Hiking in Haleakala National Park – Sliding Sands Trail

by Mike Still
Hiking in Haleakala National Park – Sliding Sands Trail

Haleakala National Park should be on your radar if you’re visiting Maui.  The park is home to lush rainforests and dynamic cinder cones coming out of the volcano that created the island of Maui, Hawaii.  You have a few hiking options on the eastern shore of Maui near Hana if you want to see the volcano part of this incredible valley isle.   We enjoyed hiking in Haleakala along the sliding sands trail, crossing the volcanic crater, and enjoying incredible views.

The last time that Haleakala erupted was 1790 and the landscape has quite literally begun to grow around the edges of the rim.  You can see the greenery framing multiple cinder cones but if you’ve spent even a day on Hawaii already, you’re more intersed in exploring the sandy desert, a stark lava filled contrast to the beaches and rainforests below.

Most people told us to come early for sunrise at Haleakala National park but we weren’t able to reserve a spot. We had an amazing day despite missing the sunrise but if you want to try for an early morning you need go to the Halekala National Park Sunrise Reservation website and reserve a spot.  We hear they sell out almost immediately at 7:00AM 3 days beforehand.   Whether you make it for sunrise or not, you should DEFINITELY hike down along the sliding sands trail into the crater!

Haleakala hiking is relatively safe since the volcano has been dormant for over 270 years.  If you’re looking for a different kind of volcano adventure check out Java, Indonesia.  Two of Java’s active volcanoes are Mount Ijen with natural blue and Mount Bromo another stunning sunrise view.

We were both really said to sleep past 3AM and miss the sunrise.  Our trail was originally called the Keonehe’ehe’e Trail but that is hard for non-native Hawaiians to remember, so it is commonly known as the Sliding Sands Trail.  The Keonehe’ehe’e Trailhead can be found on Google Maps and is right near the main summit parking lot.

Our quick research told us the hike would take 6-7 hours if we wanted to go out to the middle of the crater and come back up the sliding sands to our car.  One report called this trek the best hike on Maui and the national park website says the actual best hike in Haleakalā National Park involves starting at this trailhead.  We considered following their suggestion to hitchhike back to your car and hike across the crater but were worried that Covid would limit hitchhiking opportunities and planned for an out and back hike instead. 

Breaching the first ridge and catching a glimpse into Haleakala’s crater is a breathtaking moment.  The trail starts at the parking lot but as you turn the corner you’ll realize what an incredible day this will be.   All the pictures I saw in my quick Google search didn’t even come close to capturing the view and mine don’t do it justice either.  Lush green hills flanked the crater while countless cinder cones dressed in reds, browns, and blacks erupt from the desert below.  A lone peak stands behind it all cutting into the far end of a valley draining into a cloud-filled sky.

Primordial landscapes are something that I had only dreamt of after visiting a natural history museum or watching dinosaur movies.  Majestic doesn’t even come close to describing this view.   Halekala’s crater is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a desert-filled crater but teeming with life on the rim, you can see mother nature creating the island before you and it’s easy to understand why Hawaains legend tells of Maui imprisoning the sun here in order to lengthen the days!

Hiking down the sliding sands trail Elizabeth and I debated the best path to take.  The closest cinder cone appeared to have a trail leading around the edge.  We both stared at the Haleakala national park map and easily agreed that it was the Halali’i, a cinder cone that would be perfect to start our loop out into the crater before heading back up the Sliding Sands Trail.  We knew it would take about twice as long to hike back up these 3,000 feet to the summit, especially with the sandy trail earning its namesake as we slid gently down with every step.

Blue skies graced us the entire day and we religiously reapplied sunscreen while staying hydrated.  I went through about 3 Liters and Elizabeth drank about 2 liters on this all-day trek.  I was already nursing a sunburn from driving to Hana the day before. A seasoned traveler like myself assumed I wouldn’t need sunscreen, after all, we would be in the car and only stepped out for a short walk.  Boy was I wrong, but that’s a story for another post!

Restoration projects are clearly underway in Haleakala National Park and there are numerous signs warning of fines and bad juju if you leave the main trail.  So,  we took the first fork that didn’t have a warning, it looked like it would take us to the cinder cone we were aiming for.  We couldn’t see the loop on the backside or where the trail continued back across the crater but decided to figure it out when we got there.  Surely the trail fork will appear when we mosey our way up to the rim.

Although you descend 3,000 feet from the summit into the crater floor,  there are plenty of switchbacks throughout and none of these trails is especially difficult.  The heat would be oppressive if not for the constant winds flying through the crater.  Temperatures are cooler here than the touristy beaches sitting nearly ten-thousand feet below.

We reached the cinder cone and I quickly agreed to Elizabeth’s idea to split up.  We would hike in opposite directions so we could take photos of each other on the far side of the ridgeline.  The verdant mountains formed a perfect backdrop for the magma sands that we stood on.  Prehistoric images flashed through my head as the volcanic rocks scattered throughout the valley below hinted at future cinder cones appearing in this crater.

The wind howled along as we skirted the trail around this massif all the while snapping photos of each other.  I hurried back and forth a few times to set a frame-up just right with the next few cinder cones and mountainous crater rim.

I must have taken a hundred photos of Elizabeth with this backdrop before we finally met up, exchanged some pleasantries and finished the other half of this windy walk.

When we finally finished modeling for each other we looked at the map again, each coming up with different ideas about how there might be an old trail down below.  Perhaps it was dust-covered from Covid disuse?  Either way, we agreed that the trail we were looking for was NOT here. 

After a little debate and a short walk to a cairn, we decided to retrace our steps continuing further along the main sliding sands trail that we started on.  But first, we had to dump some of the accumulated sand from our shoes!

The alien landscape sported mostly dried-up vegetation and lava rocks.  Every lava rock is actually part of Hawaiian lore representing an ancestral spirit! From our perspective, they created a perfect frame for mother nature’s painted landscape.  Deep red sands undoubtedly from ancient magma mixed with every color you can imagine.  

One unique plant kept showing up and curiously appeared to shrivel up and die once it gained a certain height.  We later learned that these silverswords bloom a single time before dying out and managed to see one blooming in the distance. 

But, Haleakala National Park is quite different from our typical Alaskan hikes and they are quite insistent that visitors stick to the trails so we settled for the close-ups of silverswords that were not yet in bloom.  The silver leaves do in fact look like little swords and have an oddly reptilian texture, feeling like rough leather.

Switchbacks continued to lower us into the crater when we finally came to the first true trail markings.  It was clear that BOTH of us that we were wrong about the previous trial!  In fact, the cinder cone we had just followed a clear path to was not on the Haleakala National Park trail map!

Now that we were finally oriented, we knew where we wanted to go.  I thought about which direction to complete the loop when Elizabeth brought up the idea of just hiking all the way across and then hitchhiking back to our car.   We had passed a couple on the cinder cone who hitched a ride up from the drop-off and made us realize that Covid wasn’t hitchhiking from happening.   Looking at the map one more time it was roughly equidistant to hike the next cinder cone and return to either the Sliding Sands Trailhead where our car was or the Halemau’u Trailhead across the crater.  

Our discussion of how to finish the hike filled the next stretch of trail as the silverswords became more plentiful.  Then suddenly,  the winds died down and lava rocks replaced the silverswords.  We were in the lowest part of the crater with cinder cones all around us.  These monuments blocked gusts of wind and increased the heat index considerably. 

The next switchback climbed up a set of sliding sand and solidified our decision NOT to go back put 3,000 feet of sliding sands switchbacks but instead take our chances with hitchhiking.

Trail runners passed us displaying an incredible feat of strength by crossing these many miles wearing a simple pack with minimal water.  We chatted for a few moments about the trail, commiserating at the ineptitude of the paper Haleakala Trail Map and convincing him to continue the same path we were headed and try hitchhiking.  

The sun sweltered above us and the trail wound its way past another cinder cone.  We’re pretty sure this one was finally Halali’i, where we initially thought we had been.  I donned my windbreaker for sun protection more than wind and gleefully greeted the intermittent gusts as we hiked along the side of this volcanic hill.  

My hood filled with gusts as Elizabeth poked fun at my colorful marshmallow resemblance.  It’s a good thing she bought me that Cotopaxi windbreaker or I’d think she was actually teasing me!  A passerby even commented on how much he liked the colors of my jacket.  I was quickly reminded that the only fashionable clothes I own were all given to one by other people.

The trail turned northward and our view opened up to a sea of fluffy clouds.  One final massif lay to the right of us now,  that original mountain on the far edge of this volcano was now the closest it would be with its own sea of red magma sand before us. 

These contrasting colors with pockmarked lava rocks made us feel like we were on the surface of Mars!  A feeling all the more empowering after teaching my class astronomy and in a unit that cumulated with students submitting essays to NASA.  None of my students suggested the winning name of Perseverance, but the spirit of the name was well received in our class and much needed on our hike. 

We passed the 10-mile mark and noticed the wall of switchbacks that we would need to be climbed up.  Would they be nicer to hike up than the sliding sands trail?  Either way, it was well worth it for the views and too late to turn back now.

The winds picked up as the blue sky soared above us.  Clouds blew closer to us yet somehow never seemed to enter Haleakala’s crater.  The landscape slowly grew greener as we passed the silversword loop and left the cinder cones behind.  Holua cabin appeared in the distance and Elizabeth and I discussed the stargazing possibilities that camping in Haleakala National Park would offer.  The Holua cabin might be nice but we both agreed that any overnight backpacking trip in Haleakala National Park should take us out toward Kapalaoa or Paliku cabins so we could visit the corner of the crater that we skipped on this hike.  

Moments later we looked up and were standing in an entirely different biome.  You’d never have known that we just spent hours in a dusty desert (aside from the layers of sand caked into our ankles and filling our shoes).  Bird calls rang out as the trailside filled with shrubbery.


Before we knew it the cliffside switchbacks were before us in a gratefully well maintained trail. It wasn’t as steep as we worried and we quickly agreed that this trail was MUCH easier than hiking back up the sliding sands switchbacks.  Our legs were sore, but in the happy, I just spent the day hiking kind of way instead of the, oh my god I’m hiking up a volcano kind of way.  Although I guess that’s what we were actually doing!

A series of 10 or 11 switchbacks brought us higher still and eventually we could see the Pacific Ocean and the green valleys on the outside of Haleakala yet again.  Clouds greeted us as wisps of fog appeared around the next corner.

The trail wound back and forth a few more times slowly yielding lnoger switchbacks in and out of the crater offering our final views of the volcanic landscape.  We paused a few more times to take in that view.  Yes, it was definitely for the view and not because I needed a breather.

We passed more and more hikers heading the opposite wa as we neared the Halumalu parking lot culminating in over 13 miles of hiking in Haleakala National Park!  Some carried overnight packs while others barely had a water bottle when suddenly the first car appeared in the distance!  

The next trick was to figure out how to get back to our car so we didn’t have to hike another 5 miles along the road and a few thousand feet of elevation.  We saw another pair of hikers and hoped they had a ride but in fact, they were in the same situation as us.  Island time meant none of us were in a rush.  As luck would have it a group of ladies also just finished the hike and overheard us chatting.  They were locals and about to pickup their other car at the summit were heading back to the summit!  Our hitchhiking problem effortlessly solved itself and the car full of hikers agreed that this was an incredible day for a perfect hike in Haleakala National Park!

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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Peter Levy June 27, 2021 - 1:26 pm

Nicely done. It brought back pleasant memories of our trip there in 2016. I also took way too many photos. You can’t help it. Everything is remarkable.

Mike Still July 2, 2021 - 8:04 pm

You definitely can’t help but take TONS of photos when you’re hiking in Haleakala National Park. I love that you and I have so many shared adventures Peter. Looking forward to seeing you and Sandy next time I’m in NYC!

Peter Levy July 3, 2021 - 8:19 am



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