Feature Story

The House of the Sun

Golden Sunrise
Above the clouds

After two months of touring the island of Maui, I still haven't taken the opportunity to watch the sunrise from the summit of Haleakala, Maui's 10,000-foot dormant volcano also known as The House of the Sun. It's not that I haven't wanted to wake up in the wee hours of the morning or drive the 35 or so miles (including all 21 switchbacks) up the barren slopes. I'm even prepared to brave the frigid summit air and gusty winds just to see the splendor and magnificence of the sun rise up over the clouds and spread its golden rays out over the craters' rim. With my parents and brother and his girlfriend here to visit, however, I told them that watching the sunrise on top of Haleakala is on Maui's top ten to-do list and even though we aren't the average beach-going, daiquiri-sipping car-riding tourists, we need to do it.

To some, the discomforts and nuisances of getting to the top are not worth the outcome, but as an avid traveler and explorer, I am willing to try anything once (except meat). And as part of a family of rule-breakers and adrenaline junkies, I'm used to abnormal adventures.

The five of us packed our bags with extra clothes, water, cameras and blankets the night before and set our alarms to go off at 4 am. Most sunrise trekkers have to wake up around 2 am, but since we were already in Makawao, halfway up the slopes, we got to sleep in a few extra hours. But still, the wake-up call commanded me out of bed way too abruptly.

Bleary eyed and zombiesque, we fixed our morning tea with soymilk and honey and climbed into the big white Dodge Ram truck to embark on our journey up to the summit. The ride was rather uneventful. It was dark and we were all half-asleep and there wasn't much to look at anyway. The lights of Kahului lit up the north shore somewhat, but I couldn't make out any of the West Maui Mountains. We past farmland, flower plantations, and green pastures; drove through small stands of eucalyptus, koa and Kaupo trees; and finally entered the moon-like terrain of Haleakala's highest ecosystem, with only a few hardy shrubs and bushes to adorn the rocky ground.

After stopping at the ranger stations and paying our 10-dollar dues, we climbed the last 11 miles to the summit, bracing ourselves on every switchback. A parking lot, already half filled with shiny rental cars and hooded tourists wielding cameras and thermoses, welcomed us at the top. We piled out of the car, then scrambled back in and slammed the doors when the cold air hit our exposed faces and hands. The sun's rays were just reaching the horizon, faintly illuminating the white cottony clouds blanketing the crater and spreading out over the eastern horizon. There was still a good hour before the sun actually poked it's golden self above the skyline.

Wrapped in blankets and drawstrings pulled tight, we mustered our courage and ascended the concrete steps that led to the overlook. A stone wall provided a great vantage point to look out over the crater and beyond to the twin mountains of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, miles away on the Big Island of Hawai'i. To the left, the crater seemed devoid of anything living and was ringed by tall jagged peaks. To the right, the Pacific Ocean lay flat and incomprehensibly vast.

Shutter's snapped and flashes lit up the vicinity as the sun climbed steadily higher and the sky transformed from an inky black canvass to dark blue to turquoise to pink and finally to a heavenly golden hue. Once it crested the horizon, its ascent was surprisingly swift. Everything was bathed in a bright light and sunspots danced in the periphery of my view. I sat on the stone wall and watched until the sun rose well above the horizon, it's rays giving off a feigned warmth.

As quickly as the sun came up, the tourists began to depart. Numb with cold and eager for a hot cup of coffee, it seemed rather anti-climatic to leave so suddenly after an hour-long wait for the sun to come up. But, like everyone else, I was freezing and too tired to stay and explore the trails crisscrossing the floor of the crater. So, with sunbeams warming ours face and a heater blowing hot air on our toes, we descended down the slopes of Haleakala, this time taking in the grand vista of the north shore and the waves breaking out at sea.

To some, the Haleakala sunrise was another item on Maui's to-do list that could be checked off, crossed out and filed into memory. But to most it was a beautiful experience that will never be forgotten and certainly one that can never be exactly replicated.

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