Sunset at Haleakala

The next morning we spent by the pool for a bit, but mid-afternoon we had to take our friends to the airport, since they were continuing their trip on Oahu.

After saying our goodbyes, we got back into the car. Tiff and I thought about what we ought to do with the rest of our day. We were both a little sunburned so more pool wasn’t high on the list. It was about 4:30. We’d heard that the sunset at the top of Haleakala was just as good as sunrise, and we’d sure missed sunrise, so we thought “Hey we won’t know if we can make it there in time unless we try.”

So off we went.

We didn’t have a ton of time, so I had to make up time early on where the roads were straight and passing was possible. Our route took us back toward Kahului, but about halfway there, we turned onto a highway that heads straight for the mountain. I drove as far above the speed limit as I felt I could. Hawaiians drive a lot like Oregonians, so I was passing other cars pretty quickly on either side of the road.

We turned off the highway on to a two-lane highway, and then again off of that one onto a two-lane road. Always I was following signs for Haleakala crater. The sun dipped lower as we drove into a forest. The road became very twisty, and I had to help the car shift so it would find the right gear.

This drive would have been really fun in the right car. I didn’t have the right car, so it was mostly terrifying.

Higher and higher we went, and the forest changed from lush and jungly, to mostly bamboo, then suddenly to big pine-like trees, before we broke out into clearing above the forest. The road continued switchback after switchback, climing up the mountain. Soon we were at 2500 feet, a quarter of the way up.

At around 4000 feet, we were driving through the clouds. This was especially scary, as I couldn’t see very far beyond the front of the car, and the switchback corners didn’t always have a guard rail. By this point it would already be a very long way down. I kept going, as fast as my courage would let us go. We were making good time! We might actually catch the sunset.

We broke through the clouds and kept going. Six thousand feet.


Soon we found the entrance to the national park that formed most of the mountain. We were behind two very slow cars, and I was growing impatient. Not everybody had a goal of reaching the summit before sunset. I had my $10 ready for the entrance fee when we pulled up to the gate, and soon we were off to the top. Mercifully, the other cars pulled off, giving us an open road ahead. I pressed on.

About a mile away from the gate shack, we were transported to Mars. All the vegetation had disappeared, left only with scraggly, porous lava rock, chocolate brown in the remaining sunlight. Here there were no guardrails on the switchbacks, only reflective plastic posts to let you know where the road used to be as you plummet off the side. I had to drive cautiously now; there would be no racing to the top.

Every other switchback turned us straight into the sun, so that I was nearly unable to see the road. I quickly figured out that, as long as you kept some of the shadows on the downhill side, odds were pretty good you wouldn’t go tumbling off the edge.

Eight thousand feet.

Switchbacks were getting tighter. There was an occasional turnout, and the sun was low, but I pulled over for a couple of photos. The view from here was unbelievable. Usually at this altitude, you’re strapped into your seat in between two folks on some aluminum tube with wings and loud engines.


Nine thousand feet.

We could see our goal now. One big switchback took us back around over Haleakala crater, a wide expanse of plateau that had once been boiling hot lava. The flats were pock-marked with small mounds of cinder cones where a little more lava had made it to the top.

Back around, away from the crater. The road wrapped around the summit itself, so the final approach was more of a spiral around the very top of the mountain.  To the Southwest, a space observatory sat perched just below the summit.


At 10,000 feet, we parked the car in the highest parking lot I’ve ever driven to. In Lahaina, it was a comfortable 75 degrees. Here, it was barely 40 degrees and the wind was blowing hard. I was wearing shorts and flip-flops, and a short-sleeve shirt. Tiff had a little bit more, but not much. We were freezing.





Up some stairs to the very top there is an observation deck. We ran up the stairs and ducked inside. From here you could see the old crater fairly well, but it faced the wrong way for sunset. We warmed up quickly, and ran back out and down the stairs.

You may now use approved portable electronic devices.
You may now use approved portable electronic devices.

On the other side of the parking lot was a ledge, below which we could hide from the wind and see the sunset. The sun was very low, and we were very cold. But from here we could see almost all of Maui; the lowlands between Haleakala and the old mountains on the west side, the bay on the south side, even Lahaina and where our hotel (and our warmth) should be, miles and miles away.

As the sun touched the water, the sky began to light up in the most beautiful colors of red, orange, and purple. The cloud layer we had driven through picked up the colors and spread them all over the island. The sky above was slowly turning to indigo as the stars began to wake. It was the most breathtaking sight. That, and it was colder than… well, anything I was prepared for.

I tried to take a few pictures, but realized that there was no way I could capture all the colors, and gave up. Instead, I wrapped my arms around Tiff and tried to keep her warm.



Goodnight, sun!

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