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Halemau’u and Keonehe’ehe’e — The Finest Trail in America

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This route — in my humble opinion — is quite simply the crème de la crème of scenic hikes in America… the Halemau’u and Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) Trail circuit that is inside the Haleakalā Crater on Maui.

I’ve done some backpacking on the Appalachian Trail in the Mid-Atlantic region and hiked parts of it in New England.  I’ve hiked, walked, backpacked, and camped extensively in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.  I’ve hiked, backpacked, and camped extensively in the Rocky Mountain states (a lot in Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah; some in Montana and Nevada; and a little in New Mexico and Arizona).  I’ve also hiked and camped a bit in California, primarily in the southern half of the state.  But nothing — absolutely nothing — prepared me for the combination of the Halemau’u and Keonehe’ehe’e Trails.

The two of them together are simply the most wondrous, spectacular, surreal, quiet, isolated, desolate, vast, and satisfying environmental immersion I’ve ever experienced.  If you like hiking, walking, or ambling — and have a list of “must-do” trails — the circuit of these two should be at the very top.

Just so everybody is on the same page, I found the link to the official US Park Service map of the trails, which you can find here, and a list of the cool things to be seen here.  I’ll also include some crucial content and caveats that they have posted on their website here:

Due to the fragile nature of Hawaiian ecosystems, it is required by law that hikers stay on marked trails. Pets are prohibited on all trails. No food, supplies, or gas are available in the park.

When beginning your hike on a downward slope, allow for twice the time hiking to get out, e.g. 15 minutes hiking down + 30 minutes up = 45 minute hike. Soft cinder trails create hiking conditions similar to walking on a beach in some areas.

Trails are strenuous in the Summit Area because the high-elevation causes a lower concentration of oxygen in each breath. Altitude sickness is a concern. Be on guard for symptoms: nausea, headache, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Pregnant women and people with heart or respiratory conditions should consult their doctor before visiting and hiking in the Summit Area.

Temperatures commonly range between 30 to 65 degrees F (-1 to +18 degrees C), and can reach below freezing at any time with the wind-chill factor. Hypothermia is a danger. Hikers must be properly prepared for high altitudes and cold, rainy conditions. Weather in the Summit Area is unpredictable and ever-changing. Prepare for harsh UV rays, wind, rain, and cold temperatures year-round.

What to bring:
– Sun protection (hat, sunglasses, sunblock)
– Cold/wet weather clothing (raingear, pants, jacket, poncho)
– Food (no food for sale in the park)
– Water bottles (drinking water available at all visitor centers)
– Sturdy shoes (hiking boots or athletic shoes)

I feel it’s important to include that info for several reasons:

  • The high altitude is a significant factor, especially if you’re not used to it and have stayed on the island down at the beach resorts.  I started my hike at the Keonehe’ehe’e Trailhead just above the Haleakalā Visitor Center at 9,740 feet, slowly worked my way down to 6,940 feet, then clawed my way back up to 7,990 feet and the end of the hike at the Halemau’u Trailhead.  The air is thinner and colder up near the summit; the temps become warmer as you descend into the Crater, but the air remains thin and arid — meaning that you’ll drink every bit of whatever water you’re able to carry.  I brought 1.5 liters of water with me on the hike, and I was bone dry and parched by the end.
  • The distance is deceiving.  The air is crystal clear, so objects look much closer than they are.  The printed route says the combined trail is about 10 miles long, but I wandered to several areas that weren’t included on the route and my GPS recorded the actual distance walked as being just over 13 miles.

  • There is no cell phone coverage.  There is no water.  There is no food.  There are no bathrooms.  There are no people.  If you get into trouble, you’ll be in a real jam.  During my hike, that last person I saw was Cindy — and that was when we parted ways after having a picnic brunch near the Ka Lu’u o ka ‘O’o cinder cone (she returned to the car two miles back uphill and I continued down slope for the rest of the walk).  I saw no other human being for the rest of my time within the Crater.

  • The route is also deceiving, in that most of it is downhill and very dry. Then the afternoon sea breezes begin and push thick vapor into the lower parts of the Crater.  The fog gets so thick that it’s difficult to see five feet in front of yourself; there is no sense of direction and the trail can get easily lost at times.

However — warnings and caveats aside — there is stupendous beauty within the Crater, like the silverswords (ʻāhinahina), which grow nowhere else on earth except here at Haleakalā.  The lava and cinders have remarkable hues and tones, too; very different from the far more muted colors of the black basalt fields I grew up near in southeastern Idaho.  There are also a few scattered creatures, like the chukar that wandered around my feet as I walked on the trail.

And then there are the other sights, like the Bottomless Pit and Pele’s Paint Pot, with its amazingly saturated reds and oranges…

Followed by a landscape so austere that it could double for the Moon — which in fact it did, as the Apollo astronauts spent some of their time here training for their lunar excursions.

Then the fog swallows you up and doesn’t seem to end, until an darkly enormous presence looms out of the opaque whiteness… the Crater wall — which you now have to climb, in order to reach the parking lot that’s about a thousand feet above you.

But even then, the beauty astounds. There are rainbows everywhere you look. Lush vegetation. Even the sounds of birds and small creatures — utterly absent down on the Crater floor — filter in through the fog around you.

And then you break clear of the fog… only to discover that you’re only two-thirds of the way up the cliff face. And your legs are shaking from the effort, your chest is heaving from the lack of oxygen, and you’re light-headed as you carefully tread a narrow spine of rock with hundred foot drops on either side of the foot path.

Eventually you make it back to the car, sink gasping into the seat, and suck down as much water as you can hold. And after you recover your wits, you want to do it all over again… because it was just that awesome.

And if that wasn’t enough stimulation for the day, you’ll also get to see a stupendous sunset as you come down off the mountain.

Just do it. You’ll thank me.

41 thoughts on “Halemau’u and Keonehe’ehe’e — The Finest Trail in America

    1. niasunset

      I can see… photography is something should be like that… I read in one of interviews, with a famous photographer, he says that take your camera and go out… I can understand more now… You deserve all beautiful comments. You are welcome and Thanks dear Mitch, love, nia

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    2. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      Good photography is much more complicated than most people realize. Going out and capturing an image is just one step.

      And there are some people that are so good that they don’t have to do anything beyond that. I’m not yet one of them; I still rely very heavily upon post-processing to obtain the look to the final image that I want.

      Thank you for the kind words, Nia!

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  3. O docker

    Thanks for taking us along on a spectacular trip.

    And no need to apologize for the computer work. Photographers were ‘post-processing’ long before there were digital cameras.

    I’m sure you know the stories of how much time – weeks sometimes – Ansel Adams put into making a print The simple truth is that very few negatives or digital files straight from the camera capture a scene the way our eyes remember seeing it.

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    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      You’re welcome.

      Re: post processing — there is a raging debate about post-processing now, which is very similar to the smack-down that occurred when digital first came on the scene, or when battery-powered auto-everything cameras entered the market. I say get over it and move on.

      Your comment about how we see things makes me recall Vincent Van Gogh and how the colors used in his paintings are now accepted as being what he actually saw (some physical condition of his, can’t remember what). I veered away from utter realism long ago, and now make the images as I like to see and remember them.

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  5. o docker

    “…I veered away from utter realism long ago, and now make the images as I like to see and remember them…”

    You’re in good company, then. It’s blasphemy to say so, but I think that’s exactly what Ansel Adams did.

    I remember how shocked some editors were when they first saw newspaper photographers ‘changing’ photos on the computer screen in Photoshop. What they didn’t realize was that photographers had been doing exactly the same things to photos for years, but in those smelly little rooms with all those awful chemicals that no self-respecting editor would ever enter.

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    1. Mitch Zeissler Post author

      I know! I remember the first time I ever saw an Ansel Adams print in person and was just floored by the detail, tonal range, composition, and eye flow through them. And he did that with very primitive tools compared to what we have today.

      And what you describe with newspaper editors is the same thing I went through with both photography and graphic design back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The changes within the graphic design field were extreme, as computer software packages could easily replace certain skill sets and the time required to create something from scratch plummeted.

      The last place that I worked at as a photographer had six Genigraphics workstations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genigraphics and http://ge-genigraphics.org/pages/archives1.html). I was only there as a photographer because analog film had not yet been replaced by digital, and offered huge profit margins over the digital products at the time. But the handwriting was on the wall…

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  11. V-Light

    Wow…I don’t think i have the words to even explain how much i liked this post and the photos. Great work!!! I can only wish to be so lucky and be able to visit such places, if i don’t then i’m glad i could at least witness the beauty through your pictures 🙂

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  12. Teacher J

    I was 64 years old when I did the entire 13 miles. Worst thing I have ever done!! And among the best. After 11 miles on what is essentially a desert floor (with the sun and sand), there is no choice but to do the 2 miles up Halemau’u cliff face–and up–and up. For someone who is incredibly afraid of heights, that was–as the students say–a trip. Fortunately, I had a university research assistant with me, so I knew I would make it. But I wondered at times.

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