Now, first things first: Let’s get some terminology straight! This isn’t a “crater,” per se. While you’re standing near the top of the 10,023-foot shield volcano composing East Maui, that yawning basin below wasn’t formed by a volcanic eruption. It isn’t a collapsed crater, or caldera, such as you find on the Big Island’s Kilauea volcano (host to the volcano goddess Pele’s spirit). Rather, Haleakala Crater is essentially a modified valley formed by erosion.
Headward stream-cutting by the Koolau and Kaupo valleys merged up here at the top of Haleakala to open a broad depression. Eruptions of lava and cinder cones have modified the valley floor, partly filling and smoothing it. Landsliding and slumping have also been factors. For example, geologists think the Kaupo Gap on the south side of the Crater may have initially formed as part of the volcano’s mass simply slid away. (Volcanoes are restless places, after all.)
The Haleakala Crater—better called a summit basin or valley, but “crater” is the most widely used label—is some 7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. It’s 3,000 feet at its deepest and defined by colorful volcanic cinders, rubble, and sand. Pocked with more than a dozen cinder cones (called “puu” in Hawaiian), edged by craggy walls and the big openings of Koolau and Kaupo gaps, it’s an utterly amazing feature. And walking the short footpath to Leleiwi Overlook gives you a big-picture sense of it.
The 0.3-mile round-trip trail is not an intensive hike by any means, though you’ll be at a significant elevation: The lookout stands at 8,840 feet. (Bring layers—it’s often cold up here!) Look for the remnants of a stone wall near the trailhead, once used by ranchers for funneling cattle. Cross the park road, then ascend via steps to the viewpoint at the brink of Haleakala Crater. There are only 100 or so feet of elevation gain involved.
The roofed Leleiwi Overlook structure, which dates back to 1966, includes interpretive signage. You’ve got a real feast for the eye in front of you, with bird’s-eye views of many defining Haleakala Crater landmarks. Close at hand is the broad breach of Koolau Gap, pointing northward toward Maui’s North Shore. You can see the switchbacking Halemauu Trail descending down the Crater wall to the floor above the gap.
The broad peak of 8,907-foot Hanakauhi rises east of Koolau Gap, connecting to the Kalapawili Ridge that forms Haleakala Crater’s north rim. On the crater floor, marvel at the sharply defined cinder cones, including the youthful Ka-Luu-o-ka-Oo, which erupted less than 1,000 years ago. To the southeast, the Kaupo Gap opens another breach in the summit basin’s margin. In clear weather, you can see far beyond to the broad domes of the Big Island.
Under Maui’s standard trade-wind weather, a temperature inversion often develops at about the 7,000-foot level. This forms decks of stratus clouds that commonly sweep around the summit of Haleakala and fill the crater. While this obviously impacts the view from Leleiwi Overlook, the sea of cloudbanks makes its own stirring scenery. Furthermore, in such conditions you’ve got the possibility of seeing the rare optical phenomenon called the “Specter of the Brocken” (or simply “Brocken Specter”).
What’s that, you ask? The Brocken Specter occurs when a high-elevation observer—maybe you!—lies between the sun and a mass of clouds. Your shadow then appears cast upon the clouds and haloed by a dim rainbow. The phenomenon is named after a spot in Germany’s Harz Mountains; in Hawaii, it’s called akaka anuenue. Needless to say, Haleakala’s summit crest is an unforgettable place to see it in action!
Whether a forever-views day of clear weather or a cloud-piled one, the Leleiwi Overlook is definitely worth your time on a visit to the rooftop of Maui.
Where Should I Park?
Leleiwi Overlook has its own parking lot: here. Feel free to drive your car in and park at the overlook for some incredible views.
The Leleiwi Overlook is also a great place to take in the famous Haleakala sunrise—and you’ll likely have less company than the better-known visitor-center and summit vantages.