When our alarm went off at 4:30am to signal the start of our Mount Haleakala sunrise adventure, we were pretty close to hiding under the blankets and pretending our phones had never sounded. We had been up late the night before, dancing the evening away at our friend’s wedding, and our Upcountry glamping accommodation was enticingly comfortable on the dark and cool Maui morning.
Luckily for us, we had promised a friend we would make the trek to the Haleakala National Park together, so we had no choice but to muster enough energy to grab a mug of coffee and set out for the iconic Maui sunrise experience.
The world’s largest dormant volcano, Mount Haleakala comes in at a majestic 10,023 feet. Legend has it that demigod Maui lassoed the sun from the summit of Haleakala (which means ‘house of the sun”.) Before letting the sun go, Maui convinced it to travel more slowly across the sky so that the days would last longer.
Today, Mt. Haleakala remains a sacred and mystical Maui landmark. But what has caused its rise to fame with tourists is its reputation for some of the world’s best sunrises. From the Haleakala Visitor Center, the sun rises above a thick layer of clouds before slowly illuminating the unique lunar-like landscape of the vast Haleakala National Park. Witnessing the magical display, it’s no wonder native Hawaiians consider the summit a sacred wilderness of the gods.
Even Mark Twain dubbed the Haleakala National Park sunrise “the most sublime spectacle I have ever witnessed.” Now that we’ve seen it for ourselves, we have to agree. Seeing the sunrise at Haleakala is one of those touristy experiences that’s hyped up for a reason.
If you’re interested in experiencing the Maui Haleakala Sunrise for yourself, here’s everything you’ll want to know before your early morning wake-up call:
Important note! Advanced reservations are now required in order to visit Mt. Haleakala between the hours of 3 am and 7 am. This is a change since we visited, but crucial to now know. You can reserve online at Recreation.gov. The cost is $1.50 (separate from the admission ticket to the Haleakala National Park) and is valid for one day. Reservations can be made up to two months in advance. The reservation holder should be present and have a photo I.D.
Top ten things you need to know before seeing the Mount Haleakala sunrise:
1. Be Ready To Share The View
With nearly half a million tourists visiting Mount Haleakala each year, you can pretty much guarantee there will be other people in your sunrise selfie. Plan to arrive extra early if you want a front-row view.
Haleakala National Park at sunrise and sunset are the most popular times to visit, so you can also avoid the crowds by choosing an off-the-beaten-track adventure through the crater or park at a different time. (More details on this in Point 4.)
2. You Will Be Freezing
Most people don’t pack a parka when they vacation to Maui—but that’s exactly what you need at 5:30 in the morning when you’re 10,000 feet above sea level. (The temperature is typically somewhere around 40 degrees F.) If you’re seeing the Haleakala National Park sunrise with a tour operator, they’ll usually provide warm fluffy jackets. Since we were solo, we wrapped ourselves in all the extra towels from our rental property—which didn’t really keep us warm but was certainly better than nothing.
3. You Might Get Nauseous or Dizzy At the Haleakala Summit
Driving time to the Haleakala crater of course varies depending on from where you begin. From Lahaina, it takes about two hours. Between the winding road up to the top of the Haleakala crater to the extreme change in altitude, it’s not unusual to feel a bit off once you finally arrive. Take it slow, and if you need to, go back down until you are accustomed to the elevation. Most likely you’ll only suffer from motion sickness, but it’s always better to play it safe when it comes to quick changes in elevation.
4. Sunrise Isn’t The Only Time To Visit Mount Haleakala
We mentioned this briefly above, but it’s worth its own bullet point. Maui’s Haleakala sunrise gets all the press, but of course, that’s not the only time to have a fantastic experience at the national park. Sunset is also supposed to be magical, especially as you can stay for a romantic evening of stargazing. But that’s just the start.
Haleakala is home to more endangered species than any other national park in the U.S. and boasts a wide array of local fauna and ecological zones amongst the unique volcanic landscape. If your travel itinerary allows, take the time to explore the diverse landscapes by hiking, downhill biking, horseback riding or even paragliding through the stunning area. It’s also possible to hike and camp within the crater’s rugged terrain! For more inspiration, we wrote this post on 3 reasons to visit Mt. Haleakala during the day.
It’s important to note that no food, gas or water is sold within the park. Also be aware that though you might be chilly at the high elevation, there is little shade or shelter from the sun, so sunscreen is recommended.
5. The Haleakala National Park Entrance Fee Is Valid For 3 Days
To reach the Haleakala Visitor Center for sunrise, each car must pay a $25 entrance fee. Thankfully, that entrance fee will last for three days, allowing plenty of opportunities for some of those adventures we mentioned above.
6. Choose How You See The Haleakala National Park Sunrise
Haleakala is excellent because it’s accessible to all levels of adventurers. Hop in your car and drive to and from the summit. Join a group tour, so you don’t have to worry about driving the winding road. (Tours like Haleakala Sunrise Tour lead small group tours of only 12 people to the National Park, offering a fascinating experience that includes plenty of history and breakfast in Upcountry—one of our favorites spots on Maui.) Or, opt to join a bike tour. Most operators will drive you to the top of the summit; after the sunrise, enjoy 26-miles of downhill cycling past pastures and farms to the quaint town of Paia—full of cute restaurants, boutiques, and white sandy beaches.
7. Remember Mount Haleakala Is Sacred
Ancient Hawaiians considered Mount Haleakala to be a sacred site and a place where the gods live. The only people allowed into the space were the kahuna, who lived in the spiritual spot as part of their apprenticeship. Even today, many believe the volcano to be a powerful energy center. With crowds of tourists visiting every day, it’s essential to maintain a sense of reverence and respect for this sacred space.
8. Mount Haleakala Sunrises Aren’t Guaranteed
It’s never fun when Mother Nature interferes with your travel plans, but such is life. Sunrises at Mount Haleakala aren’t guaranteed and largely depend on weather conditions. If it’s any consolation, we know what it’s like to have weather impede on your plan for a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise. A few years ago in Indonesia, we took a two-day trip to see the sunrise and crater at famed Mount Bromo. The weather was so bad, we saw nothing but haze.
9. Don’t Rush Away As Soon As The Sun Rises
Once the sun has risen, most tourists hop back in their cars and quickly descend back to Maui’s famed beaches. But one of the most beautiful parts of the entire experience is watching the colors and shadows dance across the landscape in the early morning light. On a clear day, there are also spectacular views across the Alenuihaha Channel to Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Stick around for a bit to watch the full performance play out.
10. Stay In Upcountry The Night Before You Visit Mt. Haleakala
Make the early-morning trek as easy on yourself as possible. Staying in Upcountry means you’ll be a little bit closer to Mount Haleakala. Plus, Upcountry is fantastic, offering an experience that is utterly unique from the more touristy areas along the coast. Read our full review of glamping in Upcountry here.
The Haleakala Headquarters Visitor Center is one of the best spots to learn more about the history of Haleakala, the hiking trails (and required permits), bike tour information, and to use flushable toilets!
We didn’t do any hiking ourselves, but the Sliding Sands Trail is considered one of Maui’s most beautiful. The difficult hike takes you into the Haleakala Crater and past otherworldly flora and fauna. This complete guide to the Sliding Sands Trail has everything you need to know to plan the perfect Haleakala hiking adventure.
Witnessing the Maui Haleakala sunrise was easily one of the most memorable moments of our Maui trip—and it’s an experience we definitely recommend to everyone visiting Maui!
Have you seen the Mount Haleakala sunrise? What other tips should travelers know before they go?
Looking for more inspiration to head to Maui? You’ll love our blog post: 17 Incredible Images That Will Make You Wish You Were On Maui