This is an 11.2-mile route (not counting side trips) dropping from the rim of the Haleakala Crater to its floor, winding along its windswept flats and cinder cones. Of course, you have to climb back out again! All told, we’re talking about some 3,054 feet of elevation change.
But beginning your adventure at the higher trailhead—the Sliding Sands (or Keoneheehee) Trail, up at 9,800 feet—and ending at the Halemauu Trailhead at just shy of 8,000 feet, the recommended route, means you’ll switchback up less than what you came down.
It’s a physically demanding hike but not really extreme. The main considerations are (a) arranging transportation between the trailheads and (b) giving yourself enough daylight for the undertaking. Haleakala National Park doesn’t offer a shuttle service. You’ll either need two cars or somebody to give you a ride at the beginning or end of your hike.
Meanwhile, give yourself roughly seven or eight hours to do this crater walk. Allow for some extra time to explore a few side trails and detours. Plan accordingly with an early-enough start so you aren’t overtaken by nightfall on the trail.
Haleakala Crater isn’t a true volcanic crater, but rather a basin formed by stream erosion and natural slumping. Youthful lava flows, cinder cones, and scrabbly gravel and sand compose the crater. Two major valleys head in the basin: the Koolau and the Kaupo. They form broad openings in the crater margin: the Koolau Gap in the northwest and the Kaupo Gap in the southeast.
Beginning at the Sliding Sands trailhead, you’re close to the very summit of Haleakala, the 10,023-foot crown of the East Maui volcano. (The actual high point is called Puu Ulaula, or “Red Hill.”) Brave the steep switchbacks down the Sliding Sands Trail, goggling at the view (while watching your step, too!). The barren slopes and wind-scoured crater floor come in a mesmerizing blend of earth tones: brown, gray, red, yellow.
You’ll be dropping more than 2,500 feet to reach the crater floor. A side trail off to the left leads to Ka-luu-o-ka-Oo, a cinder cone that’s one of the youngest features on the crater floor. (It’s roughly 970 years old.)
The Sliding Sands Trail passes another cinder cone, Puu o Pele, before reaching a fork. While the Sliding Sands Trail itself continues eastward, you’ll turn left here to go north. This is the 1.6-mile connector path to the Halemauu Trail, which roughly parallels the Keoneheehee route to the north of it.
Along the way, you’ll edge around the west side of the Ka Moa o Pele cinder cone. At the next trail junction, just south of another cone (Halali), you can go left (northwest) to join the Halemauu on the most direct course back to the rim.
But if you’ve budgeted enough time, you ought to consider going right at the fork to meet the Halemauu a bit farther east. That way you can check out the Kawilinau “Bottomless Pit”—actually, “only” 65 feet deep—and the vivid colors of Pete’s Paint Pot.
Continuing westward on the Halemauu Trail, you’ll come to another detour well worth checking out: the Silversword Loop. This path shows off the iconic Haleakala silverswords, endemic (found only here) shrubs that can live nearly a century and produce a tall flowering stalk just once before dying.
Not far west of the Silversword Loop, you’ll come upon the Holua Cabin and its campsites: a great place to take a breather and refuel on snacks. Watch for nene, Hawaiian geese, around the cabin, but don’t feed them! (A permit allows hikers to camp here or overnight in the cabin.)
Then it’s time to mount the greener flank of the caldera wall on the Halemauu switchbacks, enjoying the northward views out over Koolau Gap (which often funnel in afternoon clouds). Once on the caldera rim again, you’ve got a roughly mile-long walk west-southwest to the Halemauu trailhead along the Haleakala Highway.
The sweeping, almost Martian views and epic silence of the Haleakala Crater will stay with you long after you head home from Maui. The workout involved to enjoy them intimately is utterly worth it!
Where is the Trailhead?
The trailhead is in the Haleakala Visitor Center Parking lot that can be plugged into your GPS: (30185 State Hwy 378 Kula, HI 96790).
-Bring along plenty of water for this hike. It’s often hot and sun-blasted. There’s a faucet at the Holua Cabin, but its water should be filtered before drinking.
-The Haleakala Crater walk necessitates layers. Dress warmly for the cool, often windy conditions on the rim—and in case the crater becomes cloud-socked, as it often does. Bring sunglasses and a good hat (and sunscreen) along for sun protection. It’s a good idea to pack a rain jacket, too, just in case: The weather around the Haleakala summit is highly changeable.