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Into Haleakala volcano

On Maui, a trek down the crater of Haleakala tests hiker's mettle, but the rewards are rare views of moonscape and rain forest.

March 12, 2000|By Susan Spano

HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii -- In mountaineering terms, the volcano that created the eastern half of Maui about a million years ago is no Matterhorn. At 10,023 feet, Haleakala is topped by a bone-dry crater instead of an icy pinnacle, and it's easy to reach--by car, no less--from island beach resorts.

More than 1.5 million day-trippers annually drive 22 miles up switchbacking Crater Road (Route 378) from the hamlet of Kula to the national park visitors center on Haleakala's rim. Once there, they get a real-live Imax thrill by peering into the bowl-like crater (7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide), which nature has painted in garish shades of black, ochre and chartreuse.

Some, with water bottles and calories to burn, hike a few blistering miles down into the crater, walking a network of gravelly lava trails before turning around and heading back up. Others arrive in vans for the sunrise, which lifts off in an ice cream sundae of pink-and-white whipped-cream clouds. Then their guide puts them on bikes for a breezy glide back down Crater Road.

But dedicated hikers who want a more intimate experience with the great sleeping volcano (it last erupted in 1790) start at the top and walk down into it on the 17-mile Kaupo Gap trail.

My brother, John, and I hiked the trail last summer, descending the west side of the deeply eroded crater, then crossing it on Sliding Sands trail. The route out, back on Kaupo trail, follows a water-carved valley on its southeast flank, sculpted by mudslides and lava flows 1,000 years ago, to the lonesome little Kaupo General Store on the southeastern side of Maui. You can finish the walk in two days, but we took three so that we would have plenty of time to hack around in the crater and get into shape for the long hike down on Day 3.

Snug cabins along the way, groves of rare koa trees and the chance to hear nenes, an endangered species of bird endemic to Hawaii that makes a mooing kind of sound, are among the virtues of the Kaupo Gap trip.

And its drawbacks? From start to finish, it's downhill all the way. This may sound like a virtue because the trail crosses the crater, then spills down to the sea through a gap in the side. So the last day's hike, descending from 6,400 feet at bucolic Paliku cabin, where we stayed on the second night, to Kaupo General Store near sea level, was an 8.4-mile killer. The trail has cursedly few switchbacks, which means the going is straight down most of the way. Small, round lava rocks along the path act like ball bearings underfoot, conspiring with gravity to pitch you head over hiking boots.

Halfway down, my legs felt like burning logs from keeping the brakes on, and, despite the blazing Hawaiian sun, John looked as pale as a TB victim. If it had rained, which it often does in the windward sections of the crater, the trail would have turned into a muddy, slippery obstacle course. This is what the national park's "Hiking Kaupo Gap" brochure says: "The steep drop is matched by rugged volcanic scenery and spectacular ocean vistas. For the unprepared hiker, however, Kaupo trail can be an experience in misery: blistered feet, tortured knees, intense sun or torrential rain, and no available drinking water."

Maui was in the middle of a drought in July, and it didn't rain--indeed, the weather was perfect, with afternoon temperatures in the 70s and 45-degree nights--which is one of the reasons the Kaupo Gap trip was one of the peak backpacking experiences of my life.

John said we weren't really backpacking because we stayed in national park cabins in the crater at Kapalaoa on the first night and at Paliku the second. These cabins ($40 per night for one to six people, and $80 for groups of seven to 12) each have 12 padded bunks, utensils and dishes, big wood-burning stoves, long refectory tables and benches, firewood and outhouses. "Backpackers' Ritz-Carltons," John called them. But he's a purist.

It was backpacking to me because I carried a pack with water, food, personal gear and a sleeping bag (all carefully wrapped in plastic), and went for three days without a shower.

If you want to do the Kaupo Gap trail on your own, staying at Kapalaoa and Paliku cabins, you need to enter a lottery two months in advance. The winners get the cabins to themselves. (Back-country tent camping, with pit toilets, is available at Paliku, and you can sometimes call the park at the last minute to claim cabin cancellations.) John and I were lucky. We entered the lottery in the spring and got cabins at Kapalaoa, in the cindery desert at the bottom of the Haleakala crater, on a Friday night, and gorgeous Paliku, beneath a rain forest cliff, on Saturday.

To prepare for the hike, John took me on ridiculously strenuous bushwhacks in the Santa Monica Mountains, and I bought a water purifier and gaiters, which proved completely extraneous on this trip. Our chief concern was finding water, not fending it off.

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