Begin a day in Maui with a breathtaking sunrise tour atop Haleakala, “the house of the sun.”Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for a sunrise or sunset. My iPhone camera roll is packed with photos of beautiful colors swirling in the morning or night sky. But, none will ever compete with the sunrise I had the privilege to witness at Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii.
It was the last day of an eight-day trip, and my husband and I had no idea we had saved the best experience for last. We set our alarm for 2:30 a.m. and groggily dressed in jeans and sweatshirts — a strange wardrobe considering the 80-degree October temperatures we had become accustomed to. A Robert’s Hawaii tour bus picked us up promptly at 3 a.m. outside the lobby of our hotel. We took the last two seats on the 25-passenger bus.
From there we rode in silence for about a half an hour, before stopping at a gas station. We boarded a different, but identical, bus and met our Robert’s Hawaii tour guide and driver. He encouraged us to sleep while he made the hour’s drive to the top of Haleakala Crater, a giant dormant shield volcano and the highest peak on the island of Maui.
The twists, turns and bumps of the mountain road must have somehow lulled me to sleep. When I opened my eyes again, our bus was waiting in a line of vehicles to enter Haleakala National Park. The line moved quickly and I was surprised at how many other tour buses and cars surrounded us in the parking lot.
Once settled in a parking spot near the Haleakala Visitors Center, 9,740 feet above sea level, our driver went into tour-guide mode, turned on his Polynesian charm and told us all about Haleakala and how to respect the mountain during our visit. He stressed that we should never venture away from the marked paths. He left the bus momentarily and re-emerged with morning snacks: homemade, fist-sized apple fritters, coconut balls and tangerines. After he poured coffee and hot cocoa for the two of us, my husband and I left the bus in search of the perfect location to view the sunrise. Our guide told us the sun would rise at 6:22 a.m.
The cool, 40-degree mountain air reminded us of the Michigan weather we had left behind. Others around us wore winter jackets and blankets. The 6 a.m. darkness made it tricky to navigate the park’s sidewalks and paths. We passed a viewing area crowded with people, many preparing their cameras to capture the sunrise. We decided to take the dirt trail through Pa Ka’oao, also known as White Hill, and found a spot near the top. And then, we waited.
Before taking the tour, I had heard others talk about the grandeur of the Haleakala sunrise. As I stood waiting on the mountain, I wondered if I had set my hopes too high. Could the sunrise truly be that breathtaking? Had the pictures I viewed online been filtered to look differently than real life?
As my phone screen displayed “6:22” a silence swept over the mountain. A fiery ball of light emerged in the distance, slowly rising above a sea of clouds. The moment of silence turned into excitement, as “oohs and ahhs” were heard through the crowd, along with clapping and cheering from the overlook below. The explosion of color intensified and lit the mountain around us. The words “breathtaking” and “stunning” really don’t do the Haleakala sunrise justice. The view was so beautiful that I felt a twinge of guilt every time I lifted my camera to take a photo, because I knew the photo wouldn’t match the image ingrained in my memory.
The tour was far from over after the sunrise. As the tour members on our bus swapped stories and proudly passed cameras around to show off their sunrise photos, our driver took us to Pu’u ‘Ula’ula Summit, also known as Red Hill, 10,023 feet above sea level. With the sun higher in the sky, we saw sweeping views of Maui and the West Maui Mountains. When we looked to the southeast, we could see the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes on the Big Island muscling through the clouds, each over 13,000 feet in elevation.
On our trip down the mountain, our guide spoke about the endangered species found on Haleakala’s volcanic landscape and shared Maui facts and history.
After leaving Haleakala, we ventured through Kula and Upcountry Maui and saw rich green pastures and farms full of lavender, protea and flowers for leis. We entered the town of Makawao, known as “Paniolo,” Hawaiian cowboy, Country. The tour included a delicious breakfast at Casanova, an Italian restaurant and deli in Makawao.
By 11:30 a.m., we were dropped off at our hotel, a little tired and dusty from the mountain dirt, but still feeling the glow of Haleakala.