As a kid I spent parts of many an afternoon perched at the top of trees near the family house in Maine, and days hiking mountains. Though the peaks are relatively small compared to many we have in the West, I felt the need to walk as close to the edge as possible and stare into the abyss. I would often sit down at the edge, legs dangling over, the sound of my fretting parents like a soothing melody. Come to think of it, maybe that act was more a manifestation of my need to rebel than any sign of an intrepid nature, but I digress.
Driving along California’s Big Sur or farther north along the raggedy edges of the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts in later years didn’t faze me, nor did trips bombing down narrow winding highways on the many lesser-traveled routes through the Sierra.
I was convinced heights would never faze me. Then I encountered Haleakala.
The island of Maui is dominated by two volcanic mountains with thin coastal strips at the bases, of varying altitude and geography. A small isthmus lies between the volcanoes. The smaller, Mauna Kahalawai, also referred to as the West Maui Mountains, and as Maui Komohana to Hawaiians, is an eroded shield volcano.
Nestled on the eastern, windward side of that mountain is the port city of Kahului, home to the island’s main airport, and down the road, adjacent to the lush Iao Valley lies Wailuku, the former plantation town-cum-county seat. On the leeward, western side of the mountain is Lahaina, the former royal capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom turned British whaling port turned overcrowded tourist hotspot.
But Haleakala is, to further appropriate some already co-opted local parlance, the big kahuna on Maui, making up more than three quarters of the island’s land mass, from the varied landscape at the base that includes lava fields, rainforests, sandy beaches and grasslands, to the barren landscape at the top.
Translated from Hawaiian as “House of the Sun,” Haleakala, though referred to as a crater, is a shield volcano, like Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Shield volcanoes are named for their large size and low profile that resemble a warrior’s shield lying on the ground, and are created mostly by fluid magma flows.
In native folklore, the depression was home to the grandmother of the demigod Maui. She helped her grandson capture the sun and slowed its journey across the sky to make the day longer.
Though long thought to have last erupted in 1790, recent advanced dating tests date the last belch from the mythic beast to the century before that.
These days tourists and astrophysicists alike flock to Haleakala.
A few decades back the depression in the center, so lunar-like in its geology, was a practice site for lunar landings, or so my guidebook tells me.
But that’s enough science for now.
I had been told, both by past travelers to this slice of paradise, my guidebook and at least one job applicant, that the “crater” is best visited at sunrise. But I’m not exactly what you’d call an early riser, and though the time difference – two hours from Pacific Time in February when I visited, three hours during daylight savings time, which Hawaii does not observe – did get me up earlier, it wasn’t early enough, and I did not want to countenance the idea of waking up while it was still dark to drive up a mountain. I endured enough of that torture as a kid. Now I pick what time I hike.
Call me lame if you will. I prefer realistic.
The other recommended time is sunset, but that option I also decided against, concluding that I didn’t want to drive down the mountain in the dark either. Which, it turns out, was probably the right choice.
Instead I opted for a midday visit. The road from Kahului, sweltering on the Saturday morning of my journey, is a fairly straight, gradually ascending road until you take a left off of Highway 37 in upcountry Pukalani onto Highway 377, also known as Haleakala Road, where a few clouds hung fairly low. The road gets a bit curvier and the countryside a bit wilder as you gradually ascend the mountainside, passing an occasional open ranch on lush grassland along the way.
The real fun begins when you bang a left onto Highway 378, aka Crater Road. Left behind are the meandering road and grasslands. Up ahead is a series of switchbacks, some around hairpin turns with sheer cliffs plummeting off to the right and other cliffs towering high on the left.
Occasionally a car would come careening around a blind turn. Not wanting to hug the cliffs too closely, the driver would inch closer to the center lines of the narrow road. Left with the choice of possibly crashing into oncoming traffic or potentially driving off the edge of the cliff should I give too much leeway on the narrow road, I chose the former, hoping not to have to explain to the rental company that the front fender to their car was sheared off playing a game of chicken on Haleakala.
At what I think was the midway point of the ascent, the weather changed, and I wondered how it suddenly became so foggy and a bit misty. Able to see only a few feet in front of me I slowed the trusty rental to a crawl, making my way around the turns. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Slightly dizzy, I started to sweat and my hands began to tremble. A car, straddling the center lane, burst through the fog. The male driver jerked the steering wheel to the right, narrowly missing my ride. I didn’t look back to see if he crashed into the cliff, not that I would have been able to see out the back, but I didn’t hear any sounds indicating he did.
The fog vanished as suddenly as it appeared. The sun shone through once again, but there was nary a cloud in the sky. Only then did I realize I had driven not through fog but through the clouds.
A short distance up the road I pulled into an almost empty parking lot, at the entrance of which was a crosswalk with a sign about a hiking trail at the far end.
I got out of the car, made sure to lock it – to protect my papayas, banana bread and empty coffee cups from all those thieves in the empty lot on the mountainside of a national park, naturally. Beyond the crosswalk and the sign I could see only the clouds.
I gingerly crossed the street, saw the small set of stairs leading down to the hiking trail, turned, moved a shaking leg to the third stair, then the other to the second, grabbed the landing above the first stair, and slowly descended them like one would a ladder.
Reduced to crawling down a piddling staircase to a hiking trail. What had become of the intrepid conqueror of all heights?
I righted myself and wandered to an overlook approximately a mile away. The vegetation reminded me of that which grows in the hardscrabble deserts of the southwest. As long as I stared at the vegetation, or the trail, or even the cliffs above me I was ok. Only when I peered into clouds to the west did I feel like I was walking diagonally at the top of the world. A couple times I leaned so far to the right that my hands hit the earth, which I used to help guide my way, looking to all the empty world like an inebriated man in a novel Dickens might have written had he taken peyote.
I eventually made it back to the car, and started the short drive to the summit. The car began to rock as the winds picked up the further I went.
When I exited the car in the parking lot at the top a gust of wind moved me enough that my heart fluttered as I thought I might take off and fly away. I struggled to close the door, threw my hood on, leaned in and trudged against the wind to the observation tower.
Peering down into the crater from outside the tower I understood why NASA supposedly used the crater as a training ground. The walls of the valley were steep. The valley floor, undulating and in more shades of brown than I knew existed, was bereft of vegetation, interrupted only by smaller hills and peaks and some lonely trails, the few hikers appeared the size of ants.
Great peaks rose all around the valley. Clouds billowed against the side to the left, at first blocked by the hills, but small wisps of cloud eventually pushed through, followed by more, eventually, over the better part of an hour, taking over much of the far stretches of the valley.
Haleakala is so big that it both blocks weather from making it to the other side of the peak and creates its own weather.
I remained, mesmerized by the slow-moving white clouds against the intense shades of brown dirt. But eventually the wind gusts won out against my thin jacket and I made my way back to the car, but not before taking pictures of a silversword plant that had bloomed and was now slowly dying.
The plant grows only on Haleakala at elevations above 6,900 feet. A subspecies grows at high elevations on the western slope of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Silverswords bloom just once in a lifespan that can extend more than 50 years.
On the descent, I grew increasingly tired. By the time I reached the cloud bank I could barely keep my eyes open. Once I made it through to the other side I veered off to a turnout, skidded to a stop in the middle, put the car in park, turned it off, threw back my seat and fell into a deep sleep.
Approximately an hour later I woke up, momentarily clueless about where I was. I looked around, locked eyes with a young man in a car parked near mine. He stared at me for a moment, smiled, said something to his female passenger, and drove off. I must have looked a madman, popping up from my seat, eyes still half-closed, parked diagonally in the middle of a turnoff.
Ravenous, I gobbled down half a papaya and some of the banana bread, and began the rest of the slow drive back to civilization, and heat, looking forward to drinking too many Bikini Blonde Lagers at the beach closest to my hotel. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful and least crowded ones I visited on the island.
I still don’t fear heights. But I have learned to respect them.
Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of the United States District Court for Hawaii for more than a decade and of Honolulu County since 2008. CNS began regular in-person coverage of Hawaii, Maui and Kauai counties in 2015.
County Seat: Honolulu (also the state capital)
Named After: Honolulu means “sheltered harbor” in Hawaiian.
Honolulu County comprises all of the main island of Oahu.
Oahu means “the gathering place” in Hawaiian.
Though the third-largest of the Hawaiian Islands behind Hawaii and Maui, Oahu is home to approximately two thirds of the state’s population, more than a third of whom live in Honolulu.
Approximately 50,000 military personnel are stationed on Oahu.
The state of Hawaii sends two representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives. The first district, currently represented by Democrat Mark Takai, covers Honolulu and many of its suburbs. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is currently the representative for the second district, which covers the rest of the state.
The first bars and brothels of Waikiki opened to whaling crews in the 1820s.
Honolulu replaced Lahaina as capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1845.
Oahu was placed under martial law after the Pearl Harbor bombing on Dec. 7, 1941. A detention center on Sand Island held Japanese-Americans.
Approximately one quarter of Oahu’s coastline is protected as natural areas.
Read more coverage of Honolulu County News
County Seat: Hilo
Named After: The state and island might be named after Hawaiiloa, a legendary figure from native mythology who is said to have discovered the islands. In the native language the word Hawaii is similar to a reconstructed Proto-Polynesian word that means homeland.
The island of Hawaii is also known as the Big Island, which is at times confused with the main island, which refers to bustling Oahu.
The Big Island is the only county in the state with two circuit court locations, one in windward Hilo and the other in leeward Kealakekua. Both locations are part of the third circuit. The fourth circuit used to cover part of the Big Island, but it was eliminated in 1943 when it merged with the third circuit. Kauai retained its designation as the fifth circuit.
World-famous Kona coffee comes from the leeward Kona region, which includes the area around and to the south of Kealakekua.
Hilo has been hit by two devastating tsunamis that destroyed much of the town. It also has the highest annual rainfall of any city in the United States.
The Big Island is twice as big as all the other Hawaiian Islands combined, and is home to eight of the world’s 13 climate zones.
King Kamehameha the Great, who unified the Hawaiian Islands into one empire, was born in West Hawaii, where Hawaiian royalty retreated for leisure throughout the 19th century.
This bureau chief was told that the Big Island is the “poorest” of the islands, and, if the state in general is where people go to get away from it all, the Big Island, and the Hilo side in particular, is where some people go to run away from it all.
He also fairly fell in love with the inhabitants of Hilo, with their big and open personalities, joie de vivre and aloha spirit, and the town itself, the nearby rainforests and the lava fields farther to the south in the wild Puna region.
Read more coverage of Hawaii County News
Broken Paddle Law (a column by CNS editor Bill Girdner)
County Seat: Wailuku
Named After: Maui is a demigod in Hawaiian mythology who created the islands.
Maui County includes the islands of Maui, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Molokini and Molokai, except for a portion of Molokai that comprises Kalawao County.
Kahoolawe and Molokini are uninhabited. The former was used as a training ground and bombing range by the United States military. Though the bombing has stopped after decades of protests, the island remains a reserve that can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual and subsistence purposes. Unexploded ordnance remains on the land and in the sea near the island.
Kalawao County is located on a peninsula on the north coast of Molokai, separated from the rest of the island by high sea cliffs. The population is 90, making it the second least populous county in the nation behind Loving County, Texas, with its 82 residents. Kalawao County does not have the functions of other counties in Hawaii. It is a judicial district of Maui. The county was long a site of settlements for treatment of quarantined people with leprosy.
The main population center in the northwest is Lahaina, once royal capital of Maui turned whaling town turned tourist destination. The name means “cruel sun” in Hawaiian, referring to the sunny and dry climate on the western or leeward side of the island.
The world-famous Kaanapali Beach lies north of Lahaina.
Maui is the most visited of the neighbor islands. For this bureau chief, its physical beauty is unsurpassed.
Maui has become a focal point of eco-activism in recent decades, including attempts to slow down development and ban genetically modified crops from the entire county.
Maui is home to the dormant shield volcano Haleakala that so resembled a lunar surface that astronauts practiced mock lunar walks before the moon landing.
Read more coverage of Maui County News
County Seat: Lihue
Named After: According to legend, Hawaiiloa named Kauai after a favorite son. One possible translation is “place around the neck,” as in how a father would carry a favorite child. Another option is “food season.”
Kauai County is comprised of the islands of Kauai, Niihau, Lehua and Kauula. The latter two are in uninhabited.
Known as the Garden Island, Kauai and neighboring Niihau were the last islands to succumb to King Kamehameha and join the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Kauai’s Waimea Bay was the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in Hawaii. Cook was the first European known to have reached the islands. He was later killed on the Kona side of the Big Island.
Home to the breathtaking Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain reportedly dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” though that statement might have been falsely attributed to him. Even if Twain didn’t so name it, this bureau chief thinks the designation is apt.
Much of the movie “Jurassic Park” was filmed on Kauai.
A 19th century census in Kauai listed as residents 65 menehune. Some people say the menehune, small in stature and known as superb craftsmen, were the original inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, before the Polynesian settlers arrived. The menehune name appears in many places on the islands. There is a Menehune Coffee Company in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island and constructions signs at the airport in Maui just a few weeks ago read “Caution: Menehune at Work.”
Known as the “Forbidden Island,” Niihau – population 130 – is owned by the Robinson family, descendants of Elizabeth Sinclair, who reportedly bought the island from King Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold in 1864. Supposedly Ms. Sinclair had the option to buy Waikiki on Oahu, but preferred the isolated Niihau. The population is predominantly Native Hawaiian, and Hawaiian is the language most used on the island, including for business and at church. Outsiders are prohibited on the island unless invited.
Read more coverage of Kauai County News
Read more coverage of news from around Hawaii
All photos by Chris Marshall.