There are several ways of looking at Haleakala Crater. Depending on preconceptions, morning mood or the prevailing cloud cover, you may see a giant coffee cup, an Air Force bombing range, the bowels of the earth, a black hole or a bottomless pit.
Each sunrise brings at least one overly enthusiastic amateur photographer to the rim. Equally inevitable is the student of geology who peers into the crater and sees only rift zones and plate tectonics.
Sunrise over the crater brings visitors from around the world to Haleakala National Park. For tourists, it's a spectacular show. For hikers, sunrise is but the curtain raising for the drama of the crater.
This is not the tropical "Valley Isle" of the tourist brochures. The crater wall drops alarmingly into an ebony abyss. The temperature is sometimes in the 20s or 30s, coupled with a bracing 20-m.p.h. wind--hardly arctic conditions but plenty uncomfortable for the many sunrise viewers who arrive clad in Hawaiian shirts, walking shorts and sandals.
Few making the two-hour pre-dawn drive from Maui's beach resorts figure on losing 3 degrees for every thousand feet in elevation gain. Wrapped in beach towels, they huddle against the leeward side of the Haleakala Visitor Center and pray that sunrise will provide warmth as well as spectacle.
Haleakala Crater is actually the 3,000-foot-deep summit depression of a volcano that has been in repose since 1790. Its enormity (7 1/2 miles across and 2 1/2 miles wide), bold tertiary colors and awesome rock formations inspire many to compare it to another large hole in another national park: Grand Canyon. The similarity is more than passing; like the huge gorge in Arizona, the crater was formed largely by the erosive power of water.
Haleakala Crater and the Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes, on the Big Island of Hawaii, were first preserved as part of the all-encompassing Hawaii National Park in 1916. Later, Hawaii Volcanoes and Haleakala became two separate parks. Haleakala extends for about 45 square miles, including the crater and Kipahulu Valley, an eight-mile stretch of rain forest extending to the ocean.
The name Haleakala comes from an ancient Hawaiian legend. It seems that long ago, the sun was far too hasty in its passage across the land. Fruits would not ripen, fishermen lacked the time to catch fish, and women could not dry their tapa cloth before the sun vanished. This latter problem affected Hina, mother of Maui.
Early one morning, Maui crept to the crater rim and lassoed the sun's spidery legs. The sun held fast and pleaded for freedom. But Maui would not release the sun until it promised to travel slower across the sky. And so to this day, the sun remembers to travel more slowly through the heavens and the great volcano is known as Haleakala, "House of the Sun."
No road enters the House of the Sun, but well-marked foot trails crisscross the crater. One of the best, Sliding Sands Trail, departs from Pakaoa ("Sun comes through the portals of heaven") Hill. The hill is dotted with stone-walled enclosures used by the old Hawaiians as sleeping shelters when circumstances required them to spend a night on the blustery crater rim.
Sliding Sands Trail is well-named. You can slip and slide over the path of ash and cinder, which was ejected from volcanic vents and deposited by the wind on this side of the crater. The crater's silence is broken only by your hiking shoes sliding over the cinders.
As the trail nears the bottom of the crater, hikers pass some of the more common flora, including the heather-like pukiawe, with its evergreen-style leaves and reddish-white berries, and a drab shrub called pilo, which is bedecked with orange-colored fruits.
The showiest plant of the crater is silversword, which, despite its appearance, is neither cactus nor yucca but a member of the sunflower family. Hawaiians call silversword ahinahina , meaning "gray-gray." Its frosted silver or silver-gray hue is bestowed by a thick crop of silvery hair covering the leaves. The hairs serve as moisture collectors, enabling the plant to survive in this moisture-poor part of the crater.
Silversword not only has a showy life but a showy death as well. After growing four to 20 years, it blooms, sending up a tall stalk that can grow as much as half an inch a day. The stalk bears hundreds of small purple flowers, delighting visitors but dooming the plant, for it soon withers and dies.
The entire species nearly suffered a tragic denouement. Early park visitors, believing silversword would grow better elsewhere, took too many souvenirs. By 1927, fewer than 100 plants were left. Park Service protection has enabled silversword to recover from the brink of extinction.
About four miles from the start, Sliding Sands Trail leads to a connector trail that extends 1 1/2 miles to Halemauu Trail.