Haleakala Sunrise – Instagram vs Reality Edition
[Haleakala National Park / Kula, HI / Paia, HI, Nov 20, 2022]
My first full day on Maui began with one of the most quintessential experiences on the island – watching sunrise at Haleakala National Park. I had made my reservation for the park 2 months in advance, as is required for anyone entering the park between 3 am and 7 am every day of the year. Sunrise was supposed to happen around 6:40 am, so I aimed to be at the summit around 6 am. This early start was the main reason I had chosen to stay in the upcountry rather than at the beach. Staying at sea level would have cost me at least another 30 minutes of driving each way.
The summit of Haleakala is at just above 10,000 ft, and the weather there can be quite different from the beach. The forecast called for partly cloudy weather, temps in the low 40s and high winds. It didn’t look great, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I encountered when I got to the summit.
Even though the parking lot was full, many people were parking on the side and I snagged a spot there. I walked the few steps up to the shelter. There were probably 30-40 people or so, half of them outside and half in the shelter. What made the conditions really bad was the wind. It made everything extra cold, but I was hoping it would blow the cloud cover away. I and most other people kept going back to the shelter, only to run back out as soon as the clouds changed color. But it never lasted long and the fog could come in again and envelop everything in its gray, cold embrace.
As it got closer to sunrise, we did get a glimpse of the famous Haleakala sunrise for like 5 seconds.
The rest of the time clouds were relentlessly flying in from the left and obscuring everything more than 30 feet away. I laughed at people’s conversations around me. Every little bit of shift in the clouds elicited excited grunts and exclamations like “It’s happening!” (It wasn’t).
I was disappointed I didn’t get to see the classic Haleakala sunset, but I also had to laugh at the ridiculousness of this experience. All of us had traveled thousands of miles, brought warm clothes we wouldn’t wear for the rest of our trip, made reservations months in advance and woke up at some ungodly hour to drive here in the dark, only to watch some clouds fly by. It was a bit easier for me to swallow the disappointment as I cherished the sunset at Mauna Kea I saw in 2014. The fact that I probably wasn’t going to hike my bucket list Haleakala trail today was a much harder pill for me to swallow. I had come prepared to hike right after sunrise, but the strong winds and the cloud cover dissuaded me. I had the rest of today and 5 more full days on the island. Although I was going to spend some of them driving the famous road to Hana, I wanted to believe I was going to get a chance to do my hike at some point. So I decided to temporarily abort mission. I came down off the mountain to grab breakfast and rethink my next steps. At least I saw this rainbow on my way down.
I headed to Grandma’s Coffee House in Kula, another little upcountry town. I ordered at the counter and seated myself at a table outside on the patio. I recognized the family on the table next to mine – it was the “It’s happening” people! They seemed in good spirits and I think it rubbed off on me. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet, so I decided to drive back up the mountain to see if conditions had improved.
Back on Haleakala, it was clear nothing had changed as the clouds and wind were the same even at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center at 7,000 ft (the visitor center near the summit is at 9,740 ft). I didn’t even have to drive back to the top this time. I did pop into the visitor center though, which was now open. I got my passport stamped and found out from the ranger on duty that there is a live summit webcam I can view on the Haleakala NPS website. This turned out be both a blessing and a curse. I became obsessed with checking it, only to see this for the next 2 days.
At least I got a park sign photo! You can tell the strength of the wind by my hair. I might be smiling in the photo, but I was definitely not amused.
I hadn’t prepared a contingency plan for this scenario ahead of time, but I did look for some trails in Alltrails while I was at breakfast. I found out that Kula Forest Reserve was nearby. Located on the leeward slopes of Haleakalā, it was established in 1912 with the intent to reforest the area that had been converted to pasture after 20 years of livestock grazing. A single narrow road provides public access to the preserve. A December 2021 storm had downed trees and washed out parts of the road and the preserve had closed, but it was unclear whether it had reopened by now or not. I decided to check it out for myself. As I drove up the slopes of Haleakala on this narrow road, I enjoyed the expansive views of the island. But I soon came to a gate, which made it clear that the reserve was, indeed, still closed. I was 0 for 2 today and I was starting to get frustrated.
After a change of shoes and grabbing some beach gear, I headed for the North Shore beaches. Those, at least, were always a good bet.
My first stop was back in Paia, near Mama’s Fish House from yesterday. Ho’okapi Beach park is a world-renowned wind-surfing destination, which became evident as soon as I parked. There was no shortage of muscular men wrangling kite surfboards into the ocean. It was fun to watch for sure. 🙂
And the nearby beached Hawaiian Monk seal stole whatever attention wasn’t directed at the kite surfers. Hawaiian Monk seals are among the most endangered species in the world, as I learned from the aggressive signage warning people to give the seal a wide berth.
The beach and tidepools looked great at first. I just wanted to lay out but as soon as I put my chair and towel down, I realized the fatal flaw in my plan. I was clearly on the wrong side of the island. Yes, Maui’s North Shore is great for kite surfing but not for laying out. Unless, of course, you like your beach with a side of wind. While not a total fail, I felt like I was 0 for 3.
I put my beach stuff back in the car and walked to the other end of the park, where I had spotted an overlook. This was a great little spot to watch the kite surfers from a different angle. The lookout was on the edge of a cliff and the tide was low enough for me to walk out and experience the strong surf first-hand. It was also a great spot for photos. Okay, maybe at this point I was 0.5 for 3.
It was clear that the North Shore was not gonna be great for laying out. At the same time, I didn’t want to drive to Kihei or West Maui. I was saving that for later in the week when I was actually going to be staying in that area. But I still wanted to explore more, so I headed to another North Shore beach, Baldwin Beach. It was a beautiful, long white-sand beach and it was perfect for my walk. I could see West Maui from there, all the way to the distinctive Kahakuloa Head. It was as if I had a little preview of my West Maui days later in the week. It helped me get excited about all the things that were bound to go right on this trip.
Once I got back, my AirBnB hosts invited me to have dinner with them. But first we played some ping pong in the living room. That table is one of the reasons I picked this place!
By the way, I am famous for picking my AirBnBs for the most random reasons. I picked my very first AirBnB in London in 2014 because the ad mentioned Nutella, which was indeed there when I arrived. I even took a picture of it. It’s my very first picture from London! 🙂
The dinner was a farewell to the long-term tenant in one of the other bedrooms in the house. Patrick had just finished his 9-month stint at the local hospital as a traveling medical professional of some sort. After a quick trip home, he was bound to Portland, OR next, of all places. Another friend also stopped by, and the five of us had a great time eating burgers and chatting. Even though the day did not go as planned, I was grateful for all the unexpected memories I made.