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Hiking the House of the Sun

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“I felt like the last man neglected of the judgment, and left pinnacled in mid heaven. A forgotten relic of a vanished world”. — Mark Twain

There aren’t that many places in Hawaii where you can escape into the wilderness for some backcountry hiking unless you head to Kauai, The Big Island, or Maui. Each is unique in its own ecological diversity. On Maui, there is the famous Haleakala Crater, which resembles a desert moon crater. Spectacled with red cinder cones that reach hundreds of feet into the cool mountain air, shrouded at times with fog, it truly is a place like no other.

Originally part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, it separated and became its own park on July 1, 1961. In 1916 tourists started visiting Haleakala in greater numbers. Without proper funding from the government, much of the landscape was desecrated by people who just didn’t understand the precious environment that they beheld. The endemic plant, the silver sword, was being taken home as trophies, almost completely erasing the species from existence.

At 10,023 feet, you’ll want to experience everything that Haleakala has to offer. The morning sun rises above the crater in a spectacular show of light, which lightly dances in a ballet of golden rays. It can be cold in the morning: The average temperatures range from 45–60 degrees, but can change rapidly due to the altitude of the mountain. Prepare yourself for moments of extreme heat, followed by dark rain clouds sending in a chilled wind. This is a hike for which you have to be prepared.

maui-haleakala-hike-1If you’re thinking of hiking the mountain, there are several trails afforded to you for your liking, skills, and experience. In 2005 my husband and I hiked this trail starting from the visitors parking area, making the incredible, strenuous 9.3-mile hike to Paliku campground, where we had a reserved cabin. On our way down the trail, we spotted silver swords lightly covered with dew from the morning mist that hung over the mountain. I was frequently able to step outside myself and let my imagination transport me to the surface of the moon. The red cinder cones seemed like an alien planet.

We spent the night at Paliku cabins (which you must reserve far in advance; you can also reserve a spot for tent camping). After a long strenuous hike, it’s quite lovely to spend the evening in a well-maintained cabin. Outside the Paliku cabin is a waterfall that cascades into your backyard.

On our second day, we opted to hike all the way through the park, to the small town of Kaupo, another 10-mile hike that descended in elevation from 6,380 feet to sea level (6,380 feet in 8.7 miles). This is an extremely difficult hike, as you are swiftly descending for 3.7 miles on steep switchbacks. There’s no water or facilities on the trail. Knee issues, fatigue, exposure to heat, and constant pounding on your toes are inevitable. We each lost one toenail on this hike and could barely walk for three days after. Luckily for us, we had some family members visiting from the mainland.

Most hiked with us, but two stayed behind with their children. This gave us the added opportunity of not having to worry about being picked up in this remote part of Maui. Should you feel particularly adventurous, you should arrange for pickup at Kaupo.

p1010006Hiking through Kaupo gap is one of the most beautiful hikes that I have taken. While you’re descending, you’ll pass native koa trees, Christmas berries, rolling grass fields, and cows grazing in the pasture. At some point in the hike, you’ll be hiking on private land. No need to worry, though, as the owners have opened up their property to hikers.

I have read that it is actually easier to climb up the mountain from Kaupo Gap to the Visitors Center. However, you do have altitude sickness to contend with. As you get above 8,000 feet, each step becomes a bit more laborious. While I did experience a slight headache at Paliku cabins, it had diminished once I started my decent. Unfortunately, the only way to fully alleviate any altitude sickness is by descending in altitude. If you experience severe altitude sickness, descend the mountain, at least to 8,000 feet.

Signs of altitude sickness are:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Pins and needles
  • Shortness of breath upon exertion
  • Nosebleed
  • Persistent rapid pulse
  • Drowsiness
  • Excessive fluctuation
  • General malaise
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet, and face)

Because of the strenuous nature of this hike, make sure that you pack light. We discovered lightweight camping about seven years ago. The price may be a little more expensive, but I guarantee you that you’ll be grateful that you picked up those lightweight backpacks, tent, camp stove, and sleeping bags. Once you start your decent, you’ll notice the difference it makes to pack light.

Proper footwear is another essential. Because I like lightweight camping, I tend to use very minimalist shoes when I hike. When I hiked Haleakala I purchased a pair of North Face hiking shoes. Today, I would probably wear my Vibram Five Fingers for this trek. They are more comfortable, lightweight and now have tread on them that may be just as good as any other hiking shoe available on the market today.

If you’re unsure which shoe to get, I recommend going to a camping store near you and trying on several different pairs. See which fit you best and decide which are the most comfortable, stylish, and appropriate for your budget. Don’t skimp on footwear for this trek; it’s a crazy hike, and you’ill be miserable if you pick up that pair of bargain hikers from Walmart.

With that said, are you ready to take on Haleakala? Remember that this is a desert up in the sky; there is no water source, so make sure you bring plenty of water with you. Bring a rain jacket, as there’s a good chance you’ll get caught in the rain. Bring dehydrated food for those overnight camps, along with a headlamp, camera, multitool, map of the park, and snacks. And don’t forget the green-thumb rule of advice: Pack out what you pack in. Leave no trace.

Happy trails!

Pictures (top to bottom): Aloha-Hawaii.com, HawaiiActive.com, MaximumAdventure.net

IMG_3746Sarah Corell was born and raised in the midwest. She is an avid camper, hiker, photographer, and nature enthusiast. She has hiked her hometown trails of Michigan, rugged parts of the Appalachian Trail, the majestic Rockies, the arid deserts of the southwest, and the tropical rainforests of Thailand, Cambodia, Peru and Hawai’i. Sarah currently lives in Honolulu with her husband and their cat, Akasha. Read her personal blog and check out her Sarah Corell Photography Facebook page.