Haleakalā Crater day hike
Haleakalā National Park's best hiking lies within its namesake crater

My final adventure on my two-island blitz was a Haleakalā Crater day hike. After my crazy drive of the Kahekili Highway, I spent the next day in Maui's national park. Haleakalā National Park is a massive park that encompasses a portion of eastern Maui and much of the island's alpine zone. At it's 10,023' summit, visitors come for the sunrise or sunset. I don't know how many venture further from there but the Haleakalā Crater sees a fraction of the visitors. I did a very long day hike of the crater to the Kapala Cabin as a grand tour of the park. This hike is unlike any other in the state.

Haleakalā Crater Day Hike Overview

Haleakalā National Park has an interesting layout. A sinuous mountain road leads from Kahului to the summit. It takes roughly 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive from Maui's airport. There's hikes across the park, including at the lower elevations. But most come for the summit. Note that reservations are booked well in advance for the sunrise.

Haleakalā Crater day hike
The Haleakala sunrise experience is worth it in spite of the crowds.

This is a point-to-point hike that requires a car shuttle. Most people start at the Haleakalā visitor center (9,762') and hike to the Halemau'u Trailhead (7,995'). The trailheads are separated by 6.6 miles of paved road that's best not hiked. Fortunately, the national park service not only permits hitchhiking but there's a spot near the Halemau'u Trailhead specifically for hitchhikers. The rangers told me its easy to catch a ride in the morning. It took me about 15 minutes of waiting before a kind person picked me up and drove me to the top.

This hike (and all crater hikes) is similar to hiking in the Grand Canyon; you hike down thousands of feet before hiking back up. People frequently over-extend themselves due to the upside down nature of this hike. Also, the area is well within altitude sickness range. Plenty of hydration and knowledge of one's limits are necessary.

Here's a map of my route-

And here's my strava data-

Haleakalā Crater Day Hike
Haleakalā Crater Day Hike - Strava Stats

Haleakalā Crater Day Hike Report

Sliding Sands Trail to Kapalaoa Cabin

After getting dropped off at the visitor's center (elevation 9,762'), I tagged Haleakalā's summit and began the descent. I was hiking the Sliding Sands Trail which is well-known and consequently saw many other hikers on the way down. The Sliding Sands Trail goes nearly all the way to far flung the Palikū Cabin. Casual hikers rarely hike more than a few miles on this trail before returning the way they came.

The crater is such a desert moonscape at first. It's quite stark - no shade, trees nor any groundcover other than sooty-colored volcanic gravel. But the view was phenominal- clouds were crashing against the rim creating and ethereal sight.

Haleakalā Crater day hike
Beginning of the Haleakalā Crater day hike
Maui Silversword
Maui Silversword up close

Over about 5 miles, the trail descends 2,600' to the floor of the crater. Periodically the famously endemic Maui Silverswords added splashes of frosty green to the otherwise barren landscape. The silverswords are renowned for their hardiness and are emblematic of the island.

At 5 miles, the trail flattens out and hugs the cliffy southern rim of the crater. Clouds were pouring down the mountainside like a waterfall-

Haleakalā Crater Day Hike
Deep in the crater

In contrast to the former descent, the trail to the Kapalaoa Cabin (elevation 7,250') was pancake-flat. I reached the cabin after about 2.5 hours of hiking and took a load off. It was a nice respite; I shared the view with a handful of backpackers and a pair of Nēnēs. Such a classically Hawaiian experience -

Nēnēs on my Haleakalā crater day hike
Haleakalā National Park
There's a handful of wilderness cabins within the crater

Kapalaoa Cabin to Hōlua Cabin via Halemauu Trail

The Kapalaoa Cabin is 6.6 miles from the Haleakalā Visitor Center and was the furthest afield I went. A network of spur trails head north from there. I took a combination of poorly marked trails to link up with the Halemauu Trail. There was little signage and I basically followed footprints in the sand.

The crossing of the crater from the Sliding Sands Trail to the Halemauu Trail was about 1.5 miles. I took a left turn and headed back on the other side of the crater. I meandered around about a dozen small, named cinder cones within the crater, all with unpronounceable names. To my right was the marvelous summit of Hanakauhi (elevation 8,907'). Though it would be a peakbagger's prize, hiking off-trail in Haleakalā National Park is strongly discouraged due to high concentrations of endemic species.

About 10 miles into my hike and just before the Hōlua Cabin was the short Silversword Loop. Here, they occur in high numbers at different states in their curious life cycle. Well worth the short detour.

Haleakalā Crater day hike
Maui Silverswords on the Silversword Loop with Hanakauhi (8,907') in the distance

Hōlua Cabin back to Halemauu Trailhead and Rainbow Bridge

This last section was arguably the most scenic though was certainly the most challenging. I had covered 11.5 miles by the time I reached Hōlua Cabin (elevation 6,940'). Near the Koʻolau Gap, this cabin was the almost the point on my trip. Ahead was a grueling climb of the Halemauu Trail.

From the cabin, the trail snakes its way up the crater's rim. Switchbacks make the going a little less steep though by this point in the day I was pretty tired. As I slowly gained altitude, the marvelous Ko'olau Gap came in to full view. The gap marks an almost instant transition of environments: from volcanic desert to lush tropical forest.

Koʻolau Gap
Switchbacks abound on the Halemauu Trail
Haleakalā Crater day hike
Ko'olau Gap
Rainbow Bridge
Rainbow Bridge

About 14 miles in to my hike I hit a place locally known as Rainbow Bridge. Here the trail crosses a knife edge cliff that frightened this experienced hiker. Winds were blowing at almost 40 miles per hour and I basically crawled across the ledge. It makes for a glorious photo op though.

(I don't know if the two are related but apparently Rainbow Bridge is also the title of a bizarre, lo-fi cult classic film from the 1960s set and filmed on Maui. Jimi Hendrix makes a famous appearance.)

The last mile of the trail was a comparatively gentler climb. I finished in about 8 hours with plenty of stops. Though a hard hike, I felt like I got the best of the park without doing an all out backpacking trip.