Standing on Clouds: An Adventure to the Top of Maui’s Haleakala
My daughter had already been napping in her carseat for the better part of an hour as we entered Haleakala National Park. The ranger at the gate gave us a smile along with several park brochures and we continued the 30-minute winding drive up to the summit.
Haleakala, meaning “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, is a dormant volcano on the island of Maui that stands just over 10,000 feet above sea level. Originally part of Hawai’i National Park, the area became a separate national park in 1961 and was further designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. Its a special wilderness area unlike anywhere else on the planet and encompasses more than 25,000 acres of dramatic landscapes and diverse microclimates. It’s well-known for its incredible summit views over an ocean of clouds, a spectacle that peaks during sunrise and sunset. I wanted to see the latter of the two, not having the patience nor the energy to wake our toddler up before 3:00am to witness the sunrise version.
“Watch out for the nene,” I said thumbing through the brochures, one of which alerted visitors to the endangered Hawaiian goose that had a tendency to meander into roads. At one point in the 1970s, there were less than 60 of these birds remaining in the wild, but today, conservation efforts have brought the animal back from the brink. Nene are one of more than 100 endangered species whose home lies within the borders of Haleakala National Park.
We continued our ascent, our ears popping every few minutes with the increasing elevation. My husband Chris was driving as I watched the landscape change what seemed to be dozen times in the span of a half hour. At first all was green, the landscape blanketed in a thick canopy of towering trees. Eventually the land dried, and lush vegetation gave way to scratchy sage brush and rocky soil.
We slowly twisted on, weaving our way up and around the roads and inching ever closer to the clouds. The sagebrush grew scarcer, the rocky soil became more red and abundant, and eventually our car cut through the clouds and we were driving in a thick fog. Chris slowed the vehicle, careful to hug the turns precisely. There were no guardrails, and one wrong twitch of the steering wheel might render us either souring off the volcano’s edge or engine-first into a mountain of rock. These roads were a nail-bitting ordeal and certainly not for weak-witted drivers.
In the 1930s, the Bureau of Public Roads built the road to Haleakala to provide public access to the volcano’s summit. The design for the road, including construction techniques and structural improvements, were carefully engineered so as to decrease its overall visual and physical impact on surrounding the ecosystem. Moreover, the absence of traditional guard rails was an intential effort made to maximize the road’s scenic view.
Due to the summit’s high elevation and excellent conditions for stargazing, the road to Haleakala also provided access for scientific research and led to the development of the Haleakala Observatory in the 1950s, one of the most important astronomical research sites in the world.
We had finally reached above the clouds. As our car continued to bob and weave around the mountain, it felt as though we were flying in an airplane rather than driving in a car. A white bed of clouds stretched out along the horizon for miles and it was wholly mesmerizing. I made a real effort not to sound too excited and inadvertently draw Chris’ attention from his priority objective - keeping us alive. The wheels of our car were hugging the side of the road only a few feet from where the road dopped off - without guard rail - to jagged rocks.
I pulled my eyes from the horizon to notice the landscape. The soil had turned a deep, Martian red. The sagebrush was even more sparse at this altitude and so dry it didn’t even look to be alive. It was more like twisted twigs supported by red gravel. Occasionally there were tufts of grass scattered about, but it was difficult to understand how even these plants could survive up here in what seemed like another planet entirely.
The cultural underpinnings of this special place run deep. Hawaiian legend says that the demigod Maui captured the sun atop Haleakala and forced the orb to move more slowly through the sky, creating the island’s never-ending summer season. Continuing in the tradition of their ancestors, native Hawaiians often pay tribute to the sun from various sacred locations along the Haleakala’s crater rim.
It was half past 4:00 when we pulled into a near-empty parking lot at the volcano’s summit, and the sun would not set for another two hours. I opened the passenger door and felt the cold mountain air penetrate the car’s interior. I quickly grabbed my bag and put on a long sleeve shirt and a fleece jacket, acutely aware that just hours before our family had been at the beach in bathing suits in 80-degree weather. Now we were 10,000 feet above sea level with a 60-degree blasting wind that was getting ever-colder with each minute of the setting sun.
Chris had reclined the driver’s seat to rest his eyes just as my daughter, Ava, began to stir in her carseat. I shut the door, leaving them both for a moment, eager to see the the view from Haleakala’s overlook. I walked up the steps towards an adjacent lookout area and stared at the vastness of the horizon. The sky was a perfect royal blue and contrasted starkly against the black and red rocky summit of Haleakala. Beyond the summit there was a sea of white clouds, thick and magnificent, reflecting the warm yellows of the sun. And beyond the clouds, where they broke apart to some extent, I could see the Pacific Ocean.
I had retraced my steps down the stairs back towards the car when I noticed small, silver plant with fleshy leaves scattered sparsely along the red-dirt landscape. I was struck that I‘d not noticed them before. They were scattered in bunches that surrounded the parking lot - sword-like succulents which I assumed could only be silversword.
Silversword is a plant that exists no where else in the world except in the high elevations of Hawaii, having thoroughly adapted to survive the harsh environment between 5000 and 10,000 feet. This particular flowering subspecies of silversword was endemic to Maui and could survive for more than 50 years, producing towering blooms up to six feet high. Incredibly, it only blooms once in its lifetime in an effort to pollinate before it dies. Silversword were once so abundant atop Haleakala that they were often ripped up by tourists and taken home as souvenirs, but today they depend on management efforts for survival.
I grabbed a quick photo of the silversword as a keepsake when I heard my daughter’s voice, and I turned to see my family exiting the car, Chris mouthed to me that he and Ava were hungry. I grabbed a cooler from the car and we found a spot out of the wind to have a picnic dinner. By the time we had finished, the wind had picked up and the temperature decreased yet again. I knew that Ava, being only two years old, would grow weary of the cold wind before long. She was by far the youngest child at the summit, and I felt a tinge of mother’s guilt that she’d have to tolerate the less than ideal conditions for the next hour.
Adventuring with a toddler often requires parents to make difficult choices. On one hand you want to provide your little ones with new experiences, but on the other you’re fully aware that you can’t always protect them from discomfort. Thankfully, Ava usually takes everything in stride. Quite possibly she has inherited mommy and daddy’s adventurous spirit.
To pass time out of the cold, I told Chris to find us a spot at the viewing area while I waited in the back of our SUV with Ava. With us both tucked away comfortably out of the wind, Ava played happily with a few toys while I watched the tourists arrive in droves.
With only about twenty minutes remaining before sunset, I bundled Ava up in a cozy yellow blanket that I had thankfully thought to pack. I wrapped both my arms around my daughter and hoisted the precious yellow bundle from the car, closed the door behind me, and made the short walk to the summit’s observation area. I clung to Ava as my eyes met Chris who had saved us a place among the crowd. As I moved towards him, the wind cut my face and poor Ava did her best to shield hers from the (by now) freezing wind. With our family reunited, Chris held his arms around us for warmth we three watched the sun make its short journey below the clouds.
By now, dozens of people had now gathered to watch the sunset. Some were wearing full winter outfits while others suffered in beachwear. There was one man, clearly a local, wearring only shorts and a t-shirt who played the ukulele, serenading for the crowd a upbeat Hawaiian melody.
Everyone was smiling, freezing but joyful - spellbound by the magnificent display of nature unfolding before our eyes. We all watched in amazement as the sun dipped below the clouds, illuminating the atmosphere with its descent, each of us certain we were witnessing one of the most impressively beautiful spectacles on Earth.
We were slaves to the wind and the cold but it didn’t matter - each of us was wrapped up in the magic of the moment.
This photo was taken by my husband during sunset at the summit of Haleakala Volcano on Maui, Hawaii in March, 2022.