When travelers come to Maui visiting Haleakala Crater is high on their list of things to do. This hike, the Halemau’u Trail, is one of the best ways to satisfy this urge. Halemau’u (House of Grass) offers great views of the Crater and a dramatic way of entering via the Switchbacks.
This hike will follow the Halemau’u Trail, down the Switchbacks into the Crater and then on to Holua Cabin (reservations for the cabin from Park service required).
This is a 7.8 mile out and back trip.
How to Get There
You need to get to
The Trail and the Plants
The trail begins at the far end of the parking lot. Keep an eye out for Nene, the Hawaiian Goose, as they sometimes can be found on the grassy area at the trailhead.
The starting elevation is just over 8000′ (8021′) and the weather can change quickly here. A typical hike can start with misty clouds, open into sunshine, and dance back and forth between the two. It’s best to be prepared for some precipitation. And bring plenty of water; coming back up the switchbacks with a dry mouth is not fun.
Count your first 90 steps and you arrive at Hawaii’s fabled Sandalwood. Nearly all the old trees were cut down for their fragrant wood soon after foreigners first arrived. It was a tragic part of Hawaii’s history. So many were forced to leave their homes and traditional fishing and farming ways to climb high towards the Wao Akua, the distant place of spirits. False boat bottoms were carved into the high ground and the workers would fill the future cargo-like area with Sandalwood logs, and when full they carried the load down to the coast. And then they went back for more.
There are not many Sandalwood left but you are standing next to one, and there are 2 more large rounded plants 50 yards away. These are very slow growing trees, with a somewhat leathery green, cupped leaf and clusters of rosy red flowers.
Growing with and around the Sandalwood are more natives, Mamane, Pukiawe and Pilo. The hardwood of the Mamane was used for tools especially the ‘O’O or digging stick. The bright yellow pea shaped flowers are best seen January to April. Pukiawe dominates the whole area around the trail. The colorful berries were used in Lei (they are not edible) and the leaf was used medicinally. Pilo has bright orange berries on upright shrubs. The berries are Nene food but not good for humans (they are a diuretic).
This whole area is a more than 90% native. But this was not so evident in the early 1970’s. At that time goats and pigs had denuded much of the area. Then starting in 1976 an ungulate proof fence began to be installed around the park. Now the whole park is protected and more fencing is planned. So most everything you see is regrowth from that time.
Back to the trail we start moderately downhill through this amazing native shrub land. Accenting the many shades of green is the sparkling silver leaves of Nohoanu, a native Geranium, with clear white flowers.
At .7 miles you reach a trail junction with the Supply Trail that comes up from Hosmer Grove, which is just next to the visitor entrance booth. There are more native plants to enjoy, look for Kupaoa on your left with yellowish orange flowers and curious clasping leaves that clothe the stem. I have often startled a Pheasant out from the brush as I walk by. Kilau, the Hawaiian Bracken fern fills the ground in and between the native shrubs. Another larger fern, Laukahi, with its hairy-stemmed fronds dots the landscape. Ohelo shrubs with there bright red new leaves add to the colorful landscape. The red to purple berries are highly sought after for the making of Ohelo Pie.
At 1.1 mile you reach the first overlook of Haleakala Crater. Stop and enjoy the spectacle. (Note there is a second, possibly even better lookout just beyond this one.)
From here the trail does some small switchbacks as it hugs the goat and pig fence that lines the ridgeline. Look for the shiny black berries of Kukanene on prostrate plants with fine needle like foliage. All around us now is one of my favorite ferns, Amau with its bright red to orange red new growth. These are large ferns and clusters of them hug the hillside and spring from crevices of the rocks along the trail. A trail sign appears, warning hikers to be quiet as horses pass on the trail ahead. There are some steep sections coming up.
Just after this sign is one of my favorite areas, I call this the Rainbow Bridge, more for the colorful plants and the black lava that line the narrow, steep sided passage than a misty rainbow. From this narrow divide, which drops off sharply on both sides, you can make out Holua cabin, our destination, in the far upper right distance. And on the left views of Koolau Gap come into view. This is an erosional gap, carved out by wind and rain, and leads down to the sea. Check out the small ferns on the rock face on your right. Iwaiwa and Maidenhair Spleenwort color the black rock.
Quickly you reach the start of the Switchbacks, at a hairpin turn in the trail, and one of the best viewpoints I have ever been too. This is about 1.5 miles and a good place to turn around for those not wishing to brave the trail ahead. But be sure to walk out onto this viewpoint and sit for a while.
Now we go down the Switchbacks. I have counted 18 in total. The first leg heads to a sharp left turn, and then cuts a long swath across the lava cliff side. The views going down are stunning as the crater floor slowly comes closer and closer. Watch for the silvery foliage of Ahinahina hanging from the sheer cliff sides.
As I hike down the trail I listen for the sound of Nene flying nearby. It’s a distinctive sound and nearly always around.
After the long stretch the trail switches again to the left to reveal more views of the other side of the ridge and Koolau Gap.
The last section of the Switchbacks is a series of shorter cuts across the mountain. The grassy plain below is ever nearer. At the bottom there is a gate and then a well deserved rest area. Straight ahead is the 1-mile route to Holua Cabin. The grassy field is punctuated with lava outcroppings that are clothed in Kukanene, with shiny black berries.
At the end of the grass a climb into lava fields awaits you. The dark lava is accented with curious green fern spikes, Ae a native Polypodium. The larger shrubs are Aalii, here with glistening red flowers. The trail climbs the low lava ridge and comes out at Holua Cabin.
There are often Nene here browsing the grass around the cabin. Rest awhile, take in the views and prepare for the hike back.
There is a little trepidation as you hike back because you know that now you have to hike back up the switchbacks.
As you come off the lava fields again look up to the left and search for the earlier switchback trail that preceded the one we have today. The lower section is washed away in gray scree but the upper parts are still there. Imagine coming down this slope?
When you reach the base of the Switchbacks rest a while, gather your strength and head back up the trail. Soon you will be at the top, smiling.