Some 2.5 miles across at its widest and 7.5 miles long, Haleakala Crater is not a “true” crater at all. That’s despite appearances. After all, this rimmed basin sprawls below the top of the East Maui volcano, looking for all intents and purposes like a sundered caldera. This broad and deep sink, though, mostly derives from good old-fashioned stream erosion. Two major valleys head at the Crater via the Koolau and Kaupo gaps.
This summit basin reaches a maximum depth of about 3,000 feet, but it was once significantly deeper. It’s partly filled with lava flows and cinder-cone deposits associated with Haleakala eruptions. Much of the crater floor is essentially a desert, though some hardy plants—most notably the Haleakala silversword, which can live for decades and flowers once (spectacularly) before dying—survive here.
This route starts you off from the Sliding Sands Trailhead at the Haleakala Visitor Center. You’re up at some 9,800 feet here, not too far below the volcano’s 10,023-foot summit at Puu Ula-Ula (Red Hill). (It’s worth noting that, while most people use Haleakala—House of the Sun—to describe the entire East Maui volcano, Native Hawaiians originally restricted that name to just the summit proper. That’s where the legend goes, the hero Maui lassoed the sun to slow it down and thus lengthen daytime.)
In just shy of four miles, the Sliding Sands (or Keoneheehee) Trail drops some 2,500 feet to the floor of Haleakala Crater. Some serious switchbacks, in other words! You’ll see one of the youngest landforms in the Crater off to the near north: the cinder cone Ka-Luu-o-ka-O-o. Pass closer to another cinder cone, Puu o Pele, and then hit a fork in the trail.
The Ka Moa O Pele Loop splits off to the north from the Sliding Sands Trail. Follow that lefthand fork toward the northern counterpart of the Sliding Sands route: the Halemauu Trail. You’ll edge along the western and northern flanks of Ka Moa O Pele, another cinder cone, and then reach a trail junction in between it and the Halalii cone. (If you haven’t already gathered, there are a lot of cinder cones in Haleakala Crater: more than a dozen, in fact.)
Turn right at this junction on the Halalii Loop to hike between Halalii and yet another cone, Puu Naue. You’ll meet the Halemauu Trail in the vicinity of the evocative Kawilinau fissure: the so-called “Bottomless Pit.” Ancient Hawaiian lore suggests this volcanic shaft connects to the ocean, though it’s actually only about 65 feet deep.
Hike east on the Halemauu Trail, then hang a right on a connector trail (the Puu Naue Spur) running southeastward. After hoofing it between Puu Naue and Puu Nole on this connector, you’ll come to another trail junction. Stay to the right to continue south on the Kapalaoa Trail. This brings you back to the Sliding Sands Trail.
If you want, you can take a quick jog east to visit the Kapalaoa Cabin, which has a picnic table and an outhouse. (There’s water available here, too, but you need to treat it before drinking.) Otherwise, head west on the Sliding Sands Trail to make your way back to the trailhead—and psych yourself up for the climb back up the basin’s headwall!
Involving roughly 3,500 feet of elevation gain, this trek is definitely a workout. Make sure you bring plenty of water along, and protect yourself from the high-elevation sun. You’ll want layers, too, given the Haleakala rim can be cold and windy. The Haleakala Crater is Maui’s most ethereal place. This demanding day hike gives you an intimate introduction!
-Consider tackling this strenuous hike after watching the sunrise from the Haleakala summit area. (That’s by reservation only, mind you.) Given the Sliding Sands Trail starts right at the visitor center, you’re in a perfect position—and the early start will give you plenty of time to do your crater-floor walkabout.
-This hike proceeds in the Haleakala Wilderness Area. Remember to Leave No Trace!