Maui’s Fabulous National Park and Other Special Places

One of the crown jewels of all the Hawaiian Islands, Haleakala National Park protects Maui’s most astonishing landscapes. From the crown of the Haleakala summit to the dreamlike rainforest pools of Oheo Gulch, this roughly 33,000-acre park is an absolute must-see. 

Haleakala National Park is the only national park proper on Maui, and one of two in the State of Hawaii. The other is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. (In fact, both of these units were once combined as Hawaii National Park; the Maui and Big Island parks were split into separate deals in 1961.) In this article, we’ll provide a general overview of this magnificent place, and also spotlight a few special state lands offering their own stellar opportunities for recreation and sightseeing.

Haleakala National Park: The Basics

Haleakala National Park gets its name from the great East Maui Volcano, aka Haleakala. This is the second and younger of two shield volcanoes composing the island of Maui. The other, the West Maui Volcano or Mauna Kahalawai, is extinct and has been heavily gnawed at by erosion and weathering, forming the rugged West Maui Mountains. Haleakala last erupted some centuries ago and is considered dormant. Reaching 10,023 feet at Puu Ulaula (Red Hill), it’s the high point of Maui and an utterly commanding landform.

In Hawaiian, Haleakala means “house of the sun.” This originally referred to the summit of the East Maui Volcano proper, though nowadays Haleakala has become the label for the entire shield volcano. The name references the legend of the demigod hero Maui snaring the sun to slow it down and thus lengthen the daytime.

The actual summit of Haleakala at Puu Ulaula isn’t the most arresting feature of the shield volcano. That would be the so-called Haleakala Crater, a huge basin yawning below the crowning rim of the volcano. We say “so-called” because this isn’t a true volcanic crater formed by an eruption, but rather a feature mainly created through erosion. Head-cutting valleys as well as slumping opened up Haleakala Crater, which is about 3,000 feet deep at maximum, 7.5 miles long, and some 2.5 miles across. Two mighty openings, Koolau and Kaupo gaps, form breaches in the walls of the basin.

Haleakala Crater and Puu Ulaula fall within Haleakala National Park’s Summit District. This is accessed from Upcountry Maui via the Haleakala Highway, aka State Road 378. 

There’s a whole other part of the park, though: the coastal Kipahulu District. The two districts aren’t directly connected by road. The Kipahulu District lies in the lower reach of the Kipahulu Valley, which heads in the Haleakala highlands east of the crater. Most of the Kipahulu Valley—which supports a largely intact and pristine rainforest—is a special biological reserve off-limits to the public.

The Kipahulu District is reached past Hana on the southeastern coast of Maui. It’s a popular add-on destination for travelers who drive the world-famous Hana Highway along Maui’s North Shore.

Classic Sights & Experiences in Haleakala National Park

rainbow in the clouds in Maui

Everyone should make an effort to visit the Summit District on a trip to Maui. The views from the top of Haleakala are extraordinary. An extremely popular experience—so much so that you now need a permit to partake of it—is watching the sunrise from the summit area. Nighttime visitors, meanwhile, relish some wonderfully dark skies absolutely ideal for stargazing.

Multiple scenic overlooks and an extensive trail system define the Summit District. Look for the “Specter of the Brocken,” where your shadow is cast upon cloudbanks and ringed with a rainbow, from the Leleiwi Overlook. Challenging footpaths such as the Halemauu and Sliding Sands trails bring you down into the surreal Haleakala Crater, with its cinder cones and colorful desertlike flats. Silverswords and nene (Hawaiian geese) are common sights. 

You can pitch a tent in the developed Hosmer Grove Campground in the Summit District, or overnight at a backcountry campsite or cabin in the Haleakala Wilderness. 

In the Kipahulu District, you’ve got a lush coastal paradise to explore. Many visit this remote section on daytrips, but you can also stay here at the Kipahulu Campground. The most celebrated attractions are Oheo Gulch, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools, and the Pipiwai Trail leading to Waimoku Falls. Besides that glorious waterfall, the Pipiwai Trail shows off other plunges as well as a much-photographed bamboo forest. 

Other Special Places on Maui: State Parks & Forest Reserves

Although Maui has but one (extraordinary) national park, it’s worth noting there’s a topnotch system of state parks and forest reserves offering their own rich magic. 

Indeed, some of the most popular sights in Maui lie within the island’s varied state parks. The straight-out-of-a-dream beauty of the verdant Iao Valley in the West Maui Mountains, protected in Iao Valley State Monument, bowls visitors over. This sacred chasm, which saw a critical battle in 1790 during Kamehameha the Great’s takeover of Maui, is best known for the striking pillar called the Iao Needle. 

Over on the windward coast, meanwhile, Waianapanapa State Park is another beloved site and a classic stopover on the Hana Highway. Here you’ll find one of the few true black-sand beaches on Maui fronting Pailoa Bay, plus sea arches, blowholes, and anchialine pools. 

Outstanding outdoor recreation—and more than a few off-the-beaten-path hidden treasures—await visitors to Maui’s seven forest reserves. Tackle the Waihee Ridge Trail in the West Maui Forest Reserve, for example, nabbing a look at astonishing Makamakaole Falls. The promise of a tranquil Upcountry hike draws visitors to the Kahakapao Loop in the Makawao Forest Reserve. The Kula Forest Reserve (and the Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area it encompasses) on the western flanks of Haleakala, meanwhile, harbors extensive trails amid high fog-belt forests. You can even hike (or mountain-bike) up from the Kula’s cool, mist-raked groves to Haleakala’s summit area via the Skyline Trail, one of Maui’s paramount adventures.

From dazzling Haleakala National Park to lesser-trammeled backcountries of state forest reserves, Maui encompasses some of Hawaii’s most entrancing natural landscapes. Get out there and explore!