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Hawaii road trip: Sweet sunset solitude on Maui's Haleakala volcano

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Haleakala summit crater at sunset. Photo: author

Maya and Kyle had already checked out Haleakala’s true summit a short drive away. There’s shelter at the 10,023-foot summit, which is the gathering place for people looking for the sunrise, facing east. But now, just 15 minutes from sunset, its view west is also blocked by Science City. We stay put.

Just five minutes from sunset, a dozen cars arrive at the parking lot at once. Four of them quickly park in our still empty lot. The rest speed off in the direction of the summit—they will not make it back in time to see the sunset.

I cross the summit road in the direction of the sunset to a small outcropping of rocks. The dozen folks also gathered here seek out their own personal space—there’s lots of it.

Haleakala summit observatories at sunset. Photo: author

The rocky landscape around me turns various shades of gold and bright red in the sun’s last gasp of light. The sun itself floats in a horizon-spanning band of burnt orange light. Above it all is the pitch black of night. The summit is silent as the sun slips slowly away, taking with it another day and, in an instant, all traces of its warmth.

The brightest stars appear in the night sky as I walk back to my car, the wind picking up. Temperature: 45 degrees. Ten minutes after sunset, most of the cars in the lot are leaving. Only the Parkers, another couple and I remain as darkness claims all but the barest sliver of defiant daylight. We’re silent at the sight.

An hour after sunset, the sky above Haleakala is a 360-degree canopy of stars. The full band of the Milky Way stretches across the moonless heavens. The taillights of the Parkers’ rental car disappear down the mountain road.

There were about a dozen people near me to catch the sunset. Photo: author

I’m alone now in the darkness—unafraid, calmed by the view. There are too few places in our Islands where one can experience this combination of sight and solitude. I am seeing the night sky in the same way the first Hawaiians who ascended Haleakala did. The thought fills me with much emotion. I suspect they felt the same way the first time they saw the heavens from this summit.

I record as much of it as I can in my memory before finally, somewhat reluctantly, beginning my long drive down Haleakala. It’s 40 degrees. I’m looking forward to a warm dinner.

Sunset from the summit of Haleakala. Going ...

... Going ...

... Gone. Photos: author

Haleakala National Park, (808) 572-4400, www.nps.gov/hale . Haleakala National Park headquarters and the 10,023 foot summit may be reached from Kahului, via Route 37 to 377 to 378 (the Haleakala Highway).


(This feature was originally published in the August 2010 issue of HAWAII Magazine.)

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