Hiking Haleakala--Day 1 (Turner)

Backpacking Haleakala - Day 1

by Dayle Turner

On Sunday, July 28, Bill Melemai, his 11-year-old son Willie, and I left Honolulu for Maui to hike across Haleakala (Bill is a Honolulu fireman and graduated three years ahead of me at the Kamehameha Schools). After securing our rental vehicle, we made a quick stop to pick up some Coleman fuel (the canisters these are in are forbidden on passenger aircraft) and grab a bite to eat. Then we were off for Haleakala National Park. Bill's wife, Donna, was kind enough to drop us off.

The drive up the mountain took about an hour and we arrived at park headquarters (elevation 7,000 feet) at 1:30 p.m. In order to camp in Haleakala (we planned to spend three nights there), hikers are required to secure permits on a first-come-first- served basis at the headquarters. Since a 25-camper limit is in effect at each of the two tent-camping sites in Haleakala, and since permits are only issued when one arrives at the headquarters, it's possible to be denied access if camper/hiker traffic is heavy.

We were fortunate, though, for ample spots existed at both campsites we would stay at--Holua and Paliku. Our camping permit secured, we spent an hour browsing around the headquarters, querying the rangers about the campsites and trails, taking pictures, using a flush toilet for the last time for several days, and prepping our packs for the hike.

We began the hike at the Halemau'u Trailhead (elevation 8,000 feet), about a three mile drive from park headquarters. An alternate descent route into the crater is via the Sliding Sands Trail that begins just before the 10,023-foot summit. However, because we were starting our trek later in the day and because the hike to our first night campsite at Holua would be longer via Sliding Sands (7.4 miles), we opted for the 3.8-mile leg to Holua via the spectacular Halemau'u switchbacks.

When we arrived at the trail's starting point, a pair of nene, Hawaii's state bird, waddled about in a grassy area adjacent to the rental-car-cluttered parking lot. We joined a clutch of camera-wielding tourists and snapped some photos of these endangered fowls. The temperature was about 70 degrees F and the skies were clear. We shouldered our heavy packs (mine must have weighed about 60 pounds), Donna snapped a "before" picture of us next to the trailhead sign, and we were off.

The first mile of the trail descends gently through scrub vegetation toward the rim of Haleakala. Several packless day hikers overtook us on the way, and a handful of others passed us on their way back to the parking lot. We stopped a couple of times to adjust our packs and to acclimate ourselves to the loads on our backs. While resting, we swigged down some water and marvelled at the spectacular views downslope.

We reached Haleakala's rim about 30 minutes after setting off. The scene that unfolded before us was magnificent. Oceans of clouds that often obscure the crater in the afternoon were non- existent that day, and we could see southeast across the 2-mile wide Koolau Gap to 8,907-foot Hanakauhi. So clear was it that we could see down the gap to the Hana Airport! In Haleakala itself, huge rust- and gray-colored cinder cones lay in the distance further southeast on the crater floor. We snapped some pictures here, asked a female hiker to take one of us, and we plodded on. It was about 4 p.m.

From the crater rim, the Halemau'u trail winds down the wall of crater on a series of switchbacks. It was obvious that horses frequented the trail because piles of plop littered the path. Horse manure notwithstanding, the way down wasn't overly steep, narrow, or dangerous. We descended slowly and took frequent breaks nonetheless because of our heavy loads. More spectacular views of the gap and the crater continued. About a quarter of the way down the cliffside, we caught our first view of the Holua Cabin and campsite about a mile south of us. As the sun descended further in the sky, the temperature dropped into the 60s.

We completed the 1,400-foot descent to the crater floor around 5:30, a gated fenceline awaiting us there. Once through the gate, a sign announced that the Holua Campsite was a mile away. The trail wound its way south through a meadow of knee-high scrub grass. A couple hundred yards to our right, steep, craggy ridges reached skyward toward the rim-top we had descended from earlier.

By 6 p.m. we had huffed and puffed our way to the grassy lawn fronting Holua Cabin (elevation 6,960 feet), a gray, chimney- topped structure sitting on a foundation of concrete and rock chunks. It includes bunkspace for 12. There is no electricity there and water is available from a collection tank on the north side of the cabin and a gravity-flow fed water faucet 20 yards south of it. In the vicinity of the cabin are two pit-toilet outhouses, one about 30 yards south and the other 100 yards further away for tent campers. A church group of six to eight children and adults were staying in the cabin.

The tent camping locale at Holua is situated south of the cabin on an elevated plateau covered with thickets of pukiawe and tufts of low grasses. Since we arrived not long before sundown, we unshouldered our packs at the first level clearing we found, opting for a spot about 25 yards from the upper pit toilet. A solitary male had set up camp 50 yards south of us (we didn't discover his presence until the next morning) and a family of four were settled in another 50 yards north.

The campground was quite picturesque. Koolau Gap lay to the north, clouds dammed up at its mouth and wafting toward us then fading into nothingness. Directly west was a fence-enclosed horse corral, horseless while we were there, stocked with its own water tank, trough, and small bunkhouse. Above the corral, the mountain ascended steeply to the spectacular Leleiwi Pali Lookout, one of the spots park visitors frequent to view the crater. A soaring pair of nene honked overhead then glided to a landing point 60 yards up the grassy cliff face. Turning south, we could see in the distance parts of Sliding Sands Trail winding down the steep wall of the mountain, glowing in a reddish-golden hue at that time because of the setting sun.

We soaked in all this beauty as we unpacked and pitched our tents. Since the air became chillier, we donned sweatshirts and sweatpants. That done, we prepared our dinner--ramen, entrees from military MREs (Meal-Ready-to-Eat), bagels, and hot chocolate--and devoured the crater-du-jour in quick order (there's something about hiking and camping that makes food especially delicious). By 7:45, we had finished our meal and watched the last sunrays of the day yield to night.

Our original plan was to break camp the next day and trek the six-plus miles east across the crater to the Paliku campground. However, Bill suggested staying another day at Holua before hiking to Paliku. That way, we could lighten our loads a bit and get acclimated to roughing it. We both agreed to sleep on it and decide the next morning. By 8:00, Bill and Willie had hunkered down into their tent and I into mine. A nearly full moon rose over the Kalialinui Ridge to the east and bathed the interior of Haleakala in a dim glow. The air temperature was probably in the low 50s. Birds that sounded like whining puppies (a ranger told us these were a species called u'au) called to one another.

By 8:30, three tired hikers, wrapped in thick mummy bags, drifted off to sleep.

Next: Day 2--The lava tube and a day hike to Kapalaoa Cabin.

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