10 Ways to Prepare for Sunrise at Haleakala Crater

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Making the trek up to the summit of Haleakala Crater is a must-do when visiting Maui; however, it is a feat that takes quite a bit of planning and a very early start in the morning. I made a solo trip up there when I was on the island a few weeks ago and made a few mistakes in planning. So here are a few tips to get you started in prepping for your volcano adventure!

1. Wake up way earlier than you think you should.

We do it every time. We count backwards from our deadline and figure out the last possible minute that we can leave for the airport, a meeting, a class, etc. We know we’re going to snooze the alarm (at least twice in my case), and in iPhone world that means 18 minutes. Talk to your hotel concierge or check out www.sunrisesunset.com/ where you can search for Haleakala and it will give you the exact time of sunrise at the top of the crater. Then give yourself at least a half hour before sunrise to get there, find a good spot, get cameras set up, etc. (see, here I am working backwards again….). Allow at least a half hour to drive from the welcome center to the top (it’s only 11 miles, but takes a while through all the switchbacks). The entrance fee is $10 per car; however if you’ve previously done the Road to Hana or already have a ticket for the National Park, those are good for three days. The drive to the welcome center is a good couple hours. I left Kanaapali at 3:30am to make a 6:48 sunrise – arriving at the welcome center around 5:45am.

(Side note – if you’re staying in a super busy hotel, allow extra time to make sure your car isn’t blocked in by valet. Mine was blocked in and it took me 15 extra minutes to find the night shift concierge, then for him to find the keys and move the car that was blocking me in. I *almost* lost it on him, but he was very kind and felt really bad, and it was my fault for cutting it close on time – I should have built in a few extra minutes for unforeseen circumstances.) In the end – or really to start, I set my alarm for 2:45am, snoozed til 3:03, and left my room at 3:20.

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2. Have a bag packed before you go to bed.

Snacks, sweatshirt, selfie stick. These are necessities you don’t want to leave in your hotel room as you groggily stumble out the door and accidentally lock your room key inside. Pack a backpack the night before to ensure you have everything you could possibly need for the ride, the summit and/or the next 8 or so hours if you plan on making a day of it. Granola bars, extra batteries, gloves, aaaand maybe even pack some plastic bags if anyone tends to get car sick. Seriously though…check out the map below:

Map of Road


3. Have breakfast and caffeine ready

As you’re snoozing the alarm, rubbing sleep out of your eyes and probably reconsidering the adventure altogether, the early wake up will seem a little more tolerable if granola bars are on the counter and caffeine is just one switch and three minutes away.  I am one of the least prepared and most anti-plan-ahead people you’ll ever meet – ask anyone who’s ever travelled with me – or better yet, talk to my extremely organized, always on time, prepared-for-anything sister – I drive her crazy. However, I was anticipating how early this wake up call was going to be, how windy the road was going to be, and how dark the 3am sky is. I had coffee ready to go so when I did finally stop snoozing my alarm, I could switch the coffee maker on as I walked passed to the bathroom. Three minutes later and I was sipping on the most crucial venti of the week.

4. Layer up

You’ve probably read this in other reviews about sunrise, as had I, but it was not nearly as emphasized as it should be; or maybe I just didn’t take as seriously as I should have. According to Wikipedia, the temperature drops three degrees for every one thousand feet of elevation. I noticed early on that the numbers on the car thermometer were rapidly dropping as I drove higher and higher. No biggie, I thought – I brought every layer I have with me in Hawaii. Wrong. Sooo wrong. First of all, it’s Hawaii, so I didn’t bring ANYTHING warm. I wore two tank tops, a cotton kimono, a very breezy sweater, two pairs of yoga leggings, a pair of crazy clown-looking harem pants from Bali on TOP of the two paris of leggings, a sarong over my head, and tennis shoes. Everyone else had snow pants, boots, wind breaking jackets, hoods, hats, and gloves. Since the temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) the day before, I thought I would be well prepared – until I got to the top and it was about 37 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius) with 20mph winds. BRR. I was actually concerned about frostbite – like, literally considering which hand to save. I take photos with my right hand, but I’m left handed. Which one do I save?! I ended up alternating which hand to use to take pictures and which one I could warm up by stuffing it under my layers and into my armpit. Had I known, I would have brought the bathrobe from the hotel….



5. Make sure you have enough gas.

This is an example of my poor planning. When I left Kanaapali, I had between 1/4 and 1/2 of a tank of gas, thinking that was definitely enough. My rental car was a little VW that had been smooth sailing and efficient gas mileage so far. I figured I was good to go. For some reason I didn’t even consider that I had a two hour drive before starting the uphill journey to the summit. So as I drove and passed the point of no return (i.e. no gas stations within a 20 minute radius) and began the ascent, my anxiety also ascended as my gas gauge descended. By the time I reached the visitor’s center my gas light had been on for at least 15 miles, and the dashboard was counting down my miles til empty. I barely made it to the top and had to coast in neutral all the way down until I arrived at the closest gas station Google Maps could find  – five miles away from the bottom!  It was even too early for that gas station to be open, so I had to neutrally cruise another few miles before I found one that was open. Moral of the story – fill up the day before!

6. Don’t sit in the car.

Upon arrival at the summit, I noticed a lot people hanging out in their cars, trying to stay warm until the last possible minute. I considered this as well, but seeing the number of tour vans emptying out in the parking lot, I decided it was best to get out now and claim my spot. (At this point, I still had no idea what the temperature/wind speed was, so it seemed totally fine to get out and hang for a while.) I threw on every layer I had and was almost thrown back in the car by the wind force against the driver’s side door. But I didn’t want to chance missing a good spot to set up, so I braved the wind chill and headed towards the lookout point.

7. Go left.

Originally I followed the crowds towards the main lookout point to the right of the visitor’s center. Everyone was huddled up to the edge and it was a giant mass of shivers and cameras and a quite a bit of early morning chaos. After a few minutes I reconsidered this spot and retreated back around the visitor’s center to the left side. There was only three or four people set up here, leaving enough space for me to get a front row spot and set up my Joby Gorillapod around the railing. There was almost a 180 degree view, and I had a good space where I could crouch down and get out of the wind until the sun began to rise.

8. Don’t forget to the put the camera down.

These days we are all so caught up in documenting the moment that sometimes we even forget to enjoy the moment. I am especially guilty of this as a photographer, and this was one of those times. Once the sun started to rise, it went up in a matter of minutes, and I didn’t want to miss a single second. I had my GoPro shooting a time lapse on the railing and my big camera in hand. I realized how many shots per second I was taking and told myself to calm down and just enjoy it. Sunrises are incredible to witness, and no matter what you’re seeing in front of you, the camera will never be able to capture the majesty of it. So I put the camera down, took a deep breath and enjoyed the moment. I then photographed the rising sun in stages instead of every single second of it, and in doing so, remember more of it than hundreds of photos would ever allow.



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9. Stay for a little while.

Shortly after the sun came up, the crowd thinned out as people began to lose interest. At this point, everyone was less intensely focused and I was able to get a kind stranger about to wander away if they would take a photo of me. This is a good time to wander back over to the other side and a get another view. After the sun rises, the park officials open up another section where you can drive a little bit higher and walk around the hiking path. I was running on less than empty at this point, so I decided to cruise back on down to the bottom and begin my day.

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10. Treat yourself to a real breakfast.

After I had filled up at an open gas station and could rest at ease for full tank-drive home, I gave myself props for successfully waking up so early and treated myself to the Betty Benedict at Lulu’s Lahaina Surf Club and Grill before relaxing at the beach on my last day in paradise.


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