Sliding Sands Trail: Hike into this Massive Volcano on Maui (While It’s Still Dormant!)

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Black jagged rock, jutting out of the earth. Dunes of vibrantly colored sands. Craggy mountains peering through the clouds. Sound like a completely Martian landscape? Well, while it may feel like you’re walking on another planet, you can experience all of this otherworldly beauty at Haleakalā National Park’s Sliding Sands Trail, a stunning hike that takes you below the rim of the world’s largest dormant volcano.

So if you’re looking to experience some of Maui’s most mind-blowing scenery, throw on your hiking boots and pack up the car- here’s everything you need to know about the Sliding Sands Trail.

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Table of contents:

Pssst… are you headed to Maui? Color me jealous- I LOVE Hawai’i! Consider checking out our other posts about about Maui:

We also have a ton of content on Oahu, which you can check out here.


About the Sliding Sands Trails

Length: 11.0 miles

Elevation gain: 2,795 feet

Type: Out-and-back

Difficulty: Challenging

Woman hiking by cinder cones along the Sliding Sands Trail

How to get to the Sliding Sands Trail

Sliding Sands Trail (also known as the Keonehe’ehe’e Trail) is located in Haleakalā National Park in the southeastern portion of the island of Maui. Haleakalā towers over the island at a staggering 10,023 feet tall- and to access the trailhead, you’ll have to drive all the way up to its summit.

You’ll take an incredibly windy, yet well-maintained road almost 24 miles up the mountain, providing plenty of spectacular views and some nail-biting curves along the way (especially given the fact that you’ll be sharing the road with hundreds of cyclists cruising down the mountain!).

As you reach the summit, you’ll enter the national park itself and will need to pay $30 for a weekly pass per vehicle or present a valid interagency pass, like America the Beautiful.

Past the entrance station, you’ll continue to drive up to the parking lot by the visitor’s center to start your hike at the trailhead– along the way, please watch out for any nēnē in or around the road. Nēnē (or Hawaiian geese) are an endangered species and found exclusively on the Hawaiian islands- and have an unfortunate proclivity for hanging out around the summit road. Yet another reason to drive carefully as you climb the side of a 10,000-foot tall mountain! 

Pssst.... you likely won't get cell signal during certain parts of your drive and while you're hiking the Sliding Sands Trail. Accordingly, I'd recommend downloading offline maps of the area on Google Maps and the trail on AllTrails. 

You'll need the AllTrails Pro version of the app to download offline maps, but you can get a 7-day free trial here. If you're wondering whether the app is for you, we wrote a whole post on whether AllTrails Pro is worth it.
View from top of Sliding Sands Trail into Haleakala crater

What to know before hiking the Sliding Sands

Trail

Before we dive into this hike, I want to be sure to provide some context around your visit to  Haleakalā. While the U.S. National Parks offer some of the most stunning scenery on the planet, the history of how the U.S. federal government came to own most of these gorgeous lands, including Haleakalā, is troublesome, to say the least (see here for more information).

This is only compounded by Haleakalā’s location in the beautiful Hawaiian islands, whose monarchy was overthrown by the U.S. government in 1893- against the protests of the Native Hawaiian people- to gain control of the sugar industry and to use the islands’ location in the Pacific as a military asset (see here).

Additionally, it’s important to note that Haleakalā is a sacred place for Native Hawaiians- Haleakalā means “House of Sun” in Hawaiian, named after a legend that the mischievous demigod, Maui, held the sun god captive here to make the days last longer. In sum, this is my long-winded and rambly way of saying that you are but a mere lucky visitor in this incredibly special place, so please, please, please respect it.

Woman hiking along the Sliding Sands Trail

For example, don’t take rocks, sand, or plants that you might find in the park home. In fact, there’s a famous superstition on the islands called “Pele’s curse”, which basically holds that the Hawaiian goddess of fire and lava treats pieces of rock as her children- and curses those that remove her beloved babies from her island.

This legend probably stems from the Native Hawaiian belief that plants, animals and rocks are imbued with spiritual significance. Not only might you be cursed by, like, a literal lava goddess if you remove organic matter from the island, but it’s also really disrespectful and culturally insensitive.

While you’re at it, be sure to understand and follow the Leave No Trace principles during your visit. Most of the seven principles are pretty straightforward, but, nevertheless, when my husband, Justin, and I visited the park, we saw an unbelievable amount of people trampling over areas that were clearly marked as being off-limits due to the presence of endangered plant species (WHAT!) and otherwise just kind of acting like entitled jerks. Let’s leave this place (and, really, all places) better than we found them, mkay?

Endangered Species sign in Haleakala National Park
Some folks who don’t care about trampling on endangered species. Much cool.

Is Haleakalā an active volcano?

Volcanoes are classified as either active (they have recently erupted and likely are to erupt again), dormant (they have erupted in the last 10,000 years and may erupt again in the future), or extinct (they have not erupted in the last 10,000 years and are unlikely to erupt again). Haleakalā is classified as a dormant volcano, given that it’s believed to have erupted at least 10 times in the past 1,000 years and last believed to have erupted sometime between 1480 and 1600.

Further, scientists predict that it will erupt again sometime in the next 500 years. In fact, lava-flow hazards in Hawai’i are rated on a scale of one through nine with one being the zone of highest hazard and nine being the zone of lowest hazard. For example, the summits and rift zones around Mauna Loa on the Big Island are rated as a Hazard Zone One, given its frequent eruptions.

The summit and rift zones of Haleakalā, on the other hand, are rated as a Hazard Zone Three- so while it’s lower risk than the active volcanoes on the Big Island, it’s still very much being closely monitored by scientists. While it’s incredibly unlikely the volcano will erupt during your visit, you should still check out this amazing trail while this massive volcano lays dormant.  

Cinder cones along the Sliding Sands Trail

What to expect along the Sliding Sands Trail

Speaking of the trail, let’s get to the fun part- one of the best hikes in Maui that takes you down into Haleakalā’s crater! One quick aside- did you know that Haleakalā’s famous “crater” is not truly a volcanic crater- or a caldera, for that matter? Instead, scientists believe that this depression was formed when two erosional valleys merged at the top of Haleakalā.

Either way, with its stunning amount of cinder cones and colorful sand, you’ll be sure to lava this trail (eh, get it? Volcano pun!). 

If you head to the southwest corner of the visitor center parking lot, you’ll see signs for the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) Trail, with a small path eroded between the lava rocks that follows along the Haleakalā Highway. Walk up this path and you’ll get your first glimpse into the Martian landscape that awaits you below.

From here, unlike other volcano trails, like the Mauna Kea hike on the Big Island or frankly, every other hike you’ll do, the first half of the trail is almost completely downhill, winding your way steeply down below the rim- with gravity and the crater’s sands, it’s super easy to quickly fly down the path. 

Woman hiking along the Sliding Sands Trail

Along the way, you’ll get fantastic views of the vibrant cinder cones scattered across the crater’s floor and the impossibly jagged walls of the crater slowly rising above you. To be honest, the landscape here looks like something out of Lord of the Rings- perhaps like a less scary version of Mordor. 

About two miles in, the steep descent flattens out some and the ground transitions from being mostly volcanic sand to a craggy volcanic rock, with amazing formations jutting dramatically out of the earth. Be super careful as you’re climbing over this- if you fall, these rocks can be incredibly sharp and stabby.

Around this area, you’ll also start to see āhinahina (or silverswords) lining the path, a rare plant that you can literally only find at Haleakalā and Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Fun fact- these alien-looking flora can live over 90 years and only flower one time, before dying and scattering its seeds to the wind.

Friendly reminder to stay on the trail here and let these magnificent plants live their best life!

Woman overlooking Haleakala crater along Sliding Sands Trail

After a couple more switchbacks, you’ll hit the crater floor and see a junction in the trail. This can actually be a great spot to turn back (for a 7.6 mile round trip hike) or, to complete the Sliding Sands Trail, you’ll continue on straight.

You’ll hike for approximately another mile, with brilliantly colored sand dunes soaring overhead, until you reach the Kapalaoa Cabin. If you’re considering where to stay in Maui and like unique accommodations, consider reserving this historic cabin, which is reportedly an awesome spot to see some nēnē!

This is technically the end of the Sliding Sands trail, but if you’re still up for more adventure, there’s several junctions that you can take if you want to keep exploring the crater floor and its many brilliantly-hued cinder cones (check out a helpful map here).

Silversword in Haleakala National Park

But be sure to save your energy- and remember that, with this trail, whatever goes down must come up. While it’s incredibly easy to just zoom down those 2,795 feet to the crater floor, I’m not going to lie- the hike back up to the rim of the crater is TOUGH.

No if’s, and’s, or but’s about it- between the steep incline of the trail, the loose nature of its sand (I curse you, gravity!), and the high altitude, hiking back up this trail totally kicked my butt. Before you start the hike down, be confident in your level of fitness and ability to climb back out of the crater.

And if you’re not feeling up to climbing a literal volcano during your vacation, it’s totally okay to just do the first mile or two of the hike (or really, to the initial overlook into the crater itself)- you’ll still get amazing views that most visitors at the park will never see!

When to hike the Sliding Sands Trail

There’s really no bad time of the year to visit Haleakalāwinter tends to be the busiest time, with pleasant temperatures in the low 80s.

Summer, which generally is considered July through September in Hawaii, can get a bit steamy in the park, with average highs in the upper 80s and low 90s.

Fall and spring can also be pleasant but may have a slightly higher chance of rain than other times of the year. 

Couple standing over clouds along the Sliding Sands Trail

One other factor to consider- Haleakalā’s summit and all of its mighty 10,000 feet of elevation can be, somewhat famously, occluded by clouds. There’s really no particular time of the year where clouds are worse and the weather here is unpredictable and can change quite rapidly.

During Justin’s and my time hiking the Sliding Sands Trail, the crater went from having a few wisps of clouds daintily perched on its mountaintops to having the entire crater completely covered in clouds by the time we hiked out of the rim.

I’d recommend checking the weather forecast before you go and trying to plan your visit on a clear day- even so, there’s no guarantee there won’t be clouds at the summit. So hope for the best and worst case scenario, you get to hike through a literal cloud- still pretty cool in my book!

Can you camp along the Sliding Sands Trail?

As mentioned above, there’s the nifty Kapalaoa Cabin on the crater’s floor that you can reserve, if you’re lucky enough to snag a permit. Otherwise, there’s no tent camping allowed on the crater floor (although there’s a few other cabins and backpacking sites that you can reserve nearby in the park).

Couple watching sunset at Haleakala from Haleakala National Park

Tips for Hiking the Sliding Sand Trail

  • You must have a permit to access the hike between 3 AM and 7 AM. Because of the wild popularity of seeing the sunrise over the crater, you must have a permit to enter the park between 3 AM and 7 AM- even if you don’t intend to go watch the sunrise. So if you’re looking to get an early morning hike in, try to time your arrival with 7 AM- you’ll have the trail mostly to yourself!
  • Bring an absurd amount of water. It can feel quite hot along the trail in the direct sun and did I mention that you’ll be climbing almost 3,000 feet up a sandy trail at high elevations? I promise that you will be GUZZLING water on your way back to the crater’s rim- so pack plenty of water (more water than you think you’ll need!).

    Justin and I each carry one of these big Nalgene bottles on all of our hikes, including along the Sliding Sands Trail. Since they’re refillable, they’re better for the planet than disposable plastic bottles- plus, they’re kinder to your wallet!
  • Consider timing your hike with sunset. I’m personally of the opinion that sunset at Haleakalā are where it’s at, as opposed to its famed sunrises- you aren’t forced to wake up at 3 AM to see it plus you don’t need a permit (meaning you can be flexible with what days you go if the weather forecast looks funky).

    Justin and I timed our hike so that we were ending it shortly before sunset- the light during our hike was nothing short of dazzling and it was an epic end to the day to watch the sun sink beneath the blanket of clouds atop Haleakalā. 10 out of 10- would recommend!

What to pack for the Sliding Sands Trail

While Sliding Sands Trail isn’t overly technical, there’s still some gear that I’d recommend making sure is on your Hawaii packing list that will make your hike that much better:

  • Actual hiking shoes: Most visitors to Hawai’i only bring a pair of flip flops or at most, hiking sandals to walk around the island. Given the incredibly rocky nature of the trail (and how sharp volcanic rock is), though, I’d strongly recommend bringing along actual hiking or trail shoes (like these hiking boots for men or these for women), especially if you’re considering exploring any of Maui’s other awesome hiking trails. 
  • Trekking poles: Due to the steepness and sandiness of the trail, it can be pretty tough on your knees. If you’ve got any kind of knee issues, I’d recommend bringing along some lightweight trekking poles that you can fold up and throw in a carry-on- your legs will thank me later!
  • Light jacket: It can get surprisingly chilly along the trail, especially while you’re not actively feeling like you’re going to spontaneously combust from climbing up thousands of feet of volcano, when there’s a lot of cloud coverage, or once the sun goes down. In fact, Haleakala is one of the only places that receives snow in Hawaii!

    Accordingly, it’s a good idea to bring a light jacket (and even better, a waterproof one!), given the unpredictable weather here, like this one for men and this one for women.
  • Sunscreen: The whole trail is in direct sunlight with very little shade. Slather on some of that sunscreen (that’s reef safe- we’re in Maui, y’all!) and keep those wrinkles at bay.
Woman hiking along the Sliding Sands Trail in Haleakala National Park

Where to stay near Haleakalā National Park

Haleakalā’ offers three wilderness cabins and two wilderness campsites, which you must reserve ahead of time (you can find out more information here). If you’re looking for more formal accommodations that are reasonably close the park, check out:

  • Kula Star Dome: Looking for a super unique accommodation? Consider staying at this loft in Kula (the nearest town to the summit), which offers a clear bubble dome for you to lie in and stare at the stars.
  • Banyan Tree Bed and Breakfast: Located in a 1920s plantation house, this bed and breakfast offers suites and cottages, along with a central location to most of Maui’s attractions, a pool, and hot tub. 
  • Paia Inn: Paia is the cute town, with lots of hippie surfer vibes, that kicks off the road to Hana (and, in hindsight, I wish I would’ve stayed here for at least a couple nights of our trip). The Paia Inn is under an hour and 20 minutes from the summit, is conveniently located within walking distance to Paia’s adorable boutiques and cafes, and has a boho chic aesthetic. 
Surfboards in Paia, Maui

Sliding Sands Trail is by far one of the most uniquely beautiful hikes I’ve ever done- and I’ve hiked a lot of trails in my day! Are there any tips about the trail that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!

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