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Lost on Maui

Hawaii's Haleakala Crater: Deep Down, You'll Love It

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page P01

It's hard to radicalize a Hawaiian vacation. Mellow just has too strong a lock on these islands. The metronome palms and Thorazine breeze will have your average refugee from the mainland drooling into his Grisham within an hour. By day four, tourists are zombies in leis, happily stupefied by beauty on the Island of the Brain Dead. That's why we go there, after all, raiding our IRAs and cashing in our miles so Polynesia's velvet grip can squeeze us until we're one mai tai short of a coma.

But even paradise can chafe. Personally, as much as I love Hawaii after my six visits (I have family there), I do find a certain sameness to the usual tourist haunts. C'mon now, Hanauma Bay is a lot like Hanalei Bay is a lot like Ma'alaea Bay, at least to someone who still says Huh-WHY-ee instead of Huh-VY-ee. But like Eskimos who reportedly know 200 words for snow (a linguistic urban myth, by the way), people who live there love to parse the faint differences between one palm-lined cove of pearly white sand and the next palm-lined cove of pearly white sand. "Oh, Pokopoopipai is gorrrrrrgeous!" they'll say. Well, yeah. But isn't that like admiring a particularly efficient Burger King? In Hawaii, faultless beauty is just the local franchise.

In Hawaii, sometimes you just need a break from paradise. For those times, visitors can hike around the moonscape of Haleakala National Park in Maui, and even spend the night in a cabin in the crater. (Ron Dahlquist/Maui Visitors Bureau)

So what's a tourist to do when he begins to crave something more invigorating than another 50 ccs of tropical Valium? You can always drink yourself silly at the luau and climb on stage with the hula girls. That's been done, for sure. Or you can sign up for surfing, scuba diving, hang gliding or any of the sweaty Gen-X pursuits that fill the brochure racks at the hotel concierge desk. But even those are sort of de rigueur Hawaii, if you ask me.

Or you can walk into Haleakala Crater for a night or two. It's more Mojave than Maui, and you won't ever mistake this beautifully barren valley -- with plant life fit for Jupiter, camel-ready sand dunes and some still-heaving geology -- for just another patch of island splendor. Paradise it isn't; fascinating, it is.

Crater for a Night

Haleakala is, simultaneously, a national park, an international biosphere reserve and a designated wilderness area. That's a whole lotta protection for a whole lotta hole. In essence, Haleakala is a 30,000-acre gash in the highlands of eastern Maui, tapering down from the 10,000-foot rim at Pu'u 'Ula'ula Summit to the rocky surfline at Kipahulu. At the higher reaches, it's all weirdness and arid desolation, a place where rocket scientists come to test drive their robot vehicles in a correctly cruel setting. But as you descend toward the ocean, topicality resumes its throne in the form of lusher greenery and plunging waterfalls. (The two areas aren't connected by road, but hikers can walk from one to another, progressing through a cavalcade of climate zones).

You can't see more than part of the crater from any one point above, but the view from the summit side is of a vast and otherworldly plain that rolls on without end. It's like some grainy feed from a Mars rover, a crimson panorama of cinder cones and windswept peaks. Huge pastures of curdled lava are locked in frozen flow around yellow cliffs. It seems a poisoned terrain, whole acres without a tuft of green; the plants that do cling to the unforgiving soil are bizarro succulents and mutant ferns. The only thing this set lacks in sci-fi cred is Leonard Nimoy pondering his tricorder and some expendable Starfleet security extra standing by to meet his gruesome alien demise.

"I've been all over Hawaii, and I've never seen anything like this," said Gary Johnson, a pilot who regularly ferries a wealthy California client down to his Hawaiian beach house. A devoted backpacker, Johnson had long been keen to explore what he'd been told was Hawaii's most remote backcountry. I met him on the crater floor, with the late morning sun still chasing the long shadow of the surrounding hills out of the basin. He had camped the night before in a rough and broken field of black lava. Now, he had shouldered his pack for a long 14-mile walk down to the sea and the comforts of a more normal Hawaii. "It's more like the Gobi up here, or a moonscape," he said. "You can see why NASA used this place as a test area."

Haleakala is already a well-known stop on the Maui tourist track. The zigzag highway up to the rim is filled every morning with serpent lines of bicyclists, careening out of the clouds that often blanket the higher reaches. They pay to be shuttled to the top, mount up and ride their brakes all the way down, 38 miles of wheeeeeee. Over on the eastern edge of the park, overlooking the infinite Pacific, the cliff-hugging, nail-biting Hana Highway attracts every tourist with a rental convertible and a dose of Dramamine. And the rim-side visitors centers are often crowded with folks snapping pathetically underpowered photos of the endless crater floor (or, looking the other way on clear days, of Lanai and Molokai far out on the western horizon).

But those are the easy ways to do Haleakala, looking down from on high or riding and driving around its outer slopes. Here's what the locals know: Going into the hole is better. Starting at one of the three visitors centers that ring the rim, a network of marked trails leads to three simple huts, each in a different crater terrain: Holua Cabin is tucked into the scrubland at the base of the western rim; Kapalaoa Cabin is in the middle of the basin, surrounded by cinder fields; Paliku is toward the eastern end, below a rain-forested ridge. Each of them sleeps a dozen overnighters in ranks of built-in bunks and each costs $75 a night for an entire group. (Unless you luck out and get a last-minute cancellation, they take some effort and advance planning to book via a monthly mail-only lottery. See box on Page P5 for details.)

The Descent

My own descent into this unusually fearsome corner of our most mild-mannered state began on the rim, at the head of Sliding Sands Trail. Two of my college-age Honolulu-based nieces, their boyfriends and I set off on the eight-mile hike down to Holua Cabin. (The rest of our group, the aunts and uncles and little kids, were hiking a shorter route down).

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