Challenging hikes abound throughout Haleakalā National Park and across the entire island of Maui, but few are quite as intense or as visually intriguing as Keonehe‘ehe‘e. If you have plenty of time to spare — plus lots of water and even more stamina — you will be in for a treat with this difficult, but rewarding expedition.
Also known as Sliding Sands, this unique trail delivers views far different than you might expect based on common stereotypes about Hawaiian landscapes. Forget white sand beaches or lush rainforests; here, you’ll find something more akin to a lunar landscape. Plants and animals are rare sights due to the high altitudes and harsh conditions, but that doesn’t stop this hike from providing impressive views.
Although listed at 11 miles, the Sliding Sands Trail can be adapted to provide a shorter, single-day hike if desired. Hikers who only have an hour or two to set aside can significantly cut back the journey by sticking exclusively to the first overlook. This version of the journey involves a brief trek spanning just half a mile and includes a manageable elevation change of 50 feet.
Visitors with a bit more time may prefer to hike to other points of interest, which arrive after four or six miles. Many adventurers park near the visitor center and take advantage of officially designated hitchhiking points, which allow them to cover the more difficult portions of the trail by car.
Because the number of vehicles available to hitchhikers can vary based on the season and weather, it’s important to build in extra time, as there is never any guarantee that a vehicle will show up right when desired.
For the full journey, hike time will differ dramatically based on physical stamina and many other factors. It’s easy to underestimate the time needed, as the hike begins with an easier downhill but eventually requires an upward trek back.
During the uphill portion of the journey, it’s safest to plan on double the time required to navigate the same mileage on a downhill basis. As such, it’s best to set aside — at a minimum — a full day for navigating this hike, as it can be difficult to predict how long, exactly, the full journey will take. Better yet: plan a two-day journey, including an overnight at Hōlua or Palikū.
Regardless of how far you intend to hike — or whether you get assistance by hitchhiking — the fun begins at the Haleakalā Visitor Center and the Sliding Sands trailhead. Signage will guide you past the brief Pā Ka‘oao trail and towards the beginning of your Keonehe’ehe’e journey. For several miles, you will meander down the trail as you gaze at the unforgettable scenery, which is appealingly desolate.
The crater floor arrives after about four miles. At this point, the setting becomes extremely quiet, making for an unbelievably peaceful experience. Take a moment to catch your breath and truly appreciate the stillness.
The halfway point of the hike is marked by the distinctive area known as Pele’s Paint Pot, where the vibrant colors call for a photo break. Another feature of interest? Kawilinau, which is commonly referred to as the Bottomless Pit. This narrow volcanic pit is 65 feet deep and worth a view if you make it past the crater floor.
After you’ve explored Pele’s Paint Pot and the Bottomless Pit, you can either retrace your steps to the Sliding Sands trailhead or head towards the Halemau’u trailhead. This is where you will find the official hitchhiker pickup spot. You’ll definitely want to make the most of this provision if you’re an exhausted day hiker with no plans for camping.
-If possible, try to get your hands on one of the exclusive permits for navigating this trail at sunrise. Because this expedition is so popular in the morning, the park restricts early access to those who win the permit lottery.
-If you’re unable to score a permit, plan to enter the park right at 7 am. This will ensure that you have plenty of time to meander the trail at your own pace — and depending on the season, you might catch a glimpse of the sunrise or its immediate aftermath.
-While it’s always important to remain on marked paths while exploring national parks, this is particularly crucial when hiking the Sliding Sands Trails. The Hawaiian ecosystem on display at Haleakalā National Park is extremely fragile, so laws mandate that all visitors stick to official trails.
-Windburn is a common phenomenon for hikers on this trail, so come prepared with long sleeves and pants. Sunscreen is also essential, given the high altitude.