Everything You Need to Know to Backpack Haleakala National Park: Part 1

backpack haleakala national park

Especially for those who have never been to Hawaii and are flying from somewhere in the mainland, backpacking through Haleakala National Park can seem like an exciting yet daunting task. What is the temperature going to be like? Will I be affected by the altitude? Will there be water readily available?

Hawaii (and more specifically, Haleakala) has some of the most unique and varied landscape of anywhere in the world, so it is understandable that would-be travelers and hikers would feel a bit nervous setting out into an environment that is often compared to a moonscape.


For my personal trip to Haleakala, we flew straight from Michigan to Seattle to Maui, stayed one night in Ka’anapali, and took off early the next morning for our hike. No sooner did we realize it was six hours earlier in Hawaii than it was at home than we were off on our 20 mile trek through the wilderness. My first tip to you might be to give yourself a bit more time to acclimate to the time difference before embarking on the hike! It didn’t negatively affect us because we made sure to get a ton of sleep the night before, but we would have liked to have a little more time to adjust and explore other parts of the island before leaving “civilization”, if you know what I mean.

sliding sands trail views haleakala crater

Once you’ve taken the leap and set your sights on a hiking trip into the park, the first and maybe most important step is to decide which itinerary or route is best for you. There are a million different ways it can be done and routes that can be taken depending on how much time you have and how strenuous you want it to be, but here are some of my recommendations from personal experience:

(Click HERE to open a detailed map and for a better visual of all of the areas I will be referring to.)

For a day hike – There are two options for a day hike that I believe would be the most beautiful, unique, and give you the best overall idea of the area.


Park at Haleakala Visitor Center and hike the beginning of the Sliding Sands Trail. If you search Google Images for “Haleakala National Park”, these are the quintessential images that pop up first and this area is why so many people compare Haleakala to another planet.


sliding sands trail haleakala maui hawaii national park hiking

Walking across Mars in Haleakala National Park!

The beginning of this will be downhill and then keep in mind that on the way back you will definitely be going uphill. After leaving the Visitor Center, you will hike 3.9 miles and before arriving at a split in the trail and a sign pointing one way to go to Paliku Cabin and the other way to go to Holua. This would be a good place to turn around if you would like to hike about 8 miles total there and back (or before that if you’re looking for something shorter–you will still have fantastic views before this point–the views present themselves right off the bat).

sliding sands trail haleakala national park holua paliku day hike

Where the trails split–a good place to turn around for a day hike.

If you get started quite early in the morning and are feeling like a badass, you can even continue past the sign and hike to Kapalaoa Cabin, which is another 1.7 miles each way. The trail between the sign and the cabin is extremely flat and can be hiked very quickly and easily compared to the rest of the trail, especially seeing as it is sandy and not rocky at all. This would make for a whopping 11.2 mile day, so if this is the route you decide on, be sure to bring snacks and plenty of water! Regardless of how far you go, there is absolutely no shade on this section of trail, so be sure to camel up and go thick on the sunscreen.

plantlife plants haleakala national park maui flowers unique

These flowers look somewhat out of place along the trails in the crater!


Park at Halemau’u Trailhead and hike to Holua Cabin and back (total of 7.4 miles). Now, this is not just any day hike–this would literally be a hike down and then back up a mountain. It was one of the most scenic and breathtaking stretches of our three day hike and would serve as a very interesting (and strenuous) day hike.

I would not recommend this for the faint of heart or those afraid of heights! Most of the distance is a zigzag trail down and then returning up a mountain and there is no guard rail. This would not be good for small children. But for anyone else looking for an adventure and views that will drop your jaw, this will do the trick.

mountain halemauu trailhead haleakala views hiking backpacking

This is the view not even halfway up the mountain on the hike to Halemau’u Trailhead. Holua Cabin is behind that mountain in the distance!

If you can, I would most recommend actually hiking past Holua cabin to the Silversword Loop. It’s only a short distance and will give you a taste of the moonscape landscape previously mentioned as well. Silverswords are very unique and rare plants that only grow in this area and are definitely worth the extra mile or two!

silversword native plants haleakala national park maui hawaii

Baby silversword plants–these are very unique to the area!

For the most comprehensive backpacking experience in Haleakala, I would recommend at least two nights. This is the route we took and the one I believe is the best to take for a two night itinerary–there is (unusually) nothing I would do differently if we could do the trip over again in terms of route:

DAY 1:

  • Wake up early and drive to Park Headquarters to pick up permit(s) and watch “Leave No Trace” video (more about these tasks in my next post).
  • If you have two cars (don’t go out of your way to rent two, only do this if you know someone who lives in Hawaii or already needed two cars to begin with) then park one at the Halemau’u Trailhead and ride together to the Haleakala Visitors Center from there. If you only have one car, go straight to the Haleakala Visitors Center.

haleakala visitors center road clouds hawaii national park entrance

  • Leave one person at the Visitor’s Center with the gear while the other (this is if you only have one car) drives down to Halemau’u Trailhead and parks the car. There is a backpacker hitchhiking station right next to the parking lot where tourists or locals heading up to the Haleakala Visitors Center can stop and pick you up to bring you back up the mountain to start your hike. Being from Michigan and hitchhiking not being a common thing here, we were a bit nervous about this, but it is very common and not unheard of in Hawaii, and the first person that drove by actually offered a ride! A ranger at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center actually recommended we do it this way instead of both hitchhiking after the hike due to the fact that it would be easier to get a ride earlier in the day and we were so glad we did it that way. After hiking 20 miles it was amazing getting straight into our air-conditioned car and kicking off our shoes and not having to stand around waiting for a ride.

I understand the visitor center situation may be confusing for those who have never visited. There are actually two visitors centers in the park–one when you first arrive and pay the park entrance fee of $25 and another at the top near the summit where people go to watch the sunrise.

  • Make sure you have spent an hour or two hanging around the visitor’s center–walk around, look at the exhibits, but most importantly, acclimate to the altitude which is about 10,000 feet in elevation before heading out on your hike.

paliku cabin haleakala national park backpacking beautiful

  • Hike to Paliku Cabin (9.2 miles).

DAY 2:

  • Hike to Holua Cabin (6.3 miles).

holua cabin haleakala backpacking hiking national park

DAY 3:

  • Hike to Halemau’u Trailhead (3.7 gruelling miles!) where your car will be gloriously awaiting your return.

This itinerary can also be done in reverse but the biggest downside to that is  doing the 9.2 mile hike on your last day, which could prove difficult after hiking for two days already. You could also park at one trailhead and do a round-trip hike for one night–for instance to Paliku Cabin for a night or even just Kapalaoa Cabin. But then you would be seeing the same sights on the way back as on the way there, which I don’t think is as fun as seeing something very different every step of the way.

halemau'u trailhead mountain hiking haleakala maui

Deciding which of these itinerary options is best for you is probably the biggest hurdle to get over when it comes to bringing this amazing experience to life.

If you’ve already backpacked Haleakala and have taken a different route that you think is just as good or better than this one, I’d love to hear about it! The most fun thing about backpacking is the community of adventurers sharing their experiences and stories together.

plant flower haleakala unique plantlife hawaii maui

In the coming post (or maybe posts, plural!) I’m going to elaborate on some of the logistics of hiking Haleakala such as tent camping vs. cabins, packing tips, things I’d do differently, and my personal favorite moments from the days we spent in the crater. Stay tuned for another jam-packed post that will ensure you have an amazing and well-rounded experience of one of the most interesting and beautiful places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting!


Keep on Trekking!