where you’re at on the island.

Yes, it’s Hawaii. Yes, it’s the middle of July. And yet you’d be surprised how many people are thrown off by this simple concept. Haleakala tops out at 10,000 feet, so the temperature will start dropping gradually as you climb, until it gets in the 40’s and 30’s. It is also very windy, which adds to the misery of all the poor souls who venture up there with nothing more than shorts, flip flops and a light jacket. I took a leather jacket to Hawaii just to wear it for a few hours while we climbed. It seems like a waste of space, but you will need padding. We also took our hotel bathrobes for added layers, and we were constantly being told by everyone at the top what a great idea that had been, and that they wish they would have thought of the same. Even like that, it wasn’t enough and we were miserable until the sun came out.

Very cold!

Very cold!

There is a visitors center that opens a little while before sunrise, so you will be able to take shelter if needed. However, I recommend you go outside when the sun actually comes out. You don’t want a glass window in front of you as you take pictures.

Driving time:
If you’re staying in Lahaina or Ka’anapali, I recommend you wake up at around 2am and leave no later than 3am, as this is the farthest point from the summit and where most people stay. We stayed at the Westin Maui in Ka’anapali, and it took us about 2 hours to get to the top. You might want to MapQuest your actual location and add 30 min or so for delays and other contingencies. Look up the actual sunrise time the day before for a better idea.

Regarding tours:
We did the drive up and down ourselves on our rental car. A normal car is fine. You do not need a 4-wheel drive, as many rental car companies will make you believe. There are many companies that do the famous tours where they drive you up for the sunrise, and then they give you a bike, helmet (some of them give you windbreaker jackets), and you can bike down back to sea level, which makes for amazing views rolling down the hill. Just a word of caution so you don’t get disappointed. Haleakala National Park regulations do not permit bike companies to start their rides at the top of the summit. So don’t picture yourself getting on a bike and covering the entire road. I don’t recall the exact altitude, but I believe the bike ride starts a couple of thousand feet below the summit.

What to take:
There is no food or gas inside the park (only restrooms at a couple of stops along the way, and at the top). The night before you go, pack up some sandwiches, fruit or other snacks and take them with you. Take plenty of water, as the altitude gets you dehydrated faster. Take sunblock. At 10,000 feet, the sun’s rays penetrate the thinner atmosphere and there is a much higher amount of radiation than at sea level. And yes, I know it’s dark outside, but take your sunglasses and a cap or a hat. And your camera! On the way there, or the night before, fill up your gas tank. There is no gas inside the park.

The road:
If you’re driving yourself, the road isn’t as bad or dangerous as some other parts of Maui. It will be, however, very dark, winding, and you should stay alert as you might run into cows and not see them until the last minute. Take curves at a speed that you’re comfortable with, stay in your lane, and you will be fine. At some point both on the way up and on the way down, you must go through a couple of thousand feet of clouds, so slow down and watch out for animals and such. On the way down, use your lower gear to decelerate whenever possible so you don’t burn out your breaks. And watch out for the people descending on the bikes!

A rainbow!

A rainbow on our descend!

Weather forecast:
Look at the weather forecast before you go. It is always possible you could plan for days, get all pumped up, get up super early, and then get up there and see nothing but clouds covering the sun. So check the weather, and when in doubt, call the park and ask them, or ask a local or hotel concierge.

The summit:
If possible, try to arrive at the summit at least 45 min before sunrise, and you will be treated to a sight you will never forget. On a clear day, you can see every single star in the sky against a pitch black backdrop. It is something that we don’t have the luxury of seeing in big cities with all the lights and extra atmosphere layers. Getting there early also allows you to find parking. Parking spots at the top are limited. After getting there, there is nothing to do but wait.

HaleakalaHaleakalaAt this point, I recommend you try to be near the visitor center. Every morning, as soon as the sun breaks the cloud horizon, the park rangers sing a traditional chant to the sun that is very energizing to hear and makes you snap out of whatever last remnants of sleep you still brought with you.


After sunrise:
Most people see the sunrise and 5 minutes later they rush to their cars to “beat the traffic”. If you do this, you’re missing the point. Stick around for the second show. As the sun rises, it starts “painting” the different tones of rocks, earth, clouds and other objects, which keep changing in color and brightness as the sun gets higher and higher. This sight in my opinion is worth just as much as watching the actual sunrise.






A word about the Haleakala Silversword:
This is the Haleakala Silversword. The Haleakala summit is the only place in the world where it grows. Whatever you do, do not touch this plant. No, it isn’t dangerous, but it is very rare, and the fine for just touching it will cost you more than your entire trip. Seriously.

Wrapping up:
Take a walk around (you will be a little out of breath), enjoy the sights, take plenty of pictures, and then begin your descend. Don’t forget to use your lower gears when possible to keep your brakes from bleeding out, and watch out for bikes and cows along the road. Cow sightings are usually more frequent between 4,000 and 7,000 feet. It was really cool driving through the clouds on the way down.

Driving in the clouds

Driving in the clouds

HaleakalaHaleakalaThere are a few places where you can stop for breakfast or coffee at the lower altitudes, or you can simply go back into town and take a nap, although you should try to fight this to get accustomed to the new time zone as soon as possible.

Another way to enjoy Haleakala is to go watch a sunset. I have read that the views are just as nice, it isn’t as crowded, and on ideal conditions, you can actually see your shadow on the clouds. I can’t speak for this as we went during sunrise, but if you’re not an early riser, this is another way to see the beauty of this marvelous national park.

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