4/3/22: A Perfect Day on Maui!

Family and friends,

One of the most perfect days I can imagine spending anywhere in the Hawaiian islands was our very long drive from central Maui up the serpentine Haleakala Crater Road to the summit of Haleakala Mountain where we entered the belly of the mountain surrounded by ever-changing clouds at 10,023 feet. That was followed by a stroll through an upcountry Maui lavender farm where we were treated to the sight of gorgeous pincushion and king proteas. If you thought Maui was only about beaches, snorkeling, and drinking fun cocktails beneath a blazing sun, you’re in for a very special treat!

All the best to you and your loved ones,


After spending our first few days on the island of Maui at sea level, Steven and I headed to the hills to visit Haleakala National Park, the island’s main natural attraction. 

Thank goodness neither of us suffered from car sickness as being on the snaky Haleakala Crater Road for over 20 miles en route to the park’s summit would have been a nightmare!

One of the fastest-ascending roads in the world, the grand corniche had at least 33 switchbacks while crossing through several climate zones and often in, and out of, clouds. Nowhere else have we climbed from sea level to 10,000 feet in just 37 miles.

I was glad we looked back from near the summit toward the valley with the ocean in the distance. It had taken us close to two hours to reach this spot in the center of Maui.

Just after the park entrance was a campground where people cooking breakfast looked darned chilly as the elevation was 7,000 feet.

Beyond the campground was Hosmer Grove Trail through what was described as an “alien forest” after ranchers in 1the 1800s cleared the slopes of native forests. In 1910, species were planted from all over the world to slow hillside erosion and jump-start the timber industry. Though 13 of the newly planted species survived, viable lumber wasn’t produced and some of the alien species were highly invasive and are being removed.

I was curious which of the trees were endemic which meant they were original to the Hawaiin Islands and found nowhere else in the world. That was not the case with this large Deodar Cedar that was native to the Himalayas.

I didn’t remember seeing any fragrant Black Peppermint Eucalyptus trees when a friend and I visited Tasmania in the spring of 2019 but perhaps that was only because there was no sign identifying them.

Ditto about the Messmate Eucalyptus tree that was also native to Australia. 

This ‘Ohi’a lehua, a member of the myrtle family, was the first tree we noticed that was endemic to the Hawaiian Islands.

The ‘A’ali’i, a member of the soapberry family, was also endemic to the islands.

When waterfalls formed along the steep, volcano slopes on the island’s north side, Hawaiians diverted streams to terraced fields for taro, a food staple.

The Pilo shrub, a member of the coffee family, was another endemic plant …

as was the ‘Ohelo, a part of the blueberry family.

From the dense forest, the trail opened up onto a hillside.

This was the first time we’d come across the endemic Nohoanu, a silver geranium, since our arrival in Hawaii about ten days before.

Steven and I had been phenomenally lucky to have no fog, wind, or train on our drive to the summit but clouds did begin to roll in while we were hiking. As we live in the Mile High City of Denver, we weren’t concerned about being in the high-altitude wilderness area. People coming from lower elevations needed to be wary of getting dizzy, nausea, severe headaches, or dehydration from the lack of oxygen.

About a mile from the trail was the Haleakala National Park Headquarters which should have had park information and permits but it was closed. The building honored Stephen Tyng Mather who championed the national park service.

This area of the park was known as kua mauna, the land above the clouds where people never stayed for long as they only came to this sacred place for specific reasons requiring training and understanding. Lava, rain, and winds have shaped this land as trade winds shed their moisture over volcanoes which created rain forests on one side and dry forests on the other. 

Another magical view of Maui with sugarcane and pineapple plantation fields creating a patchwork of green on the valley floor:

As Hawaii has never been close to or part of another landmass, native plants and animals have evolved in isolation. The species didn’t have adaptations such as thorns, strong smells, or defensive nesting habitats to protect them from non-native predators. The native vegetation is sadly easily displaced by immigrant plants. It was shocking to learn that over 70 percent of US species extinctions have occurred in Hawaii!

Park staff control pines because the fast-growing trees change soil chemistry, making soil inhospitable to native species. If the pines were left untreated, diverse crater habitats would be turned into a single pine forest.

With the fog getting heavier, Steven’s concern about not having a panoramic view at the summit because of our stop at the Hosmer Trail was looking more realistic.

Haha – just kidding as a mile later, we were out of the fog and Steven was happier!

As we continued toward the 10,023-foot summit, we stopped at the Leleiwi scenic overlook also known as Flying Bones for a look at the “Edge of the World.” For the Hawaiians, the bones carry the mana, meaning the spiritual power. Some believe Leleiwi may have been an area where the spirits were ‘uplifted.’

This two-mile-long ranch wall of stacked stone, built in the late 1800s, represented an investment in the land as it guided cattle through Haleakala’s harsh landscape to pasture lands on the east and west sides of Maui. I hadn’t known the ranching era shaped Maui’s economy and communities as they “valued rugged independence, self-reliance, and sustainability.” 

But cattle have had a devastating impact on native vegetation, completely destroying some native forests and reducing others.  It is the responsibility of the National Park staff to maintain 30 miles of fences to protect and preserve unique species by excluding cattle, pigs, deer, and other grazers from destroying protected land in the park. By 1960, more than two million acres in Hawaii were used for cattle grazing, mostly in the cooler uplands.

I had never experienced anything like instant weather before where,in just a few minutes, the conditions near the summit of Haleakala could shift from summer to almost winter! That was because the trade wind inversion trapped clouds in the basin, preventing them from rising over the mountain. 

It was absolutely remarkable how the clouds ever so slowly moved in and completely obliterated our view, and almost as quickly revealed the mountain’s majesty again. It was just like watching a movie!

After a space of just 15 minutes, we had an almost perfect view of the lunar-like crater where it had all been invisible minutes earlier. 

As we walked down the path from the overlook, I chatted with a couple going toward the lookout, suggesting they wait for a few minutes for the clouds to drift out of the way so they could get the same magical views we did.

These wildflowers covered both sides of the park road for miles.

As we drove further to the summit, we passed a lava field.

Haleakala’s summit was like an island atop a volcanic island with its own distinctive climate and habitats. Its cinder desert is sometimes frozen and seemingly barren though unique plants have adapted to the summit’s extremes. 

Just shy of the summit were two trailheads, one on the rather forbidding-looking Sliding Sands Trail below or …

the far shorter White Sands Trail. The first one looked far too daunting so we chose the second one but it was steep, rocky, and uneven.

As we trudged up the trail, we made sure to be on the lookout for patterns of low walls and smooth level floors that Hawaiians used as temporary shelters called pa.

A look toward the road to the mountain’s summit and Science City that we’d visit later.

As we looked behind us again to the Keonehe’ehe’e or Sliding Sands trail,Steven and I decided that this hike, short as it was, would be sufficient and that we’d not attempt the Sliding Sands trail down into the belly of the mountain as it looked too desolate and tough because of the ascent on the return.

The Pa Ka’oao or White Hill Trail climbed to the top of a volcanic cinder for views of the Haleakala Wilderness Area and the highest peaks of the Big Island. Though initially the area looked simply like barren rocks, we knew they were a living habitat for nesting birds,  flightless moths, yellow-faced bees, and wolf spiders who build burrows under rocks.

Naomi: Recognize the jacket?!

At the peak of the White Hill trail overlook:

The song Top of the World by the Carpenters and the lyrics “Looking down on creation” came to mind as we drove toward the summit.

The cluster of white-domed observatories atop the summit looked like a movie set and was totally incongruous in the cinder desert. The domes housed powerful telescopes for defense and scientific communities and were built near Maui’s highest point because the location was the fourth-best location for viewing conditions on the planet! Here above the clouds, there was minimal air and light pollution, and the atmosphere was clear and dry.

It was a little freaky knowing the largest scope can track objects as small as a basketball more than 20,000 miles away. Although the observatories had the latest technology, the study of astronomy was still consistent with ancient Hawaiian traditions bringing na kilo hoku, or apprentice Hawaiian astronomers to study the heavens and learn to navigate by the stars. 

As the entire observatory complex, known as Science City, lay outside the national park boundaries, it was closed to the public. Through a partnership between the Department of Defense and the University of Hawaii, the telescopes are shared with government agencies and academic and scientific institutions. The Maui Space Surveillance Complex, part of the US Air Force, identifies and tracks all 8,000 man-made objects in space.

The university’s Mees Solar Observatory studies solar flares and how they affect the flow of energy and radiation to earth.

After reading so much information about the endangered and very rare silversword plant, I was delighted to spot just one by the summit and nowhere else in the park. I read that it was described as “the punk of the plant world,” and that they take from 4 to 30 years to bloom, usually from May to October.

Steven was standing at the mountain’s actual summit at an elevation of 10,023 feet at the Puu Ulaula Overlook, Maui’s highest point. It was darn chilly and we were glad we had brought warm jackets to wear on what was otherwise our ‘Hawaiian beach vacation’! Don’t be fooled by photos of Maui’s spectacular beaches as the island is so, so much much more than white sands, snorkeling, and drinking tropical drinks with cute umbrellas.

What a shame the glass-enclosed building was closed as the panoramic views over the Sliding Sands would have been absolutely gobsmacking. I read that on a clear day, people could see Hawaii, i.e. the Big Island as well as the islands of Lanai, Molokai, and even O’ahu!

At the overlook, we happened to see again the couple I had chatted with at the Leleiwi overlook and had advised they wait a few minutes to see the mountain if the clouds had rolled in. They said they’d waited a full 30 minutes and their view had been totally socked in the entire time. I felt bad for them as we’d been so lucky to get such great views.

A sign reminded visitors that Haleakala is viewed by Hawaiians as their ancestor from the highest peaks to the smallest rocks and that they also provided habitat for rare plants and animals. By leaving rocks in place, we were all respecting Hawaiian beliefs and helping nature to thrive. I saw that over 3,500 rocks, packages of sand, and coral are returned to Haleakala National Park each year after being confiscated in mandatory checks when tourists leave the island for the mainland. I admit to taking the occasional stone in the past while hiking elsewhere on our travels but learning that even the tiniest stone was culturally inappropriate here made me think twice before doing it again.

Steven and I convinced ourselves we’d only walk a short distance on the trail as we knew the ascent would be harder than it looked. However, once we started on the trail, we easily fooled ourselves that we could keep going and it wouldn’t be too hard to come back up.

What looked like the summit crater actually wasn’t a volcanic crater. On the Haleakala summit, there was no massive blowout. The deep basin was instead an erosional valley where wind, stream runoff, and landslides carried away loose conders and soil during pauses in volcanic activity.

High cliffs around the basin measure the enormous mass of material that has washed away through the gaps. Deeper valleys once gouged the summit floor but more recent eruptions – the visible lava flows and cinder cones – partially refilled the basin. Today the summit climate of freezing and thawing loosens rock and accelerates erosion. Haleakala will erupt again – at least seven eruptions occurred on this landscape in the past thousand years.

Ancient Hawaiians never inhabited the summit but they did come up the mountain to build heiau or temples on some of the cinder cones. Lilinoe, the mist goddess as well as the primary Haleakala goddess, was worshipped here. Native Hawaiians still connect spiritually on the summit and study star navigation.

The views were absolutely intoxicating with the clouds again rolling in and out faster than we’d seen before.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, it was cold at this elevation and we really needed our jackets. The gift shop by the White Sands Trail must do a roaring business each day as we saw a lot of people wearing Haleakala gear on both trails as they had obviously not come prepared for the elevation.

I recall seeing very little vegetation and no animals of any size on or near this trail, just more stark lava forms than I had ever seen before!

This was one of the most memorable trails we had ever hiked as it was so quiet in this unearthly world.

This is a view of the valley from the overlook which was far as we hiked. It had been so deceptively easy walking down the path to the overlook with just a gradual descent. But we knew that it would take us twice as long to get back up. Remember that if you ever decide to hike the Keonehe’ehe’e Trail!

As we turned around and began the hike back, we understood what other hikers had warned us about earlier – that the hike back wasn’t going to be the ‘walk in the park’ the descent had been! We kept reminding ourselves, one step at a time, one step at a time.

As we plodded along, we jokingly said we were in training for our anticipated trip to Bhutan and Tibet next spring that had been canceled in 2020! 

I hope I will always remember the stunning variation of colors in this cinder desert. When planning this trip, Steven and I had thought we would try and get one of the very limited sunrise tickets to Haleakala but that would have entailed getting up at 3 to reach the park at dawn. Writer Mark Twain called seeing the sunrise “the sublimest spectacle” of his life but we were very content seeing the park how and when we did. 

How incredibly lucky we were that it only began to mist as we drove down from the summit and that we had had almost totally clear views on the hike down the trail and back up again. 

On our way back to our condo in Kihei, we stopped in upcountry Maui in the small community of Kula. Maui’s farmers have been producing vegetables since the 1800s on the slopes of Haleakala. So many potatoes were shipped from Hawaiian farmers in Kula during the California Gold Rush that it was even nicknamed Nu Kaleponi, a sort of pidgin Hawaiian pronunciation of “New California!” Kula is still known for its vegetables and as a major source of cut flowers, especially proteas.

We stopped high up on the leeward slope of Haleakala to wander through the Ali’i Kuala Lavender Farm.

As you’ll soon see, I fell in love with the King proteas at the lavender farm!

As you might expect, the many varieties of lavender were also beautiful even though it was early in the season for them.

I also fell in love with the mandarin-orange and yellow pincushion proteas!

Kula’s Holy Ghost Catholic Church was Hawaii’s only eight-sided church. The white octagonal building was constructed between 1884 and 1897 by Portuguese immigrants who had fulfilled their labor contracts with the sugarcane companies in the valley and had moved to this area, attracted by the rural agricultural lifestyle.

Back on the valley floor, we saw a dust storm on the west side of Maui.

Our “perfect day” on Maui was capped by a lovely sunset at Kamaole Beach again.

Next post: Maui’s West Side beaches and driving the very hairy Kahekili Highway!

Posted on May 2nd, 2022, from our home in suburban Denver. Steven said I should add thank goodness we finally had some rain after the Denver metro area suffered from the driest April since 1963. 


8 thoughts on “4/3/22: A Perfect Day on Maui!

  1. I am not surprised you had a perfect day here. Such stunning landscape and you have captured it well with your gorgeous photos. Great post with lots of fascinating information.


  2. Spectacular!! The drive, the scenery, the hike. My kind of place. Did you not feel altitude sickness at all? Over 10,000 feet is much more than what you are used to in Denver! I do get headaches and nausea at higher altitudes. Not spending the night at that elevation helps.

    Thanks for posting the photos of the pincushion proteas. I saw the same ones recently in San Diego and had no idea what they were.


  3. Glad you enjoyed this post as it was also about one of my very favorite days on the islands. Although the altitude at the summit of Haleakala was nearly twice that of Denver, even Steven who sometimes suffers from altitude sickness never had issues in Hawaii.

    Weren’t those proteas simply gorgeous?!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, those landscapes are out of this world – or at least, they look as if they could be! I love the way the scene is constantly shifting as the clouds roll in and back again. It’s good to know they take proper steps to ensure tourists don’t take any of the rocks away. And those proteas are amazing, I would love to spend time taking photos of them 🙂


    1. Thanks, Sarah, for kindly commenting on this post. That day was absolutely one of our favorites in all of Hawaii as it was so atypical of what people think Maui is all about. I was mesmerized by the constantly shifting clouds at the lookouts and the otherworldly colors in the cinder desert.

      As you saw by all my protea photos , I was also captivated by them, too?


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