Updated: Mar 24, 2021
“Head in the clouds” is typically a figure of speech. Atop the summit of Haleakala, it’s a literal state of being. Sure, you’re standing on a dormant shield volcano at an elevation that renders Hawaii’s subtropical climate a distant memory, but how often do you get to say that?
Some myth-building for you, the sunrise at Haleakala (which translates to “House of the Sun”) had enchanted renowned literary traveler, Mark Twain, who dubbed it: “the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.” Oprah Winfrey, too – herself a part-time Maui resident – remarked, “it’s just heavenly.” The stories are downright legendary, as if daring you to see for yourself.
I myself live on the south side of Maui. I wake up to Haleakala every day. It’s in my back yard, and the enormity of the mountain does me a solid – shielding the sunrise long enough for me to sleep in. Unlike others, I don’t quite have the same urge to view the sunrise. I tell myself I’m chill about it.
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My older sister, who moved to the mainland, is the opposite of chill. She is from here and gets to be a tourist at the same time. So when she comes each year for her month-long visit, can you guess the first thing she wants to do after her 16-hour flight across the mainland and Pacific?
Any mention of a trip to Haleakala is bound to elicit groans. Because you have to wake up super early. Like 3 a.m. early. Ungodly early. Also – and this is the most important part – it’s cold. The temperature drops about 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet up you go. The summit of Haleakala sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet. It’s 40 degrees on average. (Who regularly owns a parka on Maui?) The groans, if anything, are preemptive.
You not only have to get up early, you have to book early, too – weeks, sometimes months in advance. There’s only so much parking at the summit. My sister and I packed extra layers and thick blankets, filled up the thermos and set out on the upward and winding 38-mile drive.
In those 38 miles, you go from sea-level to 10,000 feet, making it one of the steepest roads you’re likely to encounter in Hawaii. On the journey upward, Maui’s farm country comes out to play. You’ll pass by farms, horses, herds of cattle. Early on, traffic was halted by chickens crossing the road. I wish I had a punchline for you, but that was it.
Can you imagine a more spectacular commute?
There are serious hairpin turns on the way up. At some point, the guardrails climbing alongside you stop altogether and it’s just you and the drop down. If the coffee’s not working, the road will keep your eyes peeled.
At about 7,000 feet, we came upon the entrance, and the long line of cars who had the same idea we did about arriving early to get a good spot. As we paid the fee to get in, I saw my breath in little puffy clouds. The dashboard said it was 39 degrees (Fahrenheit) with a wind chill of -10. We went from tropical to freezing in 2 hours.
The summit filled up quickly and we snagged a spot along the railing. (Have you ever been so comforted by seeing guardrails again?) All bundled up, we embarked into the dark and cold and settled next to a group for warmth. We walked just 25 feet up a dirt mound for a keen vantage point and found ourselves out of breath. The sun wasn’t even out and it was already breathtaking.
We unknowingly joined a tour group gathering along the edge of a crater that sat shrouded in darkness like everything else. You could make out the trace of its circumference if you knew where to look.
The tour guide delighted us with a bit of Hawaiian folklore – stories that had been hammered into us since grade school. We didn’t care for it then, but as we got older, it became all the more spellbinding.
Legend has it that the demigod Maui scaled the treacherous Haleakala volcano to face La, the sun god. Maui’s mother Hina lamented the short days and long nights, which made it impossible for kapa to dry – cloth made from tree bark. Maui made a promise to his mother, journeyed up the mountain, and lurked in the dark of the island for La to awaken.
Late as usual, the sun god ascended from the horizon and Maui ensnared the orb with a great rope. Maui halted the sun in the sky using all his might, securing the rope to a wiwili tree as an anchor. La begged to be free. Maui agreed to release him on the condition that the sun god slowed its descent across the sky for 6 months out of the year. La agreed and Maui let go, but kept the anchor tied on so the sun god would remember their arrangement.
There were audible oohs and ahs as the guide told the story. Haleakala was like Polynesia’s Mt. Olympus, where Hawaiian gods collided and clashed. Our battle with the cold seemed relatively tame.
It’s easy to see why a trip to the summit is an annual pilgrimage for some, and why it was fast becoming a ritual for my sister and I – a chance to rediscover a place where both you and the sun call home.
Tour guides told groups of the species they’re likely to find. The Haleakala Silversword, or ‘ahinahina, an endangered plant resembling a bouquet of swords which can blossom up to 6-feet high. That made me laugh, thinking you could be standing next to someone and it turning out to be a giant plant.
The guide also told people to keep an eye out for the nene goose – Hawaii’s state bird – another endangered species that calls Haleakala home. I hear this all the time, but it’s no less surprising each time: Haleakala is home to more endangered species than any national park in the U.S.
Sure as legend, La peeked over the horizon, breaking dawn, teasing us with the promise of warmth. It took long enough. You could feel the crowds on the summit holding their breaths in anticipation.
The light gained a shape, a fullness that illuminated the crater below, which looked something like the mouth of a god yawning. There were gasps, followed by clapping, cheering. Applause had erupted. This, for the sunrise – a thing we know that happens like clockwork; this thing we take for granted, a thing we drove for and endured the cold to see and appreciate in all its glory.
It is absolutely surreal to be at peace at the top of a volcano of all places, a place where violent geological activity was essential to life and had given birth to all that we saw before us. I thought about Mark Twain’s words, a glowing 5-star review: “The sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed.” I couldn’t write a better review if I tried.
Once our vision recovered from staring at the sun too long, my sister nudged me, smiling, knowing how easily she had roped me into this. I might’ve resisted at first, but as we took turns lassoing the sun in front of the camera, I knew instantly we’d be back here again.
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