Hawaii road trip: Sweet sunset solitude on Maui’s Haleakala volcano
I wasn’t, but I knew why my friend objected.
Day to day, Haleakala’s sunrises are every bit as stunning as one might expect of a place whose Hawaiian name translates to “House of the Sun.” However, each morning hundreds of visitors wake up between 2 and 3 a.m. to make the hours-long drive in pitch darkness to watch the sunrise from Maui’s highest peak. Summit parking lots fill quickly. It’s crowded and noisy at the best viewpoints.
“What you really should see is the summit at sunset,” said my friend. “Haleakala sunsets are even more amazing than the sunrises.” Then, the magic words. “Plus, no one really goes at sunset.”
I had to try it. To get to the summit, it’s 28 miles from Upcountry Maui on the Haleakala Highway—a modern, switchback-packed, two-lane road. Two hours before sunset, the weather is perfect—blue skies, brisk tradewinds and cloud-free vistas.
It was 80 degrees when I left Upcountry Maui. At the Haleakala National Park entrance, about 7,000 feet above sea level, I notice the outside temperature has dropped to 62 degrees.
“Just 11 miles to go,” the ranger tells me at the park entrance. “Looks like it’s gonna be sweet up there tonight.”
An hour before sunset, the Haleakala Visitor Center’s large parking lot, just below the summit at 9,740 feet, has just a dozen cars. The chill wind bites as I take a short hike up a rocky hill, looking for a choice spot to view the sunset. At the top, I look west and trace an imaginary line from the setting sun to its ultimate point of descent.
“It’s going to set behind those observatories, isn’t it?” says Maya Parker, another sunset chaser, nodding toward the summit’s “Science City” astrophysical complex on a nearby hill. Sadly, she’s correct.
Hiking back down our hill, Maya shares that she and her husband, Kyle, are “skipping sunset mai tais with our friends in Wailea for sunset on Haleakala.” Back at our cars, she declares, “The best spot might be this parking lot.”
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.
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.
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.