Updated: Mar 24, 2021
The stories of Haleakala’s sunrise are downright legendary, verified by yours truly. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of aloha for Haleakala’s sunset – a hyperbolic experience in its own right.
I myself only ever visited the summit at dawn. It’s a yearly pilgrimage for my family and I. It just never occurred to me to try Haleakala at dusk. It’s not my fault. Sunrise and Haleakala just go together like spam and rice.
To get to Haleakala in time for sunrise requires waking up 3 a.m. If I haven’t lost you there, then it’s a winding 90-minute drive to the top. You go from sea-level to 10,000 feet in 38 miles. There’s at least a half-hour of waiting to get into the park because there will be a long line of people who somehow woke up earlier than you. Did I mention how cold it gets in the morning at that elevation?
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You don’t have to worry about ANY of that at sunset. You can sleep in and enjoy the drive up at your leisure. This is the best part of all: zero crowds. Which means no waiting and your pick of parking. A colleague mentioned those 3 things and I nearly drove to the summit then and there.
Rituals Old and New
It wasn’t until the occasion of a few visiting friends that I decided to see what it was like. “Let’s do something we’ve never done before,” my friends suggested in group chat. It’s a hard request to live up to on an island where you’ve seen and done almost everything together.
You can imagine the surprised look on their emojis when I suggested sunset at Haleakala. It was like I’d shown them fire for the first time. After a flurry of “how have we never done a sunset trip before?!” everybody, it seemed, was game for the occasion.
Sunrise at Haleakala had been a quiet ritual for us throughout high school. We told the parents we were “sleeping over at a friend’s house” and instead we piled into the bed of a truck and headed for the summit. (Not recommended.)
You know that scene in Titanic when Leonardo DiCaprio yells, “I’M THE KING OF THE WORLD!”? The Haleakala summit was the highest point in the world for all we knew. Everything feels that way in high school. There was just something about standing above the clouds and looking over an entire island that made you feel like you ruled.
Could it feel the same way now that most of us were in our late 20s and post-college? We no longer had the convenience of seeing each other every day. Some of us have moved an island or an ocean away. Meeting up again requires aligning vacation days and firm travel commitments. A planetary alignment, basically. So it’s no surprise that when we reunite once a year we always try to do something extravagant or extra special to commemorate the occasion. When you’re with the right people, seeing each other again is that something special.
We drove up jaws-dropped – this time evenly spread out in separate cars. Mind you, we only ever made this drive in the early hours of the morning. The narrow road, winding turns and steep drop-off were still palm-sweat inducing. That never changes, night or day.
The subtropical weather and palm trees gave way to a cool, subalpine desert. Manageable, compared to the biting chill of the early morning. The drive was much smoother in the afternoon. We made it to the summit in an hour.
“You’ve got the place to yourself this evening,” the park ranger remarked at the entrance.
The lot was empty, save for a few stragglers of the day. It was already a wonderful sight to see. Mornings are so jam-packed with shuttles and tour vans that it becomes a staggering puzzle to get out. It’s nice to get to choose where to park, like arriving at Costco before the frenzy.
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It’s amazing how a lack of buildings and cell service (and people in general) can transport you. Being among the few souls wandering a lone mountain, it was mysteriously dreamlike. Amidst the personal frenzies of our lives – of our jobs, bills, families, responsibilities – arriving at a place that nurtured peace and quiet was the escape we didn’t know how much we needed.
Come for the Sunset, Stay for the Stars
We wondered what ancient Hawaiians thought of this place, if they felt like they had truly reached the place of the gods and, moreover, how they navigated their way back down without roads or signposts and instead using the stars as a guide. Wayfinding, they called it. We used Google Maps.
Everything about Haleakala felt sacred. The silverswords sprouting as tall as people, the rocks beneath our feet that we dared not to kick or pick up; the paths we aimlessly strolled and reminisced, the horizon that oddly felt closer than ever, and the sun god himself, now in position for the moment we came to see.
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The low-hanging sun shone against the darkening vista. Like the lamp you turn off before going to bed. You get vertigo for a second thinking the sun was moving. In fact it was, its outstretched rays like arms yawning, or waving goodbye. The sky was awash in an intoxicating mixture of colors: deep orange, the day’s blue streak fading, the enveloping black. The candle blew out.
We clapped amongst ourselves as if the universe showcased the spectacle purely for us. We yearned for an encore and, looking up, it was like the gods had heard us. Stars were scattered across the night sky in constellations we didn’t know how to make. Where we felt alone, suddenly the stars were there to keep us company.
One thing I didn’t know about Haleakala, it’s a prime stargazing spot. Unencumbered by the pollution of city lights, the view of the stars is utterly pristine at 10,000 feet. As night came bearing down, we could make out the aural, glittery mist of the Milky Way. The moon beamed brighter than we had ever seen it, threatening to turn us into werewolves. Later, we saw shooting stars streaking across the nighttime canvas.
We took blankets and spread them on the pavement for us to lay down and ponder our place in the galaxy. Our heads were high above the clouds, now in the heavens. We were free to draw our own constellations, starting with basic shapes, then emojis and Disney characters. A friend swore he could see Maui’s famous hook, which prompted us to stick out our hands and attempt to map where we’d go from here.
For a moment, I forgot we were all rapidly approaching the precipice of adulthood. Twenty’s would soon be in our rearview and we’d be in our thirties, nearly twice the age when we came to Haleakala our first time together. We had been warned all our lives that after this point, it would be “all downhill from here.” Older generations can be so heartwarming. At 10,000 feet, there were no worries, no intrusions, no notifications from our phones, and zero generational anxieties.
Soon, it would be downhill for us literally. We’d return to our families, our jobs, our problems, our corners of the island or the world. The great compass of the cosmos, at least, would be there to show us the way back.
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