I was in the dark surrounded by fog. I was freezing cold despite the multiple layers of clothing and the fuzzy blanket that I had wrapped around myself. As I looked around, I saw dozens of blanket-clad people waiting for the big moment.
Then the fog disappeared and the sun started to peek through from behind the cloudy horizon below us. The magic had begun.
It was 5:30 a.m. and we were on the summit of Haleakala, Maui’s majestic volcano, the largest dormant volcano in the world whose last eruption dates back to about 1790.
Maui, the second largest island of the Hawaiian chain of isles, is mostly known for its beautiful white beaches, colorful underwater world, and its breathtaking landscape that is characterized by lush green valleys and mountains.
Most tourists come to Maui, also dubbed as the Valley Isle, to simply relax on the beach, explore the ocean through a snorkeling mask, stroll along Lahaina’s bustling main street with its rows of art galleries and souvenir shops, and take a drive to the Easternmost point of Maui along the famous and very windy Road to Hana.
And most tourists would typically not associate a two-hour drive up a volcano before the crack of dawn to watch a sunrise in near-freezing temperatures with a tropical vacation on the Pacific island.
But after experiencing the magic of the sunrise on Haleakala followed by a hike into the crater of the volcano, I can safely say that tourists miss out if they do not add a trip to the volcano to their travel itinerary.
I am the first one to admit that I dreaded the 3 a.m. wake-up call. Getting up this early is hard on any given day, but getting up at 3 a.m. while on a vacation threw me for quite a loop.
Even though I was not thrilled about getting up this hour, I understood the importance of being an early bird. I did not want to make the fairly time-consuming trek up the volcano just to barely miss the special moment when the sun makes its first appearance on the horizon.
Another thing that needs to be taken into consideration when planning a sunrise trip to the volcano is the low temperature at the time of the sunrise.
Haleakala’s summit is at 10,023 feet and when driving up the volcano, the temperature drops 3 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation, therefore the temperatures at the summit are about 30 degrees lower compared to the temperatures at sea level.
And I have to say it was quite a unique experience to dress in your typical winter gear while being in a very warm, beach-side hotel room on a Hawaiian island while a fan and air conditioning runs full blast to cool down the room.
After dressing in multiple layers, and donning a hat, scarf, and gloves, I grabbed an additional blanket, just to be safe, and we were on our merry way to Haleakala at 3:30 a.m.
The trip up to the summit of Haleakala, which means House of the Sun in the Hawaiian language, is rather time-consuming and a little cumbersome — for about two hours we drove in the pitch dark on a very narrow and windy road that switch backed for what felt like an eternity.
After we finally reached the summit we had about fifteen minutes until the predicted time of the sunrise. We grabbed our blanket and walked towards the edge of the Haleakala crater, where already about 30 people had gathered in anticipation of the spectacle that was about to start below us.
I made myself comfortable on a rock and took in my surroundings. Even though there were quite a few people around me, it was eerily quiet. There was a mild wind whose sound was very audible and it covered up the voices around me.
After a few minutes, fog started coming in and completely cloaked the summit area. For a moment I got upset because I thought that the fog would cloud our view and we would not be able to see the sunrise.
But right in time, as the sky started the get lighter, the fog lifted, and we could see the sun starting to come up from the behind the cloudy horizon.
It was a truly magical sight to behold. The crater below us was covered with soft white clouds and in the sky above, the sun created its beautiful color play of yellow and orange reflected in small streams of clouds in front of the endless blue sky.
For a while I just sat there in awe of the pure beauty of our planet. In our day and age where we are surrounded by constant stimulation through smartphones, the Internet, and TV, sometimes all we need is a simple sunrise overlooking the clouds to find a state of complete calm and serenity to cancel out the noise of our everyday lives.
Once the sun had risen, the summit became less crowded, as most of the people had come to Haleakala just to watch the sunrise. We left the spot where we watched the sun come up and walked over to the little visitor center, where we were among the very few people that stayed on the summit well after the sunrise.
From the visitor center, we headed towards our second destination of our Haleakala excursion — the crater.
Just outside the visitor center was the Sliding Sands trail head, which leads into the massive crater of Haleakala. It only took a few minutes until we reached the rim of the crater and I found myself in another state of awe.
The landscape that I saw below me was unlike anything I had ever seen.
As far as I could see there were the red, rocky hills and mountains interspersed with cinder cones and bright green meadows that formed a unique contrast to the rough-looking lava rock that formed the face of the vast crater. White, puffy clouds were slowly moving across the crater creating an almost surreal scene.
While the landscape seemed otherworldly, desolate, and nearly eerie, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and quiet when I sat down on the rim, taking in the unique beauty and atmosphere of Haleakala.
What really struck me besides the remarkable landscape was the absolute silence that we encountered. Besides two other people, we were the only visitors that ventured beyond the visitor center, and all that was audible was the soft wind that pushed the clouds across the crater.
For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I truly left behind the hustle and bustle of our civilization. Suddenly, I felt very far away from anything that reminded me of society, my everyday life and its obligations.
After a little while, we continued on Sliding Sands trail and got on our way down into the crater along a path down a rocky, red hillside.
The hillside was dotted with a spiky, silver plant, which is called Haleakala Silversword. This plant can only be found on Haleakala at elevations above 2,100 feet. The Silversword, a threatened species, can live up to 90 years and only flowers once in its lifetime by growing an impressive flowering stalk. After the Silversword flowered, it dies scattering its seeds across the arid countryside creating a new generation of Silverswords.
For the next few hours we explored the crater soaking in the amazing landscape and the zen-like atmosphere with frequent stops along the way until we ran out of food and water and were forced to make our way back up to the summit.
On this trip to Haleakala, we only got to experience a very small part of the volcano. Haleaka covers about 75 percent of the island of Maui, and the crater itself is 3,000 ft deep, 7.5 miles long, and 2.5 miles wide with a total circumference of 22 miles.
Adventurous people who would like to explore more of the volcano have the opportunity to hike for a couple of days and stay in simple wilderness log cabins located in the crater. An extended hike with an overnight stay will be my goal for my next trip to Maui as my very short first excursion to Haleakala whet my appetite and made me eager to explore more of this magical place.
While I was sad to leave the volcano, I knew that this was not the last time that I paid the House of the Sun a visit. Next time I will even come up with an overnight bag(pack) so I can unplug for a longer time and spend more time on what feels like an amazingly different planet.
Images Courtesy of Sabine Thier