Maui day 3: Haleakalā and upcountry

Today we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:30 am and headed out at 3 am. Why would we do such a crazy thing when we’re on vacation? Sunrise at the summit of 10,023 ft. Haleakalā! Much has been written about this magical, mystical and—according to some people—sacred experience. Some people say it’s overrated and a waste of a good night’s sleep, others (the majority) say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing you simply we do while on Maui.

Was it worth it? I think the photos below speak for themselves:






Yes, it was worth it—and then some. Even in spite of the weather conditions at the top. The overnight low was 46°F—not too horrible—but there were sustained winds of 25-40 mph. Sustained means the wind blows all the time; it never stops. The wind chill brought that “balmy” 46°F down to freezing, or even below it. We packed warm clothes explicitly for sunrise at Haleakalā (you don’t really need them for anything else on Maui) but even so I was less than comfortable. Many people had brought blankets and looked like weirdly cocooned aliens.

Speaking of people: Don’t expect to be the only person at the top of Haleakalā experiencing this magical event. I don’t know how many people were there, but I’d say several hundred. The parking lot at the Visitor Center near the summit was 1/3 full when we arrived at 4:45 am (a full hour before actual sunrise) and quickly filled within the next half hour. If you want a convenient parking spot, arrive early! Otherwise you could find yourself walking a long ways in the dark.

Practical tip: Be sure to park at the Visitor Center parking lot, not at the summit parking lot, another 1/2 mile up the road. The view from the actual summit is nowhere near as immersive as from the Visitor Center where you can walk right up to the rim.








What made this morning’s sunrise so special were the enormous banks of clouds below the summit. With the high winds, they were swirling and racing so fast that I had a hard time photographing them (they showed up as motion blur in many pictures). The best light was about 30 minutes before and then immediately after sunrise. The clouds took on myriad hues in the orange to raspberry spectrum—unforgettable!

After the sun had come up, it became clear that the dark precipice in front of us was the enormous depression commonly called Haleakalā crater. It’s actually not a crater but rather a valley formed by erosion—but crater sounds so much cooler when talking about such a massive volcano. To give you an idea of how large Haleakalā is: It makes up 75% of the entire island of Maui!



The landscape at the top of Haleakalā is stark, forbidding, otherworldly.



Nothing much grows near the summit except for some grasses and shrubs—and the one thing plant lovers from all over the world come here to see: the Haleakalā silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum).


The silversword is unique to the volcanic mountains of Hawaii (Haleakalā on Maui, and Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii). Each area has a different subspecies (see this Wikipedia article for a detailed description), but the Haleakalā silversword is said to be most the beautiful.


The silverword spends most of its life as rosette which at a distance resembles Our Lord’s Candle (Hesperoyucca whipplei). After anywhere from 5 to 20 years a massive flower stalk emerges from the center of the rosette. When I saw the specimens below, I immediately thought of tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii). The flower spike is covered with hundreds of purplish flowers which up close look a little like miniature echinacea flowers.


Like Echium wildpretii and Hesperoyucca whipplei, the silversword is monocarpic, i.e. it dies after blooming. Producing such a massive flower spike consumes all of the plant’s energy. In the next photo you can see a blooming silversword next to a dead one.


For me, seeing blooming silverswords in their native habitats has been a highlight of our trip so far. Apparently, in 1927 only 100 silverswords were left on the slopes of Haleakalā, the rest having been destroyed by livestock and early visitors. Concerted preservation efforts have been very successful, and now there are more than 40,000 specimens in Haleakalā National Park.



After one more stop at the Kalahaku Overlook (see below), we left Haleakalā National Park and proceeded to head down the mountain. The road is incredibly curvy and in most places you cannot drive faster than 25-30 mph. On our return trip we encountered at least half a dozen groups of bicyclists sharing the narrow road. Many tour companies offer riding excursions where a van takes you to the area right outside the National Park boundary and you then hop on your bike and head downhill under the guidance of a tour company employee. We saw more than a few inexperienced riders swerving wildly so be careful as you head downhill!


The upcountry area—the fertile lower slopes of Haleakalā—is home to ranches, farms and even a couple of botanical gardens and commercial protea growing operations which I hope to visit next week. Look at the next photo to see the quality of proteas grown here—and this was just a roadside stand. (Yes, I did buy a bouquet for my wife.)


In Maui Revealed, the definitive guidebook to Maui, I’d read about an interesting upcountry town called Makawao and we decided to check it out. While we didn’t see any paniolos, Hawaiian cowboys, I slammed on the brakes when I saw this eucalyptus trees covered—engulfed—by hylocereus, a night-blooming vining cactus that produces delicious fruit (dragonfruit or pitahaya is from Hylocereus undulatus, what this may well have been).

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More hylocereus covered this rock wall nearby. Behind the gate was a stand of Bambusa vulgaris, the most commonly found bamboo on the island.


Bambusa vulgaris was also growing behind the house that belonged to this property:


In downtown Makawao, the parking lot behind Polli’s Mexican Restaurant is a miniature botanical garden. Take a look at the botanical treasures I found!


Monstera, bananas and taro

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Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spectabilis?) and ti (Cordyline fruticosa)


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) and ti (Cordyline fruticosa)


Foxtail agave (Agave attenuata) and ti (Cordyline fruticosa)


Taro (Colocasia esculenta), historically a staple of the Polynesian diet


Possibly the most scenic dumpsters on the entire island!


Agave attenuata babies growing right on the spent flower stalk


Phone booths (themselves a rarity these days) and firecracker plant (Russelia equisetiformis)

After we finally got back to our condo, I took a long nap but I still feel a bit groggy. And tomorrow will be another long day since I’ll be driving the fabled Road to Hāna while my wife and kids hang out here.



  1. Fabulous! What a treat!'ll enjoy the 'road to Hana' may seem like a 1/2 lane at times, but it's two way careful~

  2. Your photologue makes us want to go there even more!

    It's not like you guys go to Maui often so definitely worth getting up early to see the sunrise, absolutely worth it :)

    1. Since this is our first visit to Maui, I didn't mind the sacrifice.

  3. An amazing day, early start or not! (Why didn't you do this the first morning, while you were still on CA time?)

    I just LOVE some of these photos -- having a hard time deciding which to Pin.

    The tropical jungle photos at the end were an extra treat, a good contrast to the bleak beauty of the top of the island. Very nice post!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Alan!

      I'm so happy I got many good photos. They'll help me remember this trip.

  4. I used to have a coworker who went to Hawaii at least once a year, she was the first to show me images of the Haleakalā silversword, so beautiful! Lucky you to get to see them in person. (oh ya...the sunrise looked pretty fabulous too)

    I can't believe those bouquets were only $4!

    1. I'm discovering what a treasure these roadside stands are. I picked up more flowers yesterday (heliconias and torch ginger) as well as some lilikoi (passionfruit) and freshly harvested bananas.

  5. Thanks for sharing your day. It is great to see the silverswords in bloom. We were there in October so we only saw the spent flowers. I also loved the pictures of the plants in the upcountry. It is so much fun seeing 'houseplants' growing wild.

    1. I know! It's crazy seeing "houseplants" grow like weeds wherever you look!

  6. Now that you've gone there at sunrise I don't have to. Lol. Photos crazy beautiful. We went there during the day and it was great.


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