Backpacking Into Haleakala Crater
As I get older I am increasingly focused on trying new things, expanding my horizons and planning adventures. On the eve of my 60th birthday I am not getting any younger and time is precious. So thanks to my good friends Carrie and Tom, I recently spent two nights and three days backpacking through Haleakala crater on Maui. This hike is something that I've wanted to do since I was a little kid growing up in Honolulu. I love to hike, but I've never actually backpacked into the wild with food, gear, and a sleeping bag. This was outside my comfort zone and I was a little nervous about the adventure. Would I be able to handle a backpack? What shoes should I wear? What clothes should I bring? Do I bring one or two hiking sticks? Will I be able to make it up the mountain at altitude? And most importantly, what would we eat????
Warning, if you are an experienced backpacker, you are probably not going to appreciate all the details that I fretted about. But if you are a virgin backpacker, then stay tuned, I may have some ideas that will work for you.
Planning at Puamana
Rainbow over Puamana
I arrived on Maui three days before the hike and stayed with Carrie and Tom in beautiful Puamana. This sweet spot in paradise is a great place to plan a hike or to just contemplate your navel. Carrie and I met with her friend Lauren who is an experienced backpacker that had hiked through the crater several times before. Lauren was joining us on the hike and helped relieve some of the anxiety Carrie and I were feeling. Lauren inspected all the gear we brought from the mainland and helped us sort through what we should bring and what we should leave behind.
Most importantly, Lauren helped me fit the backpack I borrowed from my husband so that it settled properly on my back and hips. I had no idea there was so much to fitting a backpack properly, but was ever so grateful for Lauren's knowledge. My number one piece of advice to a novice backpacker is to make sure you have a backpack that fits you. Fortunately my husband and I are similar in size so borrowing his pack worked for me. Carrie bought a new pack and spent a lot of time at REI walking around in a weighted backpack to get one that worked for her.
What to Wear and Pack
My mini backpack with sleeping bag wrapped in a plastic bag strapped to the outside
A big question was what shoes to wear? The Haleakala website recommends hiking boots or sturdy athletic shoes. Lauren, a kama'aina (longtime Hawaii resident), told us she hiked in slippers, or what mainlanders call rubber flipflops. I chose the medium course and wore athletic shoes, although in hindsight I should have opted for my hiking boots. The trails are steep, rocky and slippery. There are plenty of opportunities to roll an ankle so good ankle support is important. How Lauren made the hike in slippers is beyond me! Having grown up in Hawaii and currently live in sunny California, I wear rubber slippers every chance I get, which is about 80% of the time, but there is no way I could have made the hike in slippers. I did pack a pair of slippers to wear once we were in the cabin. I highly recommend bringing a pair of slippers because it is wonderful to take off your hiking shoes and wiggle your toes.
Another question was whether to take one hiking stick or two. My husband, a very experienced hiker, was adamant that one stick was all I would need. For once, I heeded his advice and was glad I did. With the rocky and steep terrain, and the weight of the back pack, a hiking stick was a godsend. Two sticks, however, would have been cumbersome.
My backpack was smaller than everyone else's, which meant I was a little light on pulling my weight as there was not a lot of room for food and I had to tie my sleeping back on the outside of my pack, covered in a plastic bag to protect it from the rain. Carrie and I had a brief minute of panic when we got to the park headquarters because neither of us thought to bring a warm beanie. The temperature can drop precipitously very quickly, and yes it does snow in Haleakala. At the advice of the ranger we purchased two beanies. Turns out, we didn't use them, but I agree it is an important piece of gear to have just in case. As is a rain poncho, because it rains a lot and you don't want to get your gear and clothes all wet.
Your best bet is to dress in layers and bring synthetic clothing that dries quickly. You will need a warm jacket and long pants as it can get very cold inside the crater.
Other important items to bring include: sunscreen, sunglasses, a sun protective hat, a headlamp, a small microfiber camp towel, a couple pairs of clean socks, matches or a lighter, a small lantern, toilet paper, a first-aid kit and of course lots of water. There is water available at the cabins, but the park website tells you it is not potable. We chose to boil our water, but you can also bring iodine tablets or water filters to sanitize your water.
What We Ate
Twice-baked potatoes ready for the oven with broccoli signifying the vegetarian versions
It may not come as a surprise, but as a food blogger, are you shocked that what Carrie and I agonized most over was what food to bring? We considered everything from steak to light-weight ramen. We ruled out the steak as being impractical and the ramin as nutritionally unfit, even though several people highly recommended it. We wanted something filling, satisfying and delicious, that wouldn't spoil and didn't weigh too much. There were going to be nine of us total with three people planning their meals separately. Six of us were planning on sharing food communal style. So after a lot of deliberation we came up with two contributions for our dinners - Twice Baked Potatoes and a Kale Salad fortified with some canned chicken and vegetables.
Twice baked potatoes frozen solid and ready for the trip
Tom and I teamed up to make the twice baked potatoes. We made 10 potatoes and stuffed them with grated cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, butter, bacon (for the deliciousness factor), and green onions and chopped broccoli (for the health factor.) We figured we would deserve these calorie-dense treats after a long day of hiking. We wrapped each of the 20 potato halves in tin foil and froze them solid.
I have to say these potatoes were genius. While almost all food tastes inordinately delicious while camping, these potatoes really hit the spot and were the mainstay of both of our dinners. They stayed frozen during our descent into the crater and it was cold enough inside the crater for the potatoes to last for two nights.
We also packed boiled eggs, peanut butter and honey, rice cakes, tuna, beef jerky, macadamia nuts, carrots, coconut macaroons, assorted protein bars and coffee as our contribution to the communal breakfasts and lunch. We forgot apples and oranges, which would have been delicious and will be on the list next time.
The kale salad worked very well as kale is very tough and you really can't hurt it even if you smash it in your backpack.
Booze, Games and Reading Material
1. Booze: We vigorously debated whether to bring some adult refreshments with us or not. We had almost talked ourselves out of it, but at the last minute found room for two bottles of red wine. Not a lot for 9 people, but we thought we'd all enjoy a small glass at the end of the hike. One of our fellow hikers also brought a flask of vodka, which was a much more efficient way to hike in alcohol pound for pound. We thoroughly enjoyed all of the wine and vodka on the first night, prompting some of us to wonder "what are we going to do tomorrow night?" At one point when we were feeling particularly happy and pouring the last of our non-water liquid supplies, a couple of our wine-infused hikers vowed to hike out and back the next day to replenish our spirits. The next morning this idea sounded every bit as crazy as it was and we all enjoyed a booze-free second night.
Recommendation: If you are so inclined, bringing in a little liquid libation is not a bad idea, although given the sacred nature of the crater, I would tread lightly. Hard alcohol is the most efficient to pack in as it is far more concentrated than wine. If wine is your drink of choice consider either purchasing a small box of wine or filling a water container with wine. The reason is you must pack out everything you bring in and carrying empty glass wine bottles out of the crater is not very fun.
Recommendation: Consider bringing in a game or a couple packs of cards.
3. Reading Material: Most of us did a lot of reading at the cabin. You can either bring a headlamp and a book, or in my case I brought my ipad loaded with a couple books as there is no cell coverage in the crater.
Enjoy the Peace, Solitude and Stars.
Or skip the trappings of Western life and enjoy the peace and solitude of the crater. If you are in Haleakala on a clear moonless night you will be treated to a view of the cosmos like no other. We planned our trip specifically so we could experience the stars on a moonless night. When the mist and clouds retreated we were regaled by a densely star-studded sky.
The Hike In
Carrie, Cindy and I at the summit of Haleakala crater, about 10,000 feet above sea level
with west Maui mountains in the background -- Photo by Cary Branch
You begin the hike at the Park Headquarters and Visitor Center to register your group. Hiking groups are limited to no more than 12 people. In order to get your hiking permit you must watch a short film. The key takeaways from the film include:
- Haleakala crater is sacred to the Hawaiian people and your time in the crater should be respectful of this beautiful nature preserve. There are many ancient ritual sites that remain at the rim and inside the crater, some which are still in use today.
- Weather is unpredictable and changes quickly. Temperatures may drop below freezing but rarely get as high as 70 degrees. Rain and mist are common.
- Stay on the trails. Stepping off the trails damages the natural flora and fauna. Some plants, like the Silver sword, or ahinahina, are unique to Haleakala and found nowhere else on earth. Take care to protect them.
- Leave no footprint and pack everything out with you.
We began our hike in at Halemaumau trailhead. I'm the one in the goofy lifeguard hat with my sleeping bag sticking out.
Once you have your permit you drive a short way down to the Halemaumau trail head to begin the descent into the crater floor. Starting at 7,990 feet our hike was just 4 miles to Holua Cabin, where we were staying. It is a gorgeous, rocky, and steep hike down rugged, mist-engulfed, fern-lined switchbacks in the mountainside.
A view through the mist
A view down from the switchbacks, across the meadow towards Holua cabin
Beautiful red and green Ama'u ferns cling to the rocks lining the switchbacks
Tyler, one of our younger hikers was very kind and stayed with me on the trek back up the switchbacks
-- yes I was the caboose!
Stretching out our legs on a hitching post after the descent.
Horses are used to service the park and you may run into them on the trail.
While the hike down Halemaumau trail to Holua cabin is only 3.9 miles and 1400 feet in elevation change, it took us nearly three hours to make the descent. Part of this may have been the elevation, part of it may have been being careful of the rocky terrain, and part of it may have been because we stopped so many times to take pictures of the amazing scenery. Whatever it was, the hike down took way longer than we thought it would. This made me anxious for the hike back up because the website said to plan twice as much time for the ascent. Therefore, I had six hours in my mind for the return hike. Weirdly, we made it back up in less time than it took us to go down, just 2 1/2 hours. I still can't figure it out.
Holua Cabin, Cooking, Dining and Sleeping
Enjoying our coffee in the chill of the morning.
Lauren in the red sleeping bag slept outside to enjoy the stars.
The Haleakala cabins were built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps who brought in materials by mules, horseback and backpacks. The Holua cabin is a large one-room cabin with 4 sets of three-tiered bunk beds, an open kitchen with a fire-burning stove, and a wonderful large table that runs down the middle of the room.
Our gang was grateful to have a seat at the table after the hike in
The Holua cabin table is well-aged and has numerous initials that have been carved in it over the years. If only tables could talk I think this one would have great stories.
A quick nap was needed after the descent
The view from Holua cabin at dawn. Yes, we are up above the clouds!
Nene family living beside Holua cabin - the baby is in the middle and well protected by her parents
Nene is the Hawaiian goose that is endemic to the Hawaiian islands. In other words they are found nowhere else in the world. Nene are believed to have evolved from the Canadian Goose, first arriving in Hawaii some 500,000 years ago. Nene are on the endangered species list, but are making a slow comeback. At the time Captain Cook first landed in the islands it is estimated that there was a 25,000 population of Nene. By 1952 the population had dwindled to a mere 38. Due to active efforts to save the Nene there are about 250 birds in Haleakala with a total population of about 2500.
Nene in early morning light - Photo by Cary Branch
The Nene near Holua cabin are very friendly and have learned to beg for food. It is critical that we do not feed these wild birds, so they remain wild and capable of feeding themselves. Nene mate for life and hang together as a family, sometimes loudly bickering with other neighboring Nene families.
Day Hiking and the Varied Terrain of Haleakala
View of the cinder cones from Kawilinau, or the Bottomless Pit
During our three days in Haleakala we covered less than half of the crater, but were amazed by the wide variety and micro-ecosystems of terrain. From the verdant switchbacks at the beginning of the Halemaumau trail where we descended into the crater, to the gray and black rugged lava, to Silversword loop, to the red and gold hills of Rainbow Mountain, we found beauty everywhere.
Rainbow mountain also near Bottomless Pit
Ahinahina or Silversword
Silversword plants are unique to Haleakala and Mauna Kea and do not grow anywhere else in the world. They live between three and 90 years. They send up a beautiful red and green flower spike just once in their life. The flowering stalk can exceed 6 feet in height. You can see a picture of a flowering Silversword here. Silverswords have been on the threatened species list since 1992, but through conservation efforts these unique plants are making a comeback.
Silverswords growing on a steep lava hill
Tyler leads the way through a moon-like terrain
Cary, Cindy, Carrie and Tom as we hiked from what looked like the moon to a more Mars-like red terrain
The gang as we depart Holua Cabin for the ascent up the switchbacks.
Again I'm the one in the goofy lifeguard hat with my sleeping bag poking out the back.
Where We Went Right After Our Hike
Olowalu fruit stand
We all had one thing on our mind after the ascent -- food. We stopped off at the Olowalu roadside fruit stand, where we stocked up on local fruit, including Mountain Apples, a treat from my childhood. Then we walked across the parking lot to Leoda's Kitchen and Pie Shop where we chowed down on bacon, onion and blue cheese burgers on homemade buns. We figured we deserved it! If you are in West Maui, I highly recommend a stop at Leoda's for a sandwich and at least one of their awesome pies.
The Next Haleakala Hike
We are already talking about our next Haleakala hike. We are looking forward to exploring the rest of the crater and staying at the Kapalaoa and Paliku cabins. Stay tuned!
Thank you Tom & Carrie for including me on this wonderful adventure!
Tips on Planning Your Own Haleakala Hike
- If you want to stay in the cabins you need to make reservations 180 days in advance. The website opens at 7 am Hawaii time and reservations can be gone by 7:01. Remember there are only three cabins. Thank you Carrie for diligently making our reservations! The cost of renting a cabin is $75 per night and the cabins hold a maximum of 12. You can make reservations here.
- If you simply want to see the sunrise at Haleakala you now need to make reservations up to 60 days in advance. You can make reservations to see the sunrise here. The sunrise is a spectacular experience not to be missed. Make sure you get up early and plan for the 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 hour trip up the crater so you arrive while it is still dark. And wear warm clothes! A ski jacket is not overdoing it. If you are energetic you could start with viewing the sunrise and then begin your hike into the crater, providing you have all the right permits.
- More information on reservations for both the sunrise and the cabins can be found here.
- Here are some interesting notes about the crater published in 1959. And here is a Frommer's summary on planning the hike.
- Yes, it can snow in Haleakala so you need to pack accordingly. Check out snow photos here and here.
- Tony Perrottet wrote a fabulous article on his experiences in Haleakala for the Smithsonian. This article covers the ancient Hawaiian's spiritual relationship with the crater as well as current thoughts on returning the stewardship of the crater to the Hawaiian people.
Something New For Dinner