Guide to Backpacking Haleakala Crater

By: Adventure Tours Hawaii | May 31, 2018

Haleakala Summit features some of the most incredible views in Hawaii. The road that leads up to the observation center is accessible for all visitors to come and take in the splendor of being on the top of a mountain above the clouds. But this day, we were interested in a more grand adventure which took us into the wilderness, camping in Haleakala Crater.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

Day 1. The trail lead 2000ft down from the ancient craters edge, a gentle slope taking us further and further into the black desert wilderness. Standing on the crater floor, in the absolute center of the ancient volcano, I stilled, awestruck as its massive walls surrounded me. Sean, my hiking buddy, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was.


The Ancient Hawaiian’s named Haleakala “House of the Sun”, because their demigod, Maui, had captured the sun placing it here.

In 1830, Richard Cleveland gifted the Hawaiian people horses, which were not native to the islands. Prior to the introduction of these large animals, the Hawaiians hiked the entire 10,023ft of elevation to the summit before descending down the same trail we currently walked. Only a story as grand as a demigod’s imprisonment of the sun would fit the surreal beauty they were rewarded with in the crater.

I try to imagine what it must have been like for those earliest people to walk the expansive crater. Those thoughts continued to run through my mind during the 3-day backpacking trip.


Because we had the luxury to drive to the summit and to hike in with all modern backpacking gear, my friend Sean Michel, owner of Lumiere Visuals Hawaii, and I thought this adventure as easy recreation. But for the early Hawaiians it must of been more; it must have been a spiritual journey.

The day started with a 6:00am flight out of Honolulu to Kahului, Maui. Then it was: 1. pick up the rental car, 2. quick shopping stop to grab some gear, and 3. a long curving drive up to Haleakala National Park. We checked in at the Visitor’s Center to receive our free camping permits. Securing the permits is an easy task as it is first come first serve basis and during the early spring months there are few backpackers on the trail.

We staged our rental car at one side of the crater and hitchhiked the 6 miles to the summit. Here, we excitedly began on the Slide Sands Trail. The trail is a long drawn out switchback that descends gradually to the crater floor. And then suddenly, we were on Mars….


Or at least it felt like Mars. The rocks were hues of red and black. The terrain lay flat and desert like. Cinder cone hills in the distance grew out of the earth. Our continued comments of the difference between this and any other landscape in our experience became repetitive. For the next few hours, we settled into a quiet calm as we left the black desert and entered a brushland of shrubs.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii
Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

An hour before sunset we arrived at our first camp site, named Paliku. Paliku is set against the far edge of the crater on a rolling meadow of green grass. A welcomed change from the windswept black plainness we had crossed.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

Compared to other backpacking trips we experienced, hoofing all our food, water, and gear along uneven terrain, we again rejoiced at the utter easiness of the flat crater trail. We celebrated the end of the Day 1 with a warm meal and drink around our tent. No fires are allowed in Haleakala Crater so we relied on the moon and stars to captivate us before sleep.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

Day 2. Shortly after sunrise, we broke camp heading to our next camp site on the opposite end of the crater. Following a different trail, but into similar desert terrain as the previous day, we crossed the crater again.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

During our trek from Paliku to Holua Campsite we came across multiple silverswords. The silversword is an incredibly unique Native Hawaiian plant that can only be found on the summits and in the crater of Haleakala. Their bright silver fleshy leaves are unlike any texture I have ever seen. We even had the unique pleasure of seeing them in early bloom which typically happens during a short time period from mid-summer to autumn. These plants live anywhere from 3 to 90 years.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

The flowers of the Silversword only bloom once, creating a beautiful flowering stalk that scatters the drying seeds in the wind. The plant will die soon afterward.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

We also came across the state bird of Hawaii, who is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, the Nene. The nene is believed to have evolved from the Canadian Goose and to of had arrived to the Hawaiian Islands about 500,000 years ago, shortly after their creation.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

And although the Hawaiian nene came to visit us, we did not feed it or touch it. However, we did see how close it would come to us in order to enjoy the details in her feathers. Needless to say, this nene wasn't shy.


Towards the end of our day we met a local Maui hiker who told us about some “secret” lava tubes. you can enter. He gave us crude directions of their location. Both my partner, Sean, and I were tired but determined. We set up camp at Holua Campsite and headed back up the trail.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

After much searching we found the caves. What started as a small manhole sized entrance soon turned into giant 30ft x 30ft wide caverns with razor sharp volcanic rock walls.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

We followed these caves for over a quarter mile in complete darkness other then the light from our headlamps. Then we spotted light shining through the ceiling. Climbing out we found ourselves in the center of a tremendous field of rugged and sharp lava rocks. This is where we watched the sunset for Day 2.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

The temperature quickly dropped while the full moon rose above the crater walls.

Photo by: Lumière Visuals Hawaii

Day 3. After a slow morning of packing up camp, sipping instant coffee, and finishing the remainder of our food we headed out. As we approached the crater walls, on the opposite end of where we had started our journey, the trail out slowly became visible. As we got closer the trail began to tower over us. Dozens of steep rugged switchbacks lay before us, each one climbing higher into the misty clouds.


The incline was punishing and relentless. The steep drops off the side of the switchbacks fell for hundreds of feet. We stopped for multiple breaks, wiping the sweat off our brow, and gazing back at the view of Haleakala. Mentally challenged by the slow ascension back to the stresses of daily life. Physically challenged as our legs grew exhausted with each step upward. This was the hard work that we had taken for granted earlier in the trip.


Just as we reached our breaking point the trail crested. Our mood changed, becoming grateful for the challenge, knowing we had reached and succeeded our goal. Saying “Thank you” we exited the crater, ready for the world.


Suggested Pack List:

  • Wilderness Camping Permits
  • Framed Backpack
  • Lightweight Tent
  • Cold Weather Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Mat
  • Gloves and Handwarmers
  • Iodine Tablets or Water Filter
  • Dress in Layers (T-shirt, Sweatshirt, Torrent Shell)
  • Trail Shoes or Boots
  • Beanie & Regular Hat
  • Sunscreen and SPF Chapstick
  • Dehydrated Backpacking Food
  • Propane Cooker
  • Pot, Bowl, Spoon