Hiking inside Haleakala Crater. Part One.Haleakala Day One.
Haleakala is famous for its sunrises. Visitors head up the mountain in the black of night in order to witness the sun crawl up and over the tallest mountain on Maui, a sight considered by some to be an otherworldly experience. At 10,023-foot elevation, the black of night also promises a spectacular star show, an added bonus, not quite as famous as its Mauna Kea neighbor, also peaking above the clouds, on Hawaii Island. But spectacular all the same.
Sun. Stars. My desires were a little closer to home. I was hoping for a good look at the moon—a blue moon. I even packed my Gorillapod, a tripod for my small Canon G9 camera--alongside bags of mixed greens and bean sprouts and a container of grape tomatoes in my backpack. We would eat well on this three-day Friends of Haleakala service trip— whole, fresh, and organic. (We would also share the load. We split the spaghetti noodles and red peppers and tortillas and salsa and everything for our meals among us.)
Our group of 11, organized by trip leader Elizabeth, headed down Keonehe’ehe’e Trail at Haleakala’s summit late one morning under a clear, blue and sunny sky. And while the common name of the trail—Sliding Sands—appropriately describes some of the trail’s surface, I prefer the image of its Hawaiian name—Keonehe’ehe’e—which Elizabeth said compares the way hikers travel the crater’s myriad of hiking trails to an octopus crawling across the ocean floor.
From the trailhead, the hikers down below looked like ants to me. That will soon be us, I thought, as I gazed at the worn rock trail bisecting the crater floor. This would be my first multi-day backpacking trip carrying a 35-pound pack in nearly 10 years, and another thought went through my mind: Would I make it?
We had plenty of time to think during our 10-mile trek through Haleakala to Paliku Cabin, our night’s destination. Fearful thoughts went through my mind: What was I doing out here with backpackers half my age and twice as fit? Happy thoughts: Is that ahinahina actually blooming? How cool. Writerly thoughts: How am I going to describe this place?
The dormant volcano known as Haleakala Crater reminded me of a clay bowl. In scientific terms, it’s probably more aptly described as an alpine desert. The air is crisp. There is little vegetation. Swaths of rock, gravel and, in places, sand striate the crater floor in long ribbons of color. A few hilly cinder cones, known as pu’u, pock the inside of the bowl.
My husband said it best, “We’re inside a big gravel pit.”
Indeed, I could imagine Caterpillar earth-movers sorting and stacking rock by size and color.
The land inside the crater is relatively new, having last erupted a thousand years ago, give or take. The summit basin measures 7.5 miles long by 2.5 miles wide. Technically, the summit is not a caldera. It was not formed when the crater’s surface collapsed into an emptying magma chamber. Rather, the summit is considered an erosional feature. That is, it was formed when the headwalls of two river canyons met up and eroded.
We followed one of those canyons, known as Kaupo Gap, which fell away to the east and looked like a broken chip in the crater bowl. Our Paliku cabin destination, some 3,633 feet of elevation below us, wasn’t visible from the summit. It also wasn’t located in alpine zone. We had some descending to do.
We switch-backed down the trail for two miles, stopping at the “big rocks” for lunch. Here, we settled in some shade. I pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while Laurent, one of the young ones, pulled out moleskin and tape to repair two blisters forming on both his pinkie toes. New boots are killers. I’d bought mine earlier in the year and put some miles on them to ensure my feet would hold up. I even went up a full size to allow for the steep descent that awaited us on our hike out.
The plant life began after lunch. I looked out across the barren landscape (those two words almost always go together in any story on Haleakala) and saw ahinahina scattered across the volcanic rock.
The arid nature of the summit provides an inhospitable home for plant and wildlife. Bugs, birds and very few plants manage to survive here. One, the ahinahina, also known as silversword and a member of the sunflower family, is endemic to Haleakala. A park ranger named Honey Girl, cautioned us not to veer off the trail, to prevent crushing the roots of this endangered plant. (She also said that a footprint might last for years inside the arid crater. Food crumbs would not bio-degrade. And cigarette butts would last forever. So, practice Leave No Trace principles, she said. We watched a movie and tagged a plastic card to our packs and promised that we would.)
The ahinahina adapted to its environment in order to survive. A shallow root system branches in all directions to catch every bit of moisture from the area’s porous cinders. And the plant also throws a long tap root to anchor it in place when high winds roar through here. (And roar through here, they do, I’d learn.) Silvery hairs on long, slender leaves also help the ahinahina trap moisture, as well as protect it from the intense, high-elevation sun.
The ahinahina grows for up to 50 years before flowering for the first—and last—time. After it flowers, the plant dies. I’d never seen an ahinahina in full bloom before, but, here, I stood in a field of blooming ahinahina. Endemic insects pollinate the ahinahina, another reason we were encouraged not to hike off-trail. It wouldn’t do to crush the few remaining pollinators for the ahinahina.
Another two miles, and we made our next rest stop at a real-life hitching post, where a sign indicated we had six miles to go before reaching Paliku? Six? Six? In researching this trip, I’d come across various estimates of the length of the hike, and in my ever-optimistic, hopeful and naïve mind, I’d settled on a total distance of 8 miles. Not 10.
My head hurt. It may have been the altitude. It may have been the exertion. It may have been my stubbornness to accept a whole 10 miles. I took an ibuprofen.
The trail leveled out from here, and we hiked on ground layered in a thick cushion of sand. The ahinahina gave way to a ferns and sprigs of grasses sprouting among lava rocks.
The trail’s surface changed again after our final rest stop at Kapalao cabin, where two Hawaiian geese, called nene, greeted us. Instantly, the sandy substrate changed to chunks of fist-sized rocks. Eventually, I stopped caring about lifting my feet, letting the toes of my boots swing and kick rocks out of my way.
The plant life changed, too. Here, dwarf-sized versions of the native ohia lehua tree grew and bloomed. We’d entered the subalpine shrubland. But that didn’t last long. During the last mile to our cabin, as I tripped along, we reached the upper limits of a rain forest. Fields of grasses now grew, covering the lava rock completely, and groups of nene grazed in the fields. We neared a mountain ridge laced with tree ferns and more ohia. Fog drip developed. One rainbow after another arced overhead, and I followed one to our Haleakala home for the next two nights: Paliku Cabin.
We made a meal of spaghetti with real sautéed veggies in our red sauce, a salad of fresh greens, and a side of garlic bread--using an old, wood-fired, cast-iron stove to do so. We watched as the sun streaked the southeastern sky red and pink. And, then, I waited for the blue moon.
According to modern folklore, a blue moon occurs every two or three years whenever a full moon rises twice in the same month. Many people in social and mainstream media had been making a big deal of the blue moon in the days leading up to our trip. So much so, that I’d gotten wrapped up in the excitement. My enthusiasm ratcheted when realized I’d be sitting in Haleakala Crater when the blue moon made its appearance. How cool would that be, I thought.
But, instead of the blue moon, the rains came. At least, there was still Haleakala's famous sunrise to witness.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series