Sunrise at Haleakala: How to Get Reservations, What to Wear, What to Expect, Etc.
If there’s a “don’t miss” experience on Maui, it has 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-3AM 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. That’s if you’re ok with getting there once it’s already started to lighten up a bit but before the whole shebang.
BUT part of the drama of seeing sunrise at Haleakala is arriving when the sky is completely black and seeing first light before sunrise. So if you’re fully committed and this is a big deal for you, then plan to arrive an hour or more before the official sunrise time.
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) 60 days out. There is a $1 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 sometimes they sell out pretty fast so you definitely want to track the day you’re shooting for and get it booked as soon as the window opens.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
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.
Sunrise 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.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Maui vacation rentals for your trip.
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. Especially in the winter months. 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).
I’ve personally been up to Haleakala for sunrise three times and I’ve only seen it once : )
January – Saw the sunrise A+ BEAUTIFUL
February – Conditions looked perfect until about 30 minutes before official sunrise time (we had already started seeing good color) and then clouds blew in and it was completely gray. We got treated to great color and a full moon on the other side though
September – 100% cloudy, gray, very low visibility
So it’s really pretty random. But statistically, you have a VERY good chance of seeing a beautiful sunrise anytime of the year.
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, there are plenty of tours to choose from.
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.
Given my personal track record for actually seeing a sunrise, I just can’t fathom paying $150/person for a tour and taking the big risk of not getting to see anything.
I 100% recommend doing Haleakala sunrise on your own. It’s a bummer to get up early and drive all that way to get rained/clouded out, BUT $31 (reservation fee plus park entrance) is a lot easier to stomach than $150/person.
What to Do After Sunrise
After sunrise, many people head back down the mountain but you may want to stick around for a bit and do 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 the 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 Komoda Bakery in Makawao for their famous stick donuts. Makawao is a charming cowboy town located in the upcountry (on your way down from Haleakala). Komoda 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, my personal favorite place to go post sunrise (anytime really) is Grandma’s in Keokea. It’s popular with the locals, right around the corner from Oprah’s house, and has THE BEST FOOD.
Their kalua pork eggs benedict is INCREDIBLE. Seriously, like one of my favorite meals anywhere. They use corn waffles instead of english muffins and it’s just…sigh.
Also anything in the pastry/bakery case is 100% worth the calories.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Maui: my Maui favorites, the best Maui itinerary, how many days to spend on Maui, Maui vs Kauai, where to see turtles on Maui, my favorite road to Hana itinerary, guide for sunrise at Haleakala National Park, how to bike down Maui’s volcano, my review of the Maui Pineapple Tour, 20 of the best adventure activities on Maui, 5 Maui day trips, and the best things to do on a Maui honeymoon.
More posts about where to stay on Maui: Trying to figure out where to stay on Maui? I’ve written a ton of posts that will help. I’d start with my 15 favorite resorts and hotels on Maui. Also, you’re going to want to decide between staying on the south side or the west side so this post about Wailea vs Ka’anapali is golden. Read about my favorite luxury resorts, boutique hotels, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, and condos (many under $100/night!). If you’ve narrowed down the area of the island you want to stay, but need help picking a specific hotel, read these posts about where to stay in Wailea, Kihei, Ka’anapali, Lahaina and Kapalua, and Hana. And if you just want more details (more! More! more!), read my reviews of staying at the Four Seasons and the Fairmont Kea Lani.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!