Neil Armstrong had one of the most unique experiences anyone could hope to have. Everyone knows he walked on the moon, but few people realize they can do something similar much closer to home, albeit with the normal expectations for gravity and oxygen. The Hawaiian island of Maui is home to one of the most interesting landscapes found anywhere. The Sliding Sands Trail starts at 3225 m (10,000 ft) and immediately descends into the enormous Haleakala Crater with its layers of lava rock, each with its own particular color and native Hawaiian plant species that are unique on our planet. We were able to hike this trail in March 0f 2010 and it was remarkable.
Every great trip should start with an opportunity to renew marriage vows, even if it had only been one (wonderful, fantastic) year since we took the plunge. We were married at ‘Secret Cove’ near Makena, Maui in May 2009 and didn’t have the time on that trip to have one of our famous hiking adventures. Soon after exchanging vows once again, we were dressed and ready to have another new experience.
The drive up to Haleakala Crater National Park is an interesting adventure in itself. The road winds up the flank of the enormous, extinct volcano that defines Maui and is big business for mountain bike outfitters who take people up in large vans and then pick them up at the bottom of the 36.8 km (23 miles) ride. The switchbacking highway defines the ride and there are plenty of opportunities to get stuck behind a bus or big, white van. Take your time and enjoy the views and you’ll enjoy it more and everyone can arrive at the top safely.
Unlike most trails, the Sliding Sands trail starts with a significant downhill section that drops into the dormant crater. Going downhill is usually the challenge of finishing a hike and it is an unusual pleasure to get that out of the way early, even knowing the hike out will be harder. Soon after completing the down climb, there is a fork in the main trail that allows for exploration of two cinder cones just to the left of the main trail. Take the time, as the colors and the very idea that these were once active lava vents makes them very interesting to see up close.
Flora and fauna
Once back on the main trail, the hike becomes a steady walk through the silversword (āhinahina) plants that line both sides of the trail. This plant is unique in the world and only adds to the rare quality of this location. There are also several species of birds that are unafraid of humans, like the nene (a hawaiian cousin of the goose). Check here for great photos of the Hana end of Maui and the Crater.
Mist rolls in
Once we reached the point where we decided to turn back, we stopped and sat on a large rock to rest and eat our packed lunch. No longer moving, it was much easier to notice the clouds coming into the crater. There is almost no sound once you’re away from the crowds near the start of the trail other than the wind and the birds. It is very easy to lose track of time as you watch wispy clouds drift in and break up in unending cycles.
With one more day to enjoy, we decided to take one of the many offered whale watching boats that leave from Lahaina, on the west side of Maui. We didn’t really expect to see much and were attracted as much by the price and ability to get out on the water as anything else, but had an amazing time as we came very close to several enormous humpback whales that were swimming lazily offshore. If the season is right and you have a chance to do this, find a reputable boat and take the few hours to see these amazing creatures.
This is a lunar landscape hike in the middle of one of the most beautiful places on Earth, which makes this something you can’t miss if you are on Maui. Not only is the landscape so different from sea level, but the temperatures are also significantly cooler and dryer, making the conditions for exercise even better than at lower levels. Plan ahead for ways to carry water, as the trailhead has restrooms but your best bet would be to bring water from below along with a convenient way to transport it (like a backpack). Good shoes will matter as well, as the ground is mostly level but rocky in places.