If there’s a “don’t miss” experience on Maui, it has got to be watching the sunrise from the summit of Haleakala. Haleakala (meaning “House of clouds”) is Maui’s dormant volcano and it’s one of the most unique National Parks in the US. The summit has an elevation of 10,000 feet and watching the sunrise through the clouds is something you’ll never forget!
Sunrise at Haleakala
This experience takes some planning though! It can take up to two hours to reach the summit of Haleakala from some of Maui’s resort areas so showing up well before sunrise usually means a 2AM wake up call. Factor in the SUPER cold temperatures and needing a reservation to get into the park at that hour and you’re going to need some tips.
So I’ll start with my best tip…plan to see sunrise at Haleakala on your first full day on Maui. Because of the time change (assuming you’re coming from the mainland US), you’ll naturally wake up pretty early. If you’re traveling from the east coast, the time difference is 5-6 hours (depending on Daylight Savings Time) so a 2AM wake up call would be 7-8AM back home. Very doable. If you’re coming from the west coast, the time change obviously isn’t as much, but that first morning will still be the easiest day to acclimate to an early wake up.
The trickiest part about doing sunrise at Haleakala is figuring out exactly what time you need to leave your hotel. It’s tricky because it’s going to vary based on not only where you’re staying but also the time of year (time of sunrise). First, find out exactly what time sunrise will be (this site has accurate times) and then plan to be at the summit AT LEAST 30 minutes before that. Part of the drama of seeing sunrise at Haleakala is arriving when the sky is completely black and seeing first light before sunrise. The line to pay at the park gates often gets backed up a little bit plus there’s quite a crowd once you get to the summit…the early bird gets the best spot! So build in a buffer to allow for delays and if it’s important to you to get a prime spot at the rail to set up a camera then plan accordingly.
Once you have your target time for arrival, you just need to figure out how long it will take to get to the summit from your hotel. It’s a solid 1.5-2 hours to reach the summit parking lot from most resort areas on Maui (use Google maps to find the exact time from your hotel). And then figure out what time you need to wake up! Tip: There’s probably not going to be anything open food wise when you leave your hotel so have a plan for any snacks/coffee you’ll need the night before.
Reservations for Sunrise at Haleakala
If you’re feeling a tiny bit overwhelmed about getting up to Haleakala for sunrise, know that it used to be FIRST COME FIRST SERVE. That’s right. You could get up in the middle of the night and drive 2 hours and get turned away because the parking lot was FULL. Thankfully, the National Park Service has now instituted an online reservation system that takes the chance out of the process. So here are the details on snagging a reservation:
Reservations are REQUIRED to enter the National Park during the sunrise hours (3AM-7AM) which ensures that you’ll have a parking spot at the summit. Reservations can be made 7 days in advance at this website. Bookings open up at exactly 7AM (HST) 7 days out. There is a $1.50 online service charge paid upon booking (separate from the $30/vehicle park admission paid upon arrival). There are a limited number of reservations available every day and they sell out FAST. Like less than a minute and sometimes less than 15 seconds. So…I recommend creating an account BEFORE the bookings open up, logging in well before and refreshing exactly at 7AM (HST) to snag a spot. Make sure you have your payment information on hand so you’re ready to go! I’ve never had problems getting a reservation with the system, but if you’re not on top of it, you could end up disappointed.
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What to Wear at Haleakala
Pack super warm clothes! It gets COLD at the summit. And I don’t mean cold for Hawaii. It’s not uncommon for it to be in the 20s and 30s at that elevation (Fahrenheit). and is pretty windy so it feels even colder. Wear long pants for sure and layer up on top (you’ll want a fleece jacket at LEAST). I always pack a hat and gloves and warm socks plus take a beach blanket to wrap around myself to cut the wind. I know this probably sounds overly dramatic, but here’s the deal: 1) when you get in your car at your resort it’ll be in the 80s and when you get out of your car at the summit it’ll be in the 30s. Yikes. 2) It’s usually pretty windy so it feels much colder than the actual air temperature. 3) You’re not in and out of the car quickly. You’ll arrive at the summit when it’s still dark and you’ll have to wait 30-60 minutes for sunrise to start. 4) You’re not moving around-no hiking required-you’re just standing still.
Tips for Haleakala Sunrise
Here are some extra tips:
Pack motion sickness medications if you’re prone to it. The drive up is very curvy.
Take snacks and drink plenty of water. You’ll be driving from sea level to 10,000 feet in about 25 miles. The change in altitude is no joke! I myself have passed out before in the visitors center shortly after sunrise ; )
Take your National Park Passport. If you have a National Parks Passport, you’ll definitely want to get it stamped at the visitors center.
What to Do After Sunrise
After sunrise, many people head back down the mountain but I suggest sticking around for a bit and doing a little hiking in the crater. It’s a phenomenal sight (it looks like Mars-or so they say!). Sliding Sands is the most popular trail. It’s 11-miles (a full day) and ends at Halemau‘u. The park doesn’t offer shuttles, but hitchhiking back to the visitors center is recommended by the park so unless weather is bad (or it’s really late) it’s pretty easy to get a ride. If you’re not up for a full day hike (it’s obviously not a hike to be taken lightly), at least hike the first half mile down into the crater which is where you’ll get to the first overlook. Pack in your own food (not sold in the park) and plenty of water.
After your experience at Haleakala, you’ve got to partake in one of Maui’s best traditions…stopping at Komodo’s Bakery in Makawao for their famous stick donuts. Makawao is a charming cowboy town located in the upcountry (on your way down from Haleakala). Komodo’s has been around for decades and their donuts (and other baked goods are legendary). They sell out early and it’s a popular spot for sunrise watchers. If you’re looking for a more substantial breakfast spot, try Grandma’s in Keokea. It’s popular with the locals.
Sunset vs Sunset at Haleakala
Going up for sunset is a good alternative for those not wanting to do sunrise at Haleakala. It’s a bit warmer, you don’t need reservations, and you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night. If you go with this option, I would plan to spend some time upcountry in the afternoon before you drive up for sunset. Drive up to Ulupalakua to the winery. You’ll have amazing views of Wailea down below. The winery has a tasting room and tours where you can learn more about the historic property. Also check out the ranch store across the street (you could even pick up a picnic here to take up to the summit). Also the Ali’i Lavender Farm is in the area and it’s one of my favorite spots on Maui.
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Set Your Expectations
This seems silly to have to say (hey, I’ve read plenty of experiences in Facebook groups), but sunrise and sunsets are natural phenomena so while they always occur, conditions aren’t always good for seeing them. It’s not uncommon for the weather to be so poor at the summit that you don’t get to see sunrise. And unfortunately it’s not always easy to tell until you get up there (the summit is often obscured by clouds from below but once you get up there you’re above the clouds).
Haleakala Sunrise Tours
If you’d rather be picked up at your resort, shuttled to the top of the mountain, and have a full tour with breakfast, check out this tour. Pros: you don’t have to drive, don’t have to worry about getting a reservation, and you’ll get commentary from a tour guide. Con: you don’t get your money back if visibility is poor and you don’t get to see sunrise.
Bike the Volcano
Biking down Haleakala is one of my favorite things I’ve done on Maui. You can coast over 20 miles without having to pedal at all! Plus most of the trip is through Maui’s scenic upcountry that a lot of tourists miss entirely. This tour includes sunrise at the summit of Haleakala (a great way to kill two birds with one stone!) and then a bike ride down. Book this tour if you just want to do the bike ride. Read ALL about biking down Haleakala in this post.