While most Maui tourists clamor for tickets to Haleakala National Park’s summit sunrise, many forget that the dormant volcano offers more than a view from the top —a challenging hike through the crater’s incomparable landscape.
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Far from a casual stroll, the volcano’s strenuous 11.6-mile Sliding Sands Trail and Halemauʻu Trail isn’t your typical Maui hike. You won’t find a tropical forest or waterfall payoff along these trails. Instead, you’ll discover Haleakala’s unequaled beauty: barren Mars-like wilderness, otherworldly lava flow formations, and a surprising valley of foliage surviving in less-than-hospitable conditions.
This is what it’s like hiking into Haleakala, also known as the “house of the sun.”
In this article:
- About the Sliding Sands and Halemauʻu Trailhead hike
- Considerations when hiking the Haleakala crater
- What to bring for your Haleakala trail hike
- Hiking the Sliding Sands Trail to Hōlua cabin (crater descent)
- Hiking the Halemauʻu Trail from Hōlua cabin (crater ascent)
- Haleakala Hiking Tours
About the Sliding Sands and Halemauʻu Trailhead hike
The popular Sliding Sands and Halemauʻu hike is a point-to-point trek through barren lava fields, past geological wonders of cinder cones, and through a verdant volcanic valley.
We started at the Sliding Sands Trailhead, conveniently located at the visitor center parking lot. The first section of the hike is primarily downhill. The trail then levels out somewhat. The last few miles of the hike provided a challenging uphill as we climbed out of the crater, ending at the Halemauʻu Trailhead parking lot.
Hiking distance: approximately 11.6 miles
Hiking time: 4 to 7 hours, depending on hiking experience and fitness level
GPX for this hike: Sliding Sands trailhead to Halemauʻu trailhead
Editorial note: While this hike can be completed in one day, we decided to take two days, camping overnight at Hōlua.
Hiking option #1 Our path — not quite round trip
For this hike, park at the Haleakala visitor center and hike the Sliding Sands trail into the crater. Take a quick break in front of the Hōlua cabin before ascending via the Halemauʻu trail.
However, this option isn’t a complete round trip back to your vehicle. The Halemauʻu trail terminates around 2,000 feet below the visitor center.
These are your options for getting back to your car at the visitor center:
Choice A: Split up
Our hiking group decided to split up at the Hōlua cabin, with some of us continuing on Halemauʻu trail. Others turned around and made their way back to the car via the Sliding Sands trail. The hikers that turned back returned to the car and drove to the Halemauʻu parking lot to pick up the remaining hikers.
Choice B: Hitchhike
Other sites and hikers recommend hitchhiking back up to the visitor center parking lot. The official park map even denotes a hiker pickup area for this intention. As someone who is overly wary (and who’s seen too many horror movies), I’m personally leery about relying on complete strangers for a ride. If you’re comfortable with hitchhiking, I’ve seen several trail reviews where hikers have been successful getting back to their car this way.
Pro tip: You could also park at the lower Halemauʻu and hitchhike up to the visitor center to start your hike.
Choice C: Pre-arrange a ride
No, you won’t be able to get a quick Uber ride from the trailhead. But if you happen to know someone on the island who plans to make the Haleakala trek on the same day, you could arrange a meetup — and a ride back to your car. There are also Facebook groups for Maui hikers to meet virtually and arrange hiking or backpacking trips together.
Choice D: Rent two vehicles
Park one vehicle at the lower Halemauʻu parking lot and drive your entire group to the Sliding Sands parking lot (at the visitor center) in the second vehicle. After the hike, drive the second vehicle to the visitor center to retrieve the first vehicle.
Hiking option #2 Everyone hikes out and back
The major benefit of this option is you need only one car and don’t have to rely on anyone else to get back to your vehicle. The major drawback is that hiking this route in one day can end up being too strenuous, depending on where you turn around.
Completing the entire route as an out-and-back trip would turn the moderately difficult 11.6-mile hike into a grueling 23.2-mile feat. (Not recommended unless you’re an expert hiker.)
Considerations when hiking the Haleakala crater
The visitor area, and trail start for Sliding Sands, sits at around 10,000 feet elevation. Everyone’s body reacts differently, and some hikers may need time adjusting to the high altitude before venturing on this challenging hike. Drink plenty of water and take things slowly.
Also, remember that you’ll be descending into the crater at the beginning of your hike. Eventually, you’ll have to turn around and make the strenuous journey back up. Allow for extra time and energy for the return trip.
There is no cellular service on this hiking trail. The ability to call for help in the event of an emergency remains limited. When on a remote hike such as at Haleakala, we carry a Garmin InReach, a satellite-enabled device with limited text messaging capabilities and an SOS rescue feature (subscription required).
Much of the hike passes through a barren wilderness area. You won’t find potable water or bathrooms along the trail. Bathroom facilities are only available at the visitor center and Hōlua camping area.
Prepare for highly variable weather conditions at Haleakala. The summit and visitor center tends to have cold temperatures and wind gusts. In the crater, expect either unyielding heat and sun or misty and rainy weather. We recommend dressing in layers and packing a lightweight rain jacket or poncho for this hike.
Warning: This is a challenging hike that begins at nearly 10,000 feet. High altitude sickness can affect you regardless of your age and fitness level. Use caution when hiking at Haleakala National Park.
What to bring on your Haleakala trail hike
Hiking gear we like
Expect sun exposure for the duration of your hike along Sliding Sands and Halemauʻu trails.
Bring these essentials when you make your trek:
Wide brimmed hat
A friend of mine gifted this hat to me, and it worked perfectly for this hike. Hiking hats aren’t particularly fashionable, but at least I had the option of pulling my ponytail through the top. This hat was lightweight and shielded my face from the sun. Also, the chin strap kept the hat from blowing away when a gust of wind hit.
Sunglasses. Protect your eyesight and help prevent sunburns around your eyes (in conjunction with sunscreen) by wearing sunglasses. When the sun is out above Haleakala, it feels extra strong when you’re hiking the crater. John swears by his Oakley sunglasses.
Sunscreen. Use sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as its active ingredients. Maui County banned the sale of chemical sunscreens in 2022 to protect the precious coral reef, so double-check that your sunscreen is mineral based. Sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have a generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE) designation.
Garmin InReach Mini 2. If you’re an avid wilderness hiker, this little device could literally save your life. For the casual hiker, consider renting one from an outdoor shop for your trip. We own one, so we don’t have personal experience or recommendations on where to rent one.
Plenty of water. Access to water isn’t available while on the trail, so pack plenty of it. I carried three liters in a water bladder and had water remaining at the end of our trip. Some hiking sites recommend bringing at least one liter of water for every two hours of hike time.
Electrolytes. I didn’t carry electrolytes on this trip, but one of my hiking companions highly recommended electrolytes to aid hydration. I’ll probably try some on my next wilderness hike. John has used these electrolyte powder packets on other backpacking trips and recommends them.
Snacks. Extra calories help keep your energy level up on this moderately difficult hike. We like snacking on nuts and protein bars while on the trail. Some of our favorites: Aloha protein bars, Nut butter, and apple pie oat bites.
Sturdy hiking shoes. John wore his Hoka trail running shoes and said they were perfect for this hike.
Hiking day pack. This is the one I’ve had my eye on for a while. But since we ended up camping overnight on this trail, we carried larger packs to accommodate our overnight supplies.
Outdoor GPS watch. While this isn’t a must-have, it’s a useful gadget for hikers. This watch comes with a compass, barometric altimeter, satellite navigation system support. It also tracks your heart rate and physical activity.
Camera! Don’t forget to soak in the experience and document your Haleakala hike. If you don’t want to lug a heavy camera, a smartphone does the trick. I carry the older version of this camera because it’s lightweight and takes fantastic images.
What to wear
Because of the changeable weather, we recommend dressing in layers. The temperatures ranged from 47 degrees Fahrenheit near the summit to 85 degrees at the crater base.
At the top of the crater, I wore a hooded cotton sweatshirt, an old hiking top with an adjustable turtleneck (for sun protection), and hiking pants.
As we descended into the crater, I shed the sweatshirt and felt comfortable in my hiking top for the rest of the trip. My hiking pants were a recent buy from REI. The sun was relentless, and there was no shade cover on the trail. I kept my brimmed hat and sunglasses on for the entire hike.
Comfortable shoes are a must. Much of the trail consists of sand (hence Sliding Sands Trail) along with lava rock, so we recommend wearing closed toe shoes.
Hiking the Sliding Sands Trail to Hōlua cabin (crater descent)
Acclimating to the altitude. We parked at the visitor center parking lot to access the Keonehe‘ehe‘e (Sliding Sands) trailhead.
Pro tip: Use the public restrooms at the visitor center before embarking on your hike.
After a short walk up a gentle hill, we could see the crater vista before us.
It took me a few minutes to adjust to the altitude of nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. I was carrying more weight than usual, since I had an overnight pack. (We had a tent camping permit for that night.)
Initially, I felt winded just walking up the short hill. I took a five minute break before carefully proceeding. For the first hour, I hiked slowly and deliberately while drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
The initial descent and switchbacks. After taking in the view of the crater, we headed downhill along the trail’s long and gradual and long switchbacks. The day was clear and sunny, and we enjoyed lovely views of the crater.
Since the landscape is nearly devoid of vegetation, we were also able to see the trail winding down ahead and below us as we hiked to lower elevation.
The realities of wilderness hiking and bathroom breaks. While both park signage and trail courtesy requires hikers remain on the designated trail, we humans can’t defy the call of nature.
After an hour and a half of slurping from my water bladder under the hot sun, I had no choice but to step off the trail for a few moments. John pointed out a rock configuration that would provide cover. There were few hikers at this point of the hike, so the quick bathroom break proved unproblematic.
Silverswords along the trail. I’d seen a mural of the incredibly rare and federally protected ‘ahinahina (silversword) plant at the Kahului Airport, and I was excited to see the plant’s silvery gray leaves in person. I wasn’t disappointed.
The first silversword plant I spied was at the visitor center parking lot. I joked to one of my hiking buddies that I could head home at that point, as I’d seen what I came to see.
As we hiked lower into the crater, we found more ‘ahinahina scattered on the otherwise barren sand and rock landscape.
The trail gets sandier and sandier. As the name suggests, expect a sandy hike along the Sliding Sands trail. As you descend into the crater, the trail gets softer and sandier. It’s not as bad as sinking into a soft beach, but it slows you down a tad.
The first intersection. After hiking 3.83 miles, we came to a fork in the trail. When we arrived, we found a few hikers seeking shade and a snack under a large bush nearby.
At this point in the hike, we had descended from the visitor center’s 9,749 feet to 7,490 feet at the intersection.
Continuing straight keeps you on the Sliding Sands trail east toward the Paliku cabin, while the left fork puts you on a northeast-heading path toward the Halāli’i cinder cone and the Kawilinau pit.
Some rocks, a sandy uphill, and another intersection. We opted for the left fork, which was mostly flat in terms of elevation — at least for the first half mile or so. Then we encountered a slight elevation gain of around 200 feet over half a mile as we trudged along the side of the Ka Moa o Pele, which translates into Pele’s chicken coop.
While it was only a modest incline, the sun and heat (combined with my weighty pack and the sandy trail) had me slogging at a slow pace.
We reached a second intersection, this time at the southern end of the Halalii cinder cone. The trail diverted around the cone in either direction. To the left, the trail headed northwest to Halemauu Trail. On the right, the path took a counterclockwise loop around the cinder cone to Kawilinau pit (65 feet deep), which also intersects the Halemauu Trail.
We opted for the additional distance and a view of the pit, so we veered right (straight on the sign) at this intersection.
Cinder cones and colorful sand vista. We looped around the Halalii cinder cone and encountered the Kawilinau pit (along with another trail intersection). We had hiked a total of 5.61 miles at this point.
Kawilinau is sometimes referred to as a bottomless pit, but park signage indicates that the volcanic pit is around 65 feet deep.
After spending a few moments at Kawilinau, we headed west on the Halemauu Trail. Here we encountered some of the most colorful sand vistas on the entire hike. We traversed the trail section on the northern side of the Halalii cinder cone. Red, orange, and brown hues collided on the cinder cone slopes, contrasting wildly with the azure sky above.
Intersection at Halemauu Trail. Six miles into our hike, we reached the section of Halemauu that would put us in the northbound direction toward Silversword Loop and the Hōlua campsite. We took the turn toward Hōlua and continued for two more miles.
Bypassing Silversword Loop. Along what way, we passed signs for Silversword Loop, a slight deviation from our path to Hōlua. We opted to bypass the loop and remained on Halemauu for a direct trek to the campsite.
The trail at this point remained sandy, and I found myself sinking slightly into the soft ground.
Arriving at the Hōlua cabin and campsite. The closer we came to the Hōlua cabin, the more vegetation we encountered. The landscape slowly transformed from a barren land to low shrubbery. The path turned rocky and solid.
I first spotted the Hōlua cabin from a distance, nestled along the base of the crater wall, which loomed above. In front of the cabin lay a small grassy field with a picnic table and benches. Looking left, I spied a primitive outhouse with a non-flushing toilet.
A strange, low honking sound greeted me when I reached the building. Two endangered nēnēs, Hawaii’s state bird, sauntered across the grass.
Other hikers sunbathed on the grass while we dropped our packs and relished lunch on the picnic table.
Hiking the Halemauu Trail from Hōlua cabin (crater ascent)
Instead of doubling back to the visitor center via Sliding Sands, I decided to hike this much shorter trail out. Instead of the nearly 8-mile trek via Sliding Sands, the hike from Hōlua cabin to the Halemau’u Trailhead is just under 4 miles.
I was glad I did, and not just because of the distance. Hiking up this side of the crater gave me another visual perspective of Haleakala’s beauty. Instead of barren sand and lava rock, I was treated to a gray mist in the air (hello, natural air conditioning!) and the stunning views of the crater.
Lava tunnels and a rocky start. From the Hōlua cabin, we headed north on the Halemau’u Trail. This first section was primarily lava rock with a slight descent. Christy, a Maui resident familiar with the trail and one of my hiking companions that day, pointed out two lava tunnels as we traipsed along the path. The tubes were surprisingly smooth on the inside, with craggy lava flow texture embedded in the rock.
Flat terrain and a misty field. Before reaching the crater wall to begin our ascent, we crossed a field with low foliage. Water droplets brushed across my cheeks from fog hovering in the valley.
The gate: It’s all uphill from here. We reached a wooden gate, which marks the start of our ascent out of the crater.
Switchbacks up the crater wall. The steep, rocky trail winds up the side of the crater wall in a series of switchbacks.
Admittedly, I’m afraid of heights, and this section was slightly nerve wracking. The trail didn’t feel narrow — it’s wide enough for another hiker to comfortably pass — but I still felt a little anxiety as we hiked higher.
But even with my acrophobia, I savored the view — while keeping close to the rock wall, of course.
Rainbow bridge: socked in. Not far from the parking lot, we encountered Rainbow Bridge, a ridge that slopes away on both sides. Unfortunately, the fog completely obscured the view. I’m told you can see all the way out to the ocean on one side. To the other, you’d find a view of the Haleakala crater.
Last push to the parking lot. The final 0.7 miles of the Halemau’u Trail felt like the longest stretch. It was still rocky and uphill, but we had passed the switchbacks. In the distance, we spotted the parking lot, but my hiking companions informed me that we were looking at a false summit.
We had a short trek to make the final stretch to the trailhead parking lot where the other half of our hiking group (that hiked back via Sliding Sands) met us with the car.
Haleakala Hiking Tours
If you hate reading trail maps and want to get the most out of your short time on Maui, consider an expert-led tour at Haleakala National Park. And the best part? The tour providers give you a ride up to the crater.
Guided hike with lunch: Two two-mile hikes, one to the 10,000-foot summit and the other along an 8,000-foot lava trail.
Crater and summit hike: Experience three different trails at Haleakala National Park with an expert guide. Lunch, snacks, and water are included.
While you’re at Haleakala National Park…
Don’t miss these nearby Upcountry spots. Read more: 10 Things to Do in Maui’s Upcountry: From Farm Tours to Small Town Shops