Hikers Find Beauty and Solitude on Haleakala’s Backcountry Trails

Step into another world at Maui’s Haleakala National Park.
Adventure Land_1
This pastel palette above the clouds is best enjoyed on two feet. All photos by Matt McDonald

Tent? Check. Sleeping bag? Check. Food, water, boots, rain jacket, headlamp, extra socks, sunscreen? Check. My packing list scrolls on repeat through my head as I pass the last store selling basic supplies before starting the drive up the mountain.

If I reach tonight’s campsite and there’s something I’ve missed, it’s a six-hour hike and one-hour drive back to the store.

I glance at my pack, trust everything’s there, and point my truck toward Haleakala National Park—the quietest, darkest and literally most breathtaking place on the island of Maui.

The mountain, to many, is synonymous with sunrise, to the point where the pre-dawn drive to the top has become a Maui “must-do.” The morning spectacle has become so popular that in 2016, due to extreme overcrowding, the park made headlines when it instituted a system of reservations for sunrise.

In the corner of the park where we’re headed, however, crowds aren’t an issue.

The Halemauu trail drops over a thousand vertical feet down a cliff before weaving through grasslands that lead to Holua campsite.

The summit district has 30 miles of trails, and of the 1.2 million annual visitors, less than one-tenth of 1 percent get a backcountry permit to spend a night in the starry, cinder-strewn wilderness.

There are three backcountry cabins in the park, but they’re usually booked up to six months in advance and cost $75 to reserve. Camping, however, is free of charge, and rarely—if ever—are sites full.

After a winding 45-minute drive, with cattle grazing on the side of the road and clouds enveloping our windshield, I park my truck at the visitor center to apply for our overnight permit. We watch a short video on backcountry conduct, and after five minutes of paperwork we’re back on the road to the Halemauu trailhead, which is 6 miles short of the summit visitor center and famous scenic overlook.

Even though it’s 11 a.m. when we arrive, the temperature here at 8,000 feet has yet to reach 60 degrees. I pull on a fleece, lace up my boots and take my first steps toward Paliku campsite, 10.2 miles away.

The rocky trail weaves through pukiawe scrub brush before reaching a cliff that plunges 1,000 feet to a large grassy field. This windward edge of the valley rim is much more lush, windy—and wet—than the popular summit overlook, and to move from the valley rim to the base of the mist-shrouded rocks, we’ll navigate a narrow network of switchbacks that the Civilian Conservation Corps carved into the mountain in 1936.

The “CCC,” as the program was known, is responsible for much of the backcountry infrastructure inside of Haleakala today. Its workers built the cabins, cut the trails and improved access to this little-visited 19-square-mile crater.

In this lunar landscape, you can still seek out the forgotten sound of silence.

That term, “crater,” though commonly used, is technically incorrect as geologists instead believe it to be an erosional depression that formed when two valleys—Koolau and Kaupo—merged after the ridgeline between them slowly eroded away. Though still volcanic in origin, Haleakala doesn’t have a caldera like the one at Mauna Loa on neighboring Hawaii Island.

Similar to Mauna Loa, however, it’s believed this 10,023-foot mountain at one point rose over 13,000 feet. Over hundreds of thousands of years, however, wind and weather have crafted a basin that bursts with colorful cinder cones and appears like the surface of the moon.

We make our way down the Halemauu switchbacks amid a layer of fog; the misty rain that dampens our packs falls not in drops but in swirling specks that slowly moisten my face.

Native Hawaiians had hundreds of names for the rains that fall on these Islands, and according to park ranger Timmy Bailey, this rain, blowing in through the Koolau Gap, is known as the halemauu rain, which matches the name of the trail.

Descending the switchbacks, I watch as the rain is slowly blown up the cliff face, and the swirling fog creates a scene more reminiscent of the rugged limestone cliffs of southern China than a tropical island.

You won’t find much foot traffic out on these trails—which is exactly the way that we like it.

The low-lying scrub brush has changed to ferns, with bright green leaves bringing a sense of new life to the weathered and faded black lava. We’ve yet to see anyone else on the trail, and the only sound, aside from the silence, is that of nene (Hawaiian geese) honking in the grasslands that blanket the base of the cliff.

By the time we reach Holua cabin about 4 miles into the hike, the rain has cleared and we treat ourselves to lunch and water from our packs. We’re now on what’s known as the “crater floor,” which is where the famous lunar landscape of Haleakala begins.

Holua is one of two backcountry campsites on the floor; at 6,940 feet, it’s nearly 600 feet higher than the other campsite at Paliku. And while we plan to do the whole hike in one day (it’s about six to seven hours, one-way), a lot of hikers break up the trip by spending an evening here at Holua before the 7-mile trek out to Paliku.

It’s here we encounter our first hikers, a Canadian couple who say Haleakala has been on their “bucket list” for 25 years.

We wish them well, pack up our lunch, and leave the wide-open grasslands behind as we enter a swath of black cinder. Our boots create an audible crunch with every step down the trail.

The vibrant colors of Halalii cinder cone have earned it the title of “Pele’s Paint Pot.”

While today’s trails are relatively modern, Native Hawaiians had been visiting this lofty landscape for centuries prior to the first recorded trip in 1828. The mountain is revered as a wao akua, or realm of the gods, which differs from the lowlands, or wao kanaka, where people live and farm. There were never permanent settlements here, but select individuals would venture up to perform specific tasks. There’s an adze quarry on the western rim, and bird catchers would visit the misty forests in search of feathers for capes. Others would gather kupaoa, an indigenous plant found at high elevations that was used for scenting kapa cloth.

Though the volcano is still considered active, geologists estimate it’s been 800 years since the summit area last bubbled. As we hike amid cinder cones bursting with shades of umber, rust and maroon, it’s as if we’ve entered a construction site where dirt is piled in misshapen mounds to form an unfinished landscape.

A cinder cone surrounded by clouds. 

Jack London, who in 1907, visited here on horseback, called the area “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.”

I get that feeling along Halalii cinder cone, where rows of colors create the appearance of rainbows etched in the dirt. It’s so silent in the central crater that machines used to measure the quiet aren’t able to register that low, and the audible void is our constant companion as we cross the length of the lunar landscape until it changes to grasslands around Paliku.

In Hawaiian this name means “vertical cliff,” and references the dramatic slab of rock that rises up from the campsite. Up until the 1920s, paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) from Haleakala Ranch would drive their cattle here in summer to let them feed in the fields, but today it’s nene patrolling the grass around the campsite and cabin.

Until 1911 it was actually legal to hunt Hawaii’s state bird, but by 1950 the number of nene in the state had dropped to as low as 30. When the geese were reintroduced in 1962, they were released at Paliku by rangers and Boy Scouts who packed the birds here in boxes.

While their statewide numbers were once as low as 30, nene geese—which are Hawaii’s state bird—now number close to 250 inside of the national park. They’re commonly spotted in the the grasslands around Paliku.

Today 250 nene live inside the park, and they’re joined by endangered forest birds whose songs rain down from Kalapawili Ridge, which backs the enchanting campsite.

It’s a symphony you won’t find elsewhere on Maui, as the birds’ habitat is confined to the areas above Paliku and inaccessible sites.

By dawn, a gentle patter of rain accompanies the morning birdsong, and we sip coffee right next to the cabin as the morning mist starts to clear. Despite the damp and drizzly conditions—the temperature hovers around 50 degrees and nene can be seen marching through the fog—there’s a part of me that never wants to leave this pocket of mountain seclusion.

Between the stars at night, the deep sense of solitude and the knowledge that simply making it here requires a fair amount of effort, it’s a degree of pure wilderness that reboots our souls—an emptiness that fills us back up.

In this social age where everywhere is already discovered, Paliku provides a humbling escape that reminds me that spots like this—where the world seems to be on pause—are threatened, but not yet extinct.

By noon, I’m placing my pack in my truck and swapping out my boots for slippers—a 24-hour backcountry adventure complete and logged in the books. There’s a north swell hitting the outer reefs—perhaps I’ll grab my surfboard—and spend sunset on the water, knowing I spent the morning sipping coffee amongst nene, alone and content in the hills.

The Haleakala visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Hikers are asked to pack out their trash and come fully prepared for weather that can drop to freezing at any time of year. It’s imperative to refrain from feeding the nene, and hikers should keep a safe distance at all times to ensure that the birds stay wild. nps.gov/hale.

Categories: Adventure, From Our Magazine, Hiking, Maui, Maui/Moloka‘i/Lāna‘i What To Do