Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Sliding Sands

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
3.5 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate due to high elevation
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

Although Maui is well known for its lush, tropical coast, the heart of the island atop 10,023-foot Haleakala is a barren but dazzling landscape of multihued volcanic features. The Sliding Sands Trail is the crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, leading from the massive volcano’s road-accessible summit down into a spectacular crater dotted with perfectly formed cinder cones of all colors. The consistently open nature of this trail means that hikers can travel any distance along it and have a satisfying trip; however, it’s important to note that because the trail descends into the crater, hiking further along the trail means more uphill you’ll have to handle on the return trip. High altitude may make this hike challenging for many, especially as almost everyone is coming up from sea level.

The Haleakala summit sunrise has become an extremely sought-after sight on Maui. Haleakala translates to the House of the Sun in Hawaiian in local mythology is considered to be the place where the demigod Maui lassoed the sun to slow its journey across the sky. If you wish to see the sunrise or if you wish to enter Haleakala National Park before 7 AM, you’ll need to reserve a sunrise permit at; be sure to do this months in advance as spots typically fill up within the day that permits become available.

Anna and I hiked the Sliding Sands Trail during a December trip to Maui. We had initially intended to do a more extended hike along the trail that day but, rushing out of our hotel at 3:30 AM on our way to see the summit sunrise, I forgot to bring a backpack containing our lunches and my camera. Thus, rather than doing a more extended hike along the Sliding Sands Trail, we only went a short way down before to see the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone before turning back.

From Kahului, we followed the Hana Highway east from town for 3 miles and then turned right at the traffic light with the Haleakala Highway (Highway 37). We followed Haleakala Highway uphill along the volcano’s lower slopes for 8 miles and then turned left to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 377) after entering the town of Pukalani. After another 6 miles, we made another left turn to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 378) after passing Kula Lodge; we followed this road as it climbed aggressively through many switchbacks for another 19 miles, passing the park entrance and ending at the Haleakala Visitor Center. There is a large parking lot here that often fills up at sunrise, but typically starts to clear out within 20 minutes of the sun coming up, so come early but not too early.

The parking lot at the visitor center had already filled when we arrived, so we ended up watching the sun rise at the Kalahaku Overlook, which was at the end of the first switchback on the way back down the mountain. The sunrise was spectacular: slowly, we watched far-off Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island catch first light before rays fell on the rim of Haleakala Crater, gradually creeping down and illuminating the colorful wonderland of cinder cones in the crater itself. However, it was also spectacularly windy and cold: while we had prepared with plenty of clothes, packing winter coats on our trip to Maui, many other visitors were clearly underdressed for the weather.

Sunrise over the Mauna Loa and the Haleakala Crater from Kalahaku Overlook
After returning to the visitor center, we began our hike along the Sliding Sands Trail. From the visitor center, we followed the sidewalk that led along the south side of the parking lot; this sidewalk ended upon meeting a second, much smaller parking area for the Sliding Sands Trail. From here, a cinder-and-ash path paralleled a road and led south around a small prominence, which served as a welcome temporary windbreak. The trail quickly diverged from the road and soon led to a saddle above the Haleakala Crater with sweeping views into the crater below. This was a good spot to stop and take stock of the landscape we were about to enter: around ten cinder cones, each quite symmetric, dotted the crater floor below, with the great ridge of Hanakauhi rising across the crater and plains of lava and ash leading to Kaupo and Koolau Gaps, which break the crater rim. The intensely blue waters of the Pacific were visible through the gaps in the crater rim.

The colors of Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala Crater
Leaving the rim of the crater, the trail descended gradually into the colorful ash-covered wonderland inside the crater. We followed the trail downhill for about 1.75 miles from the rim for a short round-trip hike of just 3.5 miles, with 900 feet of elevation gain on the return. As we had limited water and food due to me forgetting my pack at our hotel, we didn’t journey all the way to the crater floor, although I would have loved to do so. We stopped at the end of a switchback above the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone; while we didn’t make it far down enough to look directly into the cone, we could clearly make out the bright red streaks inside the rounded mouth of the cone from our stopping point.

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
View out Koolau Gap
While the gaping hole atop Haleakala is commonly referred to as the volcano’s crater, its geologic origin is actually erosive. Haleakala initially formed as a shield volcano like Mauna Loa on Big Island; after volcanic activity began to calm down as the Hawaii Hot Spot shifted away from Maui, deep stream valleys eroded on the northern and eastern flanks of the mountain. Rifting across the island in more recent centuries reignited a newer episode of volcanism on Maui, which has created the plethora of cinder cones that dot the island; lava flows from this newer volcanism filled the deep stream valleys, forming the lava plains running through today’s Koolau and Kaupo Gaps.

The Sliding Sands Trail continues far beyond where we turned around, visiting a wonderland of cinder cones and other volcanic features. Hikers who continue along the trail will pass by the cinder cone Pu’u O Maui on their way to the cluster of cinder cones by Ka Moa o Pele and Pu’u Nuae, where the Sliding Sands Trail meets the Halemau’u Trail. Hikers looking for a more comfortable backcountry experience can spend the night in one of the multiple cabins in Haleakala Crater and see the cinder cones painted by morning and evening light; reservations are essential. Hikers who do choose to go farther should just remember that since this trail starts high and descends, you will have to deal with a potentially strenuous climb on the return trip and that this return ascent will be more difficult due to the higher elevation. The round trip from the visitor center to the loop around Ka Moa o Pele is 12 miles with 2700 feet of elevation gain.

Hikers already in the summit area should make the drive over from the visitor center to Red Hill, the highest point on Haleakala, either before or after their hike on the Sliding Sands Trail. From the very highest point of this great volcano, there were sweeping 360-degree views of Maui; additionally, there were a handful of ahinahina silversword, a unique plant endemic to Haleakala, meaning it is naturally found nowhere else in the world. The silversword grows for about 50 years in its spiky, ball-like form before it finally blooms for a single brilliant season and dies.

Ahinahina silversword near Red Hill
I didn't get to fully explore the Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala, but I was very struck by the stark landscape, vivid colors, and fantastical shapes of the short stretch that I did get to see. If my future vacations include a return to Maui, then I will almost certainly return to Haleakala to see the stretches of the Sliding Sands Trail that I did not see on this trip.

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