Driving to the Sun

If you start to feel faint over the never ending series of switchbacks (180 degree bends in a road or path), don’t worry, you’re certainly not the first person to feel this way. Making the drive up Haleakala Volcano requires two things: nerves of steel for the person doing the driving and a car with a new set of brakes.

Haleakala is a massive shield volcano (a type of volcano usually built almost entirely of fluid lava flows) and forms more than 75% of the Hawaiian island of Maui. With the exception of the island’s west side where the remaining 25% can be found, Haleakala is almost always visible. Flying in from the mainland to Maui, the sight of oceanfront coastline did not greet us, but rather the reddish brown facade of the volcano.

In Hawaiian, Haleakala means “house of the sun.” According to a local legend, the demigod Maui imprisoned the sun here in order to lengthen the day. The name seems quite appropriate seeing as how its tallest peak is at an elevation of 10,023 feet, which does make it quite close to the sun. The drive to the “sun’s house” begins on Haleakala Highway. Completed in 1935 during the middle of America’s Great Depression, it truly is an engineering marvel. The highway contains many blind turns, some with extremely steep drop-offs. I tried to imagine a 1935 Auburn Boattail Speedster making the same ascent our 2011 Mazda 6 rental car was but couldn’t; our “modern” car was laboring enough as it was.

For those lucky enough to be a passenger, the views before you during the drive are incredible. As you journey farther and farther up the volcano, the scenery you saw only moments earlier already seems like a mere spec in the distance.

When we arrived at the summit, staring down into Haleakala Crater, it didn’t feel as if we were on a Hawaiian island anymore. The temperatures were colder, the air thinner and it honestly looked much closer to Mars (at least from pictures I had seen). The scenery in front of us seemed anomalous; gone were the crashing waves and white sand beaches and noticeably absent, the towering palm trees. Instead we stared at the crater which measured almost seven miles across, two miles wide  and nearly 2600 feet deep. You’re at a height so majestic that you’re even above the clouds.

It’s believed that Haleakala last erupted sometime in the 18th century and some of Maui’s beaches serve as the most tangible reminder of this event. When lava contacts with water it cools rapidly and shatters into sand and rough debris of various sizes. If you visit Honokalani Black Sand Beach it is not grains of white sand that will be beneath your feet but rather black lava rock.

The drive back down from the top of Pu’u ‘Ula’ula (Red Hill) felt like it took even longer than the ascent, namely due to the deep rooted fear of plunging to our deaths on the off chance we took a curve faster than the 20 MPH we had been doing since there are no guardrails along the way.

If there ever was such a thing as the stairway to heaven, the drive to the top of Haleakala Volcano would surely be it.

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  • Reply
    January 19, 2012 at 2:38 am

    Wow! What great photos! I get nervous just looking at them though! No guardrails!

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    January 19, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks! I know, I was petrified on both the drive up and down and I wasn’t even doing the driving. I normally am not afraid of heights but when you are that high up, I think anyone might feel a wee bit nervous 🙂

  • Reply
    June 2, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    Gorgeous shots! I have only been to the Big Island, but I’ll have to add this volcano on Maui to my list. The landscape really looks like Mars.

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    June 3, 2012 at 2:47 am

    Thank you! One of the reasons I loved most about Maui was its incredible landscapes, especially Haleakala!

  • Reply
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