When most people imagine a Hawaiian vacation, they probably don't envision waking in the middle of the night, bundling up against frigid temperatures and driving up tortuous mountain roads for several hours in the dark.
Yet that's exactly what hundreds of visitors have done for years on Maui each day. They've heard that sunrise at the summit of Haleakala National Park is a must on any Valley Isle itinerary.
This notion was so widely propagated that in peak seasons, Haleakala used to overflow with tourists. The few parking lots near the top of the volcano filled long before dawn. Then latecomers started parking their cars in lanes reserved for emergency vehicles, creating gridlock. Giant tour buses idled their motors for hours (to keep the heat on), belching exhaust into the mountain air.
In the past year, the National Park Service has implemented restrictions designed to prevent visitors from loving Haleakala to death. Last spring, it prohibited buses from idling for more than five minutes. And this fall it imposed limits on the number and type of vehicles allowed to park in the three lots near the summit during the sunrise crush. Since October, vehicles carrying more than 25 passengers have been forbidden from the summit parking lots, and commercial tour companies may bring no more than two minibuses or vans to the top of the mountain.
The new restrictions also limit the number of downhill bike tours leaving from Haleakala's summit. In the past 20 years, this industry has grown from a single operator with a handful of bikes to five companies bringing close to 400 riders to the top of the mountain each morning. The limits have reduced, by nearly half, the number of bikers who come to see sunrise before coasting down the mountain.
So far, it's working out as planned. The tour and bike companies have adjusted, adding tours later in the day to satisfy the overflow of demand caused by the reduction in sunrise tours. "Sunrise is now a limited commodity," said Phil Feliciano, owner of Cruiser Phil's Volcano Riders bike tours. Meanwhile, "the gridlock we were having before isn't happening anymore," said park superintendent Marilyn H. Parris.
Parris said the tour groups were only half the battle. "The message still isn't getting out to people in their individual cars," she said, "so we're still turning away cars at the entrance station."
The irony of it all is that sunrise may not even be the best time to visit Haleakala. "It's just as nice at sunset and potentially nicer," said Sharon Ringsven, acting commercial business manager for Haleakala National Park. "At sunrise, the crater is in shadow. But at sunset, the sun is behind you, so you actually see the colors of Haleakala crater."
By Ringsven's estimate, there were times when more than a thousand people were atop Haleakala at sunrise, while sunset usually draws no more than a few dozen. "There are fewer people in the park in the afternoons," she said, "and you get a lot more personalized experience."
Jeanette Foster, author of "Frommer's Maui" and several other travel guides to Hawaii, agreed. "The most incredible sunsets in the state of Hawaii are from the top of Haleakala. They take your breath away. You can see the isthmus of Maui and the sun setting behind the other islands," she said in an interview. "Sometimes you can even see the moon rise at the same time. And you don't have to get up at 0-dark-thirty in the morning and freeze to death."
Kelii Brown, spokesman for the Maui Visitors Bureau, also reminds visitors that sunrise is hardly the ancient tradition that many people believe it is. "For native Hawaiians, Haleakala is a sacred spot, but the time of day has nothing to do with it."
According to Hawaiian legend, the demigod Maui went to the top of the island's tallest mountain and lassoed the sun, agreeing to release it only if it promised to move more slowly across the sky so that his mother could dry her cloth. The sun agreed, supposedly giving the top of the volcano about 15 minutes more sun than the coastal communities below.
For generations since then, the mountain has been known as Haleakala, or "House of the Sun." But only in the past two decades has the House become so crowded at dawn, marring an experience that used to be serene. "Twenty-five years ago, we used to go up to Haleakala for sunrise and there was nobody there," said Foster.
The situation started to change in 1983, when an entrepreneur named Bob Kiger hit on the idea of combining a visit to Haleakala with a bike ride down the mountain. The company he started, Cruiser Bob's, immediately spawned many imitators, all touting the unforgettable experience to be had from seeing the sun rise over the crater, then flying down the hill on a tricked-out bike -- a 38-mile thrill ride that requires almost no pedaling.
Arriving at the summit before dawn has its reward for cyclists, who then have hours to poke around the national park on their way downhill. It doesn't seem to make much sense, however, for parkgoers who want to ride horses, hike the trails, take photos, picnic or simply marvel at the astounding scenery. But somehow, most people have gotten the impression that the spiritual experience of Haleakala is available only at sunrise.
"For years, we've been trying to promote sunset" as a less crowded time to visit, said Brown. "But it's something people have gotten into their heads as something they must do."
Brown encourages visitors to sleep in, drive up to Haleakala after the sunrise crush, explore the park's hiking trails, ride horses or learn about the national park's beautiful flora and fauna. "Don't just go up there for sunrise and then race back down. The only thing you'll see is the back of the rider in front of you."
John Rosenthal last wrote for the Travel section on Santa Monica, Calif.