Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater redux

Last week we hiked Maui’s Haleakala Crater again.  This post stands on its own, but you’ll appreciate the background if you first read the post about our introduction to this beautiful yet harsh environment.

Wide view of crater from summit looking east

Four days, three nights, 20 miles of lava-rock trails at altitude.

(Here’s a two-page Haleakala Crater map showing elevations, trails, and cabin locations.)

Thank goodness for better gear and for spending the last eight months working out. Unlike last year’s endurance trial, this year we were able to enjoy the scenery and take more photos. We arrived at each cabin with enough energy to explore the surroundings and stay awake past sundown.  Of course I still picked up three blisters on the first day from not tying my hiking shoes tight enough. (Hey, some of us Hawaii residents only tie shoelaces maybe three times a year.)  My military-worn knees are sore but the lighter/tighter gear made a huge difference.  The weather even cooperated a bit more, too.

Sunset rainbow

Worst part of the trip: Day 3′s cold, steady rain with ankle-deep puddles on the rocky trail of the six-mile hike from the Paliku cabin to Holua. At least this time it was “only” 30 minutes instead of “all afternoon”.  Best part: That same day, Maui friends who hiked 3.9 miles each way to the Holua cabin from the crater’s Halemau’u trail head (elevation 6900-8000 feet) to surprise us with chocolate chip cookies. Best cookies ever.  (Thanks, Chris & Guy!)  This rainbow over Kapalaoa cabin was pretty nice, too.

Thank goodness for trekking poles.

This year one of our party said “Money has no value in the crater, but spending it on the right gear will save your life.” We survived last year’s trip on very short notice with borrowed gear. Back then we made it mainly through perseverance and our high tolerance for pain. This year we started over. Our new backpacks are great (especially for spouse’s smaller frame) and we easily handled 30+ pounds. Our 27-ounce 55-degree sleeping bags are light yet still within the colder limit of the crater’s temperatures. Hiking shoes offered stability & control far better than last year’s sneakers, and this year we had the time to break them in. Unfortunately we needed our pack covers and rain ponchos, but they worked fine. Trekking poles  are also lifesavers– in the REI store spouse thought $99/pair was pretty pricey, but by the end of the trip she was ready to send them another thousand bucks.

Hiking out of Paliku cabin in the rain... again.

Haleakala Crater is not the average hike along a dirt track. The well-worn trails are ankle-deep sand, unstable gravel, and razor-sharp lava. (After just 20 miles my new hiking shoes show substantial wear.) We were always slipping and sliding. Most of the trails are eroded over a foot deep and stumbling can easily twist an ankle on the side wall. Even grabbing a lava outcrop risks slicing open a finger. Lava isn’t the only footing hazard– the trails are also used by pack horses. 30-knot winds, mist, and even driving rain were common. Our progress was 1.5-2 miles/hour, gasping for breath at elevations from 6500-10,000 feet.  By the third day we were beginning to adapt to the altitude.

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Home sweet home for the night.

This year our hosts reserved all three cabins– very difficult since reservations fill up within minutes for 90 days in advance. Crater stays are limited to three nights  so most groups reserve one cabin per night (it’s almost impossible to get two nights at the same cabin). The 1930s 20′x30′ wood cabins sleep 12 on four three-stack bunks around two wooden tables. One side of each cabin includes a large wood stove, a small propane range with one or two rings, a small kitchen sink/counter area that can handle two people, and a wood-storage room. Water comes from catchment tanks so it has to be filtered or boiled. Wood & kitchen gear are provided. Extra food & supplies are abandoned by overpacked hikers. Tent camping is permitted near two of the cabins but no open fires are allowed so campers have to pack in cooking gear/fuel. Pit toilets. No electricity. Lighting from candles & lanterns. All trash has to be packed out but toilet paper is (usually) available.

Trail food.

Including spouse & me, our party was eight adults. One is 30 years old but the rest are age 49-64. Three grew up on Maui and two of them have hiked the crater for over 50 years. One is an outdoors expert, another backpacks & hikes several months a year, and a third is an Army Vietnam vet who hikes & skis. Spouse and I hiked & camped as kids but we have the least experience. Our group rotated breakfast & dinner duties among pairs of cooks & dishwashers. We generally started each hike around midmorning and finished in the early afternoons. We’d snack on the trail (protein bars and dried fruit) and make our own late lunches at the cabins.

The first cabin, Kapalaoa, is “only” 5.9 miles down from the summit– but the altitude changes from nearly 10,000 feet to 7000 feet through 15 switchbacks. (Yes, this time I counted all of them.) Sliding Sands trail is aptly named. Last year we lunched briefly at Kapalaoa before pressing on another 3.3 miles to Paliku cabin, and that was a nightmare marathon. This year we “took it easy”. We ate a late breakfast in Kula, arrived at the park ranger’s briefing after the morning rush, and didn’t hike in until after 9:30 AM– yet we still arrived at Kapalaoa four hours later.

"Watch your step"...

Our training paid off. About halfway down the crater’s rim a rock broke out from under my foot and I lost my balance. Thanks to my taekwondo skills I managed to twist and roll the impact. I still landed on my right humerus, gouged out a square inch of tissue, and had a walnut-sized swelling on the point of my elbow for the next three days. I couldn’t control the bleeding with gauze & band aids, so we finally had to stop for 20 minutes to clean up the wound’s ragged edges and apply a compression bandage of toilet paper & duct tape. Next morning I realized I’d also slammed my right hip on a rock for a 6″-diameter rainbow bruise. Thankfully I didn’t sprain ankles or knees– crater rescues use pack horses and take at least a day, sometimes two.  The crater’s altitude and weather are not friendly to helicopters.

Silverswords in bloom

The silverswords are still beautiful and seemed more plentiful than last year. But Kapalaoa has the crater’s clearest weather and this year the stars were awesome– thousands of them instead of just the usual few dozen. Hawaii has very bad light pollution so it was a real treat to see five planets, a dozen constellations, and the Milky Way. (The summit of Haleakala Crater houses some of the world’s best telescopes.)  Of course we had star maps for both the Greek/Roman constellations and the ancient Hawaiian ones. Sorting out all the patterns took nearly an hour, during which we saw several shooting stars. The full moon rose over the crater rim an hour later and wiped out most of the view, but by then we were freezing anyway.

The first glimpse of Paliku cabin through the rain... again.

Next morning it took nearly three hours to hike “only” 3.3 miles to the next cabin. The Paliku cabin (at the eastern edge of the crater) is surrounded by tropical rainforest but the trail drops 600 feet of elevation down winding, treacherous, knee-wracking stairsteps over slick ledges and crumbling lava flows. Trekking poles usually just get in my way but I should’ve had a pair here to help with my footing & stability. Last year people lost toenails because we pushed to Paliku on the first day, but this year it was only minor blisters & bruises. However the winds were still gusting to 30 knots and the clouds enveloped us in a cold mist that turned into an overnight rainshower. The weather was too nasty for more hiking around the cabin, which is a shame. Paliku is surrounded by lush vegetation and nearby cinder cones with awesome views of Maui’s Kaupo Gap and the Big Island.

A mated pair of nene consider Paliku their home, especially the thicket of raspberry bushes behind the cabin. They’re too comfortable around humans and hikers have probably been feeding them. The nene didn’t have any chicks this year but the area was still filled with minefields of nene droppings. I flushed a bright red i’iwi  that was way too fast on the wing for my camera. Otherwise we holed up for the rest of the day drying our gear, napping, playing cribbage, reading, and talking story.

Pele's Paint Pot

The third morning dawned cold, windy, & rainy. (Just like last year.) We hunkered down until 11 AM when it finally began to ease, but by then the first mile of the trail was under water. We sloshed through and finally broke out above the clouds at 7000 feet to hike a total of 6.2 miles to Holua cabin. This trail winds through several different sandy & rocky lava fields– including a spectacular cinder cone of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples known as “Pele’s Paint Pot”. Last year it stormed constantly on this part of the trail and visibility was under 100 feet, but this year it was sunny with great views. The last mile of the hike changes from lava fields to alpine meadows. Pheasants were very shy but chukar partridges were practically underfoot.

The cabin woodstove with (instant) coffeepots

Holua cabin was dryer than Paliku but a lot colder than the first two nights. Our late start from Paliku meant that we missed our friends waiting for us at Holua, but their cookies were yummy! Stargazing was good again that night but three days of hiking were beginning to exact their toll on our alertness. We filled the woodstove at bedtime but its door latch didn’t catch, so around 11 PM a burning log nudged the door open and started to fill the cabin with smoke. The smoke alarm blasted us awake, and it took us a while to clean up the coals and air out the cabin. Between the smoke and the chilly air nobody slept very well that night.

Switchbacks up the trail out of the crater

The Halemau’u trail from Holua ends at a lower edge of the crater rim at “just” 8000 feet of elevation. That trailhead is still six miles away from the summit but most hikers leave a car here instead of slogging back up Sliding Sands. The first mile of the Halemau’u trail slopes down from Holua to the crater’s inner edge, so the subsequent 29 switchbacks up to the rim actually rise 1700 feet. Last year the views were spectacular but this year the mist closed in as soon as we hit the switchbacks. The humidity was unbelievable and we were soaked within minutes. At one point visibility was less than 50 feet and the temperature dropped into the low 60s. By the time we finally broke out of the clouds we were dripping & chilling.

Crossing the finish line felt great!  We lunched in the parking lot while drying off and getting the cars, and then drove to Kula for showers & a change of clothes. We enjoyed dinner at Milagro’s  in Paia (no wood stoves, cooking, or cleanup!) and then headed back to Kula Lodge.  We zonked out by 7:30 PM and I actually slept for 11 hours. I haven’t done that in nearly two decades.

On the drive back to Kula we saw a short-eared brown owl hovering over one of the meadows. It looked like it had a six-foot wingspan. Beautiful. I’ve lived in Hawaii for over 20 years but I’ve only seen three of our owls.

The military lifestyle might make us suckers for an irresistible challenge, even long after we’ve retired. Last year we hiked Haleakala Crater because we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives wondering “What if?” and because it’s very hard to get reservations.  (Thanks, Peter & Tracey!)  This year we made the hike because we wanted to improve our performance, and we certainly achieved that goal. We also really enjoy the company and the crater’s beauty.

Next year? Well, first we’ll spend the next nine months wondering why we would want to hike the crater again. Maybe someday we’ll see Paliku without windy rain, but I’d hate to have to make the trip 10 more times before I enjoy that spectacle. Maybe we’ll turn this into an annual “off the grid” retreat, but I don’t know if that’s worth the effort and the very real risks. (Early retirement means that you don’t need retreats to get away from it all!) Maybe our daughter will want to go with us next year (another sucker for an irresistible challenge) but maybe she could just enjoy our pictures without having to grow her own blisters. Maybe next year I’ll actually win a game of cribbage?

We’ll have to think about it. North Shore winter surf is certainly enough challenge for the rest of my life.

I’ve skipped over the details of how the park is set up, where we stayed before & after, and other Maui amenities.  If you want more Haleakala Crater or Maui information, please e-mail me or fill out the “Contact me” form!

Related articles:

Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater

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