Sunrise at Haleakala


This is what we came for, the arrival of the sun in Maui.


The colors change every minute once the light appears.

When the alarm went off at 1 a.m., and when we raced to get ready for our 2 a.m. bus, then as as we stood in the freezing cold darkness two hours later, I wondered whether standing at 10,000 feet at Haleakala made any sense.

I was cold, groggy, fortified only by a small cup of coffee and a donut somewhere in the early hours of the day. I held onto my front spot by the railing as people began to fill in the spaces looking east. At five-foot-nothing, that’s important. I got to know the people around me. I waited for the first hint of light in the eastern sky.


Oh look, we aren’t alone.

It was nearly 6 a.m. when the first glimmer of yellow appeared in the completely dark sky. We had seen no stars or moon break through the clouds overhead. But we cheered when we saw that first light.

Then, moment by moment the sky changed, just as it does every morning. The hint of yellow stretched and glowed. The clouds above us—and more importantly the clouds below us—tinged with gold and pink and purple. We were in awe to see those clouds below our feet. We twisted around to see the sun’s light brighten the mountaintop behind us and the skies to our north and south. We marveled at the number of people who had arrived for this moment, their faces golden in the nearly-rising sun.


Worth waiting for, wouldn’t you say?

It took only a little more than a half hour for the sun to make its appearance in all its rose gold glory. Cameras clicked endlessly through that half hour as we tried to capture the awe-inspiring sight around us.

In truth, we couldn’t do it. We caught bits of the majesty of sunrise on Haleakala, but only bits.

But in spite of toes so cold they were numb and the urge to crawl back into bed for a few hours of rest, we had to agree, the sights on the top of Haleakala were worth it all.


We didn’t even know it but we stood at the edge of a crater (not a volcano, by the way) and in the distance we could see the tips of the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Haleakala is located on Maui and its summit rises more than 10,000 feet above sea level. It is an ancient holy place, called the “wilderness of the gods.” Best of all, it’s a heavenly site for seeing the sun rise above the clouds. There’s something magical about standing there in the darkness with no real awareness of where anything is but your own two feet. Slowly the light begins to break through and bit by bit you start seeing the crater in front of you, the very top of the mountain behind you and beside you, a couple hundred other sunrise seekers.

There are two ways to witness sunrise at Haleakala: go yourself or take a tour. We originally planned to go ourselves but decided it would be better to have an expert climb that 10,000-foot mountain in the dark.

If you go it alone, reserve your space through the National Park Service up to 60 days in advance. They only allow a limited amount of cars and buses up the mountain each sunrise (and sunset, too). The reservation costs $1.50, plus $25 admission to the park.


The view as we drove down the mountain after sunrise.

I’m glad we opted for a tour. I don’t know if Valley Isle is the best tour operator but I was delighted with every aspect of our adventure, especially our knowledgeable (and careful) driver. The roads switch back and forth along the side of the mountain, providing spectacular views that the driver would necessarily miss to keep the car safely on the road.

Only four companies are allowed to bring little vans to the mountain. Ours included pick-up from our hotel, a stop for coffee before climbing the mountain, a tour guide with photos from past sunrises and good information about the area, and breakfast before heading home. The whole tour lasted from 2 a.m until about 11, when I went back into bed for a nap.

Ⓒ Photos and text Mary K. Tilghman




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