The trailhead lies along the Crater Road (Highway 378) between mile markers 14 and 15. You’re up at nearly 8,000 feet here, up on the rim of the East Maui Volcano: aka Haleakala. Actually, Native Hawaiians originally used Haleakala—“House of the Sun”—to refer to only the volcano’s immediate summit. That’s where, the story goes, the demigod hero Maui lassoed the sun to slow down its traverse in the sky. Nowadays, though, Haleakala is often used to refer to the entire volcano, which forms the bulk of East Maui.
Hiking just over a mile from the trailhead along a rocky but fairly undemanding path takes you to a stirring viewpoint of Haleakala Crater from its lip. This is the kind of strange, splendid landscape that has to be seen in the flesh to be fully appreciated. (That said, you’ll definitely want to take a lot of pictures!)
It’s tempting to assume the crater is actually a caldera, a collapsed volcanic summit formed by eruptive activity. Over on the Big Island, for example, a caldera creates Kilauea’s crown. But the Haleakala Crater isn’t a caldera, and wasn’t formed by volcanic action per se. Rather, it’s mainly a product of erosion. Streamflow in a pair of big valleys—the Koolau and the Kaupo—caused them to back-cut their way along rift zones toward the Haleakala summit. Basically, the merging of the headwaters of the valleys helped carve out the large basin of Haleakala Crater.
The floor of the crater is underlain by young lava flows and studded by small cinder cones. The harsh environment forms a mostly barren, desertlike environment. The craggy walls of the crater, the browns and reds and yellows of the cone-studded floor—it’s a magnificent place, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Doing the two-mile round-trip on the Halemauu Trail to the overlook is a great option for those strapped for time or unsure about the physical challenge of the full trail. And it is a challenge: From the vantage, the trail switchbacks down to the crater floor. It then proceeds south and east across, immersing you in one of Maui’s most evocative landscapes. The deep silence is as impressive as the surreal scenery.
The trail skirts the head of Koolau Gap, the great breach at the northwest end of Haleakala Crater. (As a typical day progresses, cloudbanks often sweep up into Koolau Gap: an impressive sight.) At its southeastern end, where it joins the Sliding Sands Trail at the southeastern end, the trail’s not far from the southeastern opening of Kaupo Gap.
While minor landslides and running water likely opened up the Koolau breach over a long period of time, geologists believe Kaupo Gap may have formed when a big mass of the volcano slumped off southward.
The Halemauu Trail passes multiple cinder cones, including Halalii, Puu Nole, and Honokahua. It also gives you a look at the “bottomless pit” of Kawilinau, a 65-foot deep fissure.
Another landmark is a manmade one: the Holua Cabin, situated at 6,940 feet within the crater. With a reservation, you can stay in the cabin or tent out in the associated campsites. Otherwise, this is a good place for a snack break. You’ll also find an outhouse and a water faucet, though if you use it you should filter the water. (Bring plenty of water on your hike either way! You’ll work up a sweat in these shadeless barrens.)
Not all that far past the Holua Cabin, the trail brings you to the short detour of the Silversword Loop. This is a great opportunity to get up-close looks at the most famous native plant in the crater, the Haleakala silversword (ahinahina), found nowhere else but here. After sometimes many decades of living as a silvery rosette of tough, hairy leaves, the silversword shoots up a stupendous flower spike, then dies.
Hiking the full length of the Halemauu Trail out-and-back is a roughly 15-mile undertaking. Many folks opt to walk only part of it and return, while others opt for the popular choice of combining the Halemauu and Sliding Sands trails into one spectacular Haleakala crater loop. (You’ll find a separate description of that highly recommended—but tough—shuttle hike on the site.)
Whether a short jaunt to the crater rim or a full-day adventure, the Halemauu Trail ranks among the best hikes on Maui!
How To Get There:
The trailhead can be found via GPS: here. Located just off of the Haleakala Highway inside the Haleakala National Park, you will spot the Halemauu Trailhead. Note: this trailhead is also between the 14 and 15-mile markers.
-Down in the crater, the Halemauu Trail proceeds within the Haleakala Wilderness Area. Remember to practice “Leave No Trace”, packing out any garbage and waste, and sticking to the trail.
-You’ve got an excellent chance of seeing the nene, or Hawaiian goose, on this trail. (You’ll often see them lollygagging around the trailhead or the Holua Cabin.) They’re always fun to see—but don’t give them any handouts!