If you’re headed to Maui, it’s inevitable that someone will ask whether you’re planning on seeing sunrise at Haleakalā, where, on a daily basis, dozens of visitors swarm the summit of the world’s largest dormant volcano to see the first golden rays of the sun touch its colorful crater. But, while the famous sunrise here is inarguably spectacular, sunset at Haleakalā may actually be the better choice for visitors.
Here’s 4 reasons why you should choose sunset at Haleakalā and skip setting that early alarm clock for sunrise- plus tips for making your Haleakalā sunset as epic as possible!
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Table of contents:
- How to get to the summit of Haleakalā
- Reasons why sunset at Haleakalā is awesome
- Tips for watching sunset at Haleakalā
- Where to stay near Haleakalā National Park
Pssst… are you headed to Maui? Color me jealous- I LOVE Hawai’i! Consider checking out our other posts about about Maui:
- Sliding Sands Trail: hike into this massive volcano (while it’s still dormant!)
- Waihe’e Ridge Trail- it’s like a helicopter tour but on foot!
- Maui whale watching guide- everything you need to know about seeing the Pacific’s best acrobats
- Black Sand Beach on Maui: Everything You Need to Know
How to Get to the Summit of Haleakala
The summit of Haleakalā is located in (surprise!) Haleakalā National Park in the southeastern portion of Maui. Haleakalā towers at a jaw-dropping 10,023 feet above the rest of the island- and for the best sunset views, you’ll follow a long, winding road, with gorgeous vistas and nail-biting curves, all the way to its summit. 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 the America the Beautiful pass.
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 road leading to the summit. Yet another reason to drive carefully as you climb the side of a 10,000-foot tall mountain!
Reasons Why Sunset at Haleakala is Awesome
Don’t get me wrong- sunrise at Haleakalā is incredible- but here’s why you should check out the volcano at sunset, which is equally as stunning, instead.
1. You don’t need to wake up at 4 AM to see it.
Unless you’re staying in the park itself, the drive to the summit is anywhere from an hour and fifteen minutes to up to three hours away from the most popular places to stay on Maui, given that you have to slowly and carefully drive up approximately 21 miles and a zillion switchbacks.
In the summertime, the sunrise frequently occurs around 5:45 AM- so to wake up, drive your way to the summit, and get yourself situated along its ridgeline, you’ll easily need to wake up at 4 AM- or even earlier. Nothing says a relaxing vacation quite like setting your alarm for 3:30 AM!
Unless you’re a vampire, catching sunset at Haleakalā shouldn’t mess with your sleep schedule at all- in fact, you can wake up whenever you so choose; chill by the beach for a while, coffee in hand; and lazily make your way up to the summit on your own schedule.
2. You don’t need a permit.
Given the immense popularity of sunrise in the park, you actually need to secure a permit to enter the park between 3 AM and 7 AM. You can purchase a permit from recreation.gov up to 60 days in advance- but given the fact that only 50 cars are allowed in for sunrise every day, the permits sell out quickly- and once they’re gone, you’re kind of out of luck.
And if you do get one of those highly coveted permits? It’s your one shot to see the sunrise at the crater. Have a late night and don’t feel like waking up at 3 AM? Too bad- you’ve only got one chance to see it! Feeling sick or having car troubles that morning? Oh well!
On the other hand, if you decide to head to the summit for sunset instead, you have total flexibility of which day you head to the summit, allowing you to schedule around your other activities, how you feel, and the weather. Which brings me to…
3. You’ll have a better idea of what the weather looks like at the summit.
I’ve heard so many stories about visitors waking up at ungodly hours and driving to see the sunrise at the summit, only to have their view completely obscured by clouds. That actually happened to me during my first visit to the park! Because of Haleakalā’s extreme elevation, the summit experiences clouds and rain far more often than some other parts of the island, which can obviously make the sunrise a bit less dramatic than you’re probably hoping for.
If you’re headed to the park at sunrise, you have to wake up super early, check the weather (you can see here, here, and here for information about the current conditions and the forecast), and make a go-no-go decision as to whether it’s worth making the drive. What makes this even more challenging is that the weather can change incredibly rapidly at the summit- so a sky that’s covered with heavy clouds can clear up in just a few seconds, or vice versa.
While the same issue is obviously present when you head up to the summit for sunset, the stakes feel a lot lower- your chances of seeing a spectacular sunset aren’t tied to a permit for one particular morning and you can plan your trip to the park by looking at the forecast and making an educated guess about which day will provide the best conditions.
And if you make the drive up to the summit in the afternoon and your view of sunrise is covered with clouds, you can always simply come back another day!
4. You’ll be all set up for stargazing.
Thanks to its 10,000 feet in elevation, the atmosphere around Haleakalā enjoys a clear atmosphere, with minimal light pollution- making this one of the best places for stargazing on the planet. In fact, the University of Hawai’i operates a high-altitude observatory here! So after sunset, this is an awesome place to linger, lay back, and watch the Milky Way and its constellations twinkle to life.
I can already hear you asking “well, couldn’t you do the same for sunrise?” Of course, but that means you’ll need to get to the park even earlier– the stars become less visible to the naked human eye once the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon (known as astronomical twilight)- so, if you want to stargaze here, get ready to bump that 4 AM wake-up call to about 2:30 AM!
Tips for Sunset at Haleakala
So, if I’ve done my job, you’re sufficiently convinced that sunset at Haleakalā is the way to go- but how do you ensure you make the most of this stunning experience?
Snag a great spot for watching the sunset.
There’s a couple of different places where you can watch the sunset in the park. The most popular spot is at the summit itself, which provides unobstructed views of the sun eclipsing the horizon and the mountain peaks poking through the blanket of clouds.
However, while there’s a parking lot right nearby, it only holds about 40 cars, which quickly fills up with aggressive photographers and entitled tourists, and is then gated off by the National Park Service. If this lot is full, you can park down by the visitor’s center (whose lot rarely gets full) and make the trek half a mile up to the summit.
Want to enjoy the sunset in peace? My husband, Justin, and I climbed the Pā Ka‘oao Trail right by the visitor’s center, a short and easy 0.5 mile out-and- back hike, to watch Mother Nature’s spectacular show from its summit.
I absolutely LOVED this spot– we got to watch the changing colors in the crater (which you can’t do from the summit), the chunky volcanic boulders provided an interesting foreground to the sun eclipsing the horizon, and there were only two other groups at the top of the trail at the same time as us. Definitely one of the best hikes in Maui for seeing a jaw-dropping sunset!
Want to know where you shouldn’t enjoy the sunset? Many visitors gather on the western edge of the visitors center parking lot, which I would actually strongly recommend against. Your view here will be obscured by a chain fence, power lines, and the hill to the summit (plus it gets mega crowded)- sunset at Haleakalā is far too beautiful to be hidden by all that stuff!
Get there early.
If you specifically want to watch sunset at the summit, I’d recommend getting there early- not only to get a parking spot in its tiny lot, but also to make sure you get a good spot along the ridgeline. Those Tik Tok-ers are ruthless, y’all!
Bring along something to sit on.
There aren’t any benches up by the summit, so you’re either going to be standing the whole time or, alternatively, sitting on the pavement or tiny volcanic pebbles on the hillside (which, word to the wise, are quite stabby). Instead, bring along a blanket (something like this can also be used to chill at the beach during your time on the island) or lightweight packable chairs that you can simply toss in your luggage.
Haleakalā is a sacred place to Native Hawaiians- in fact, many people still carry out rituals in the park, to celebrate birth, solstices, and worship of different deities.
Please show respect of this incredible place by:
- Not removing any rocks, cinder, or other organic matter you find in the park
- Following signage put up by the National Park System to protect endangered plants and animals (we saw so many people willfully stepping on areas that clearly were marked as protected for this very purpose); and
- Being mindful of your voice and any Instagram photo shoots you’re participating in to not disturb other visitors.
Pack a jacket.
As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, it’s amazing how quickly it can get chilly here- it can actually drop into the 40s or below pretty rapidly. So make sure your Hawaii packing list includes a warm jacket that will keep you nice and cozy while you’re out on the mountain- I love jackets that pack down into tiny little pouches (like this one for men and this one for women) that can easily be tossed in your luggage.
There’s no gas, food, or drinks in the park, so bring along whatever you need. If you’re planning on staying to stargaze, might I recommend bringing along a thermos of hot chocolate? Your cold hands (and stomach!) will thank me later.
Hang out for a while after the sunset.
Most people immediately skedaddle once the sun dips below the horizon, but they’re missing some of the best parts- the sunset goes on for almost an hour after this point, with the sky turning absolutely incredible shades of pink and orange until it fades to inky black.
Not only is this when the sky is painted the most spectacular colors, but, given the mass exodus of visitors, you’ll be able to enjoy the spectacle mostly by yourself.
Where to Stay near Haleakala National Park
If you’re planning on exploring the national park and its amazing hikes, sunrises, or sunsets, it’s at least worth considering staying a night or two nearby, given how long it can take to drive to the summit and vice versa.
Justin and I stayed in Lahaina, on the northern side of the island, for the entirety of our time on the island- while it was generally a convenient homebase, we got back from watching the sunset close to 10 PM, when almost all of the restaurants in town had closed for the night. Had we not been rushing back to pick up dinner, we likely would have stayed a lot longer to stargaze.
So instead, consider staying:
- 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.
I hope you catch a spectacular sunset at Haleakalā and have a blast exploring the park’s trails- it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been! Do you have any burning questions about catching sunset at the park? Hit me up in the comments below!