Sunrise At Haleakala National Park, Maui

Looking back, 2am was a ridiculous start time. But that’s what the itinerary said, “2am – wake and drive to Haleakala for sunrise”. I dare not argue with an itinerary. And so it was that writer John Jerney and I piled into my (as of yet undamaged) Budget rental car and headed for the highest point on the island of Maui. We popped in a CD by local award wining artist Keali’i Reichel to set the mood and talked about power generation and other trips we had taken as we curved our way up Haleakala.

Prodding 10,023′ into the tropical skies above Hawai’i, Haleakala is touted as the best place on the island to watch the sunrise and sunset. Leaving the tropical coasts below, the flanks of the mountain change from wetlands to farmland to cloud forest and top out on the summit in a plain of arid scrub brush. The range of natural resources is so diverse and unique, the National Parks Service created Haleakala National Park in 1961

I knew to dress warm and had brought a Polartech coat just for this part of the trip. We arrived at 4am, approximately two hours before sunrise, and were happy to find we were the second car at the mountaintop parking lot. Nothing left to do but step outside and “Whoa!”….it was cold. Not freezing freezing cold. I’ve been in cold places before but not cold places that are reached in such a short drive from 70 degree beaches.

Me in my flipflops and shorts (I wasn’t smart enough to completely dress for the cold), we scamper up to the observation room at the very top of a short flight of stairs and observe that indeed, it is dark. Finding it hard to read any of the interpretive signs, we scamper back down to wait in the warmth of our running car, climate change be damned!

Something strange happens if you sit in a car for an hour waiting for the sun to rise at Haleakala; everyone takes your spot. Granted, we didn’t actually claim a spot along the observation platform with its low stone wall and open skies. But, ya know, we were there first!!…back in our car!!! Lesson learned.

By the time we walked back up to the summit there was a throng of 40 people wearing various versions of blankets and hotel towels, shuffling their feet and chatting hushedly, trying to stay warm and occupied while waiting for the sun. In between the heads draped with blankets the glow of digital camera screens could be spied.  Billows of fog, or cloud, hid our Easterly view. And before this bank of clouds a Park Ranger, James, appeared to give his rehearsed, yet entertaining, speech about the mountain on which we stood. Its creation with the other Hawaiian Islands. The fact that it is not a crater, but an eroded valley at the top. Some history before the area became a National Park.

He checked his watch. I bounced up and down to get blood flowing to my bare feet. A gizmo I was testing, known as the Gigapan EPIC PRO robot, was busy trying to shoot a panorama of the emerging landscape for me. Sunrise time came and went. But still no sun. Most of us are sniffling back running noses. The clouds, or fog, was too thick in the direction we wanted, but still we stood and waited.

And waiting has its rewards. We were treated to not one, but at least two, maybe three, sunrises. Because of the clouds, or fog, the sun would appear, dim, and then hide again. Only to return, just a bit higher, just a bit brighter, trying its best to burn through the clouds. Or fog. Down below us, at the visitor’s center, we could hear a woman belting out a Hawai’ian chant, welcoming the new day.

After the sun comes up, the crowd disperses. We’re left mostly alone on the summit surround by the din of car engines starting and larger tourist buses arriving. It’s a pleasant place to experience, once abandoned by those needing warmth.  It’s pleasant to enjoy a moment alone and thank the sun for the warmth it is finally bringing to my body.

My advice? Dress warmly, very warmly. Arrive early, about an hour before the sun comes up. Don’t forget some cash for the Park permit. Secure a good spot. And lastly, leave your camera in the car and just enjoy the moment. It’s not often you will get to enjoy a sunrise from 10,023′ in the sky.

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