Descending Into Hawaii’s Haleakala Crater

A trip to the floor of the Maui volcano still promises an encounter with the “raw beginnings of world-making”

From cinder desert to tropical forest, the 19-square-mile Haleakala Crater boasts varied landscape. In the center is a hiker at "Pele's Paint Pot," likely named for the goddess of fire and volcanoes. (Susan Seubert)
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Entering Haleakala Crater, the enormous mouth of Maui’s largest volcano, in the Hawaiian Islands, feels like an exercise in sensory deprivation. At the crater floor, a desolate expanse of twisted, dried lava reached after a two-hour hike down a trail carved into its wall, the silence is absolute. Not a breath of wind. No passing insects. No bird songs. Then I thought I detected drumming. Was it the ghostly echo of some ancient ritual? No, I finally realized, it was my own heartbeat, thundering in my ears.

In 2008, National Park Service acoustic experts found that the ambient sound levels within Haleakala crater were near the very threshold of human hearing—despite the popularity of the park. Around one million people a year visit the park, many of whom also ascend to its highest point—Haleakala’s 10,023-foot summit—and peer down at the vast field of dried lava below, which, in 1907, the writer and adventurer Jack London called “a workshop of nature still cluttered with the raw beginnings of world-making.”

The now-dormant volcano, which emerged from the Pacific Ocean more than a million years ago, takes up fully three-quarters of Maui’s landmass. Although its interior, whose rim is 7 1/2 miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide, is commonly called a crater, geologists refer to it as an “erosional depression” because it was created not by an eruption but by two valleys merging. Still, there has been frequent volcanic activity on its floor. Carbon dating and Hawaiian oral history suggest that the last eruption occurred between 1480 and 1780, when a cone on the mountain’s southern flank sent lava surging down to La Pérouse Bay, about two miles from Maui’s southernmost tip, near the modern resort town of Wailea.

Only a small number of visitors to Haleakala descend to the crater floor. Those who make the effort, as London did on horseback with his wife, friends and a band of Hawaiian cowboys, find themselves in a strangely beautiful world of brittle, contorted lava. “Saw-toothed waves of lava vexed the surface of this weird ocean,” wrote the author of The Call of the Wild, “while on either hand arose jagged crests and spiracles of fantastic shape.” Initial impressions of the crater as a lifeless wasteland are quickly dispelled. Delicate lichens and wildflowers dot the landscape, along with a bizarre plant found nowhere else on earth called the ahinahina, or Haleakala silversword. The plant grows for up to half a century as a dense ball of metallic-looking leaves, produces a single tall spire that flowers only once, with a brilliant, blood-red blossom, then dies. Endangered Hawaiian birds thrive here, including the largest nesting colony of Hawaiian petrels, or uau, which let out a peculiar barking cry, and Hawaiian geese, called nene.

While much of the crater is the ocher and ashen color of alpine cinder desert, the eastern reaches are a lush green, with swaths of virgin fern forest. London’s group camped here, surrounded by ancient ferns and waterfalls. They ate beef jerky, poi and wild goat, and listened to the cowboys sing by the campfire, before descending to the Pacific Ocean via a break in the crater called the Kaupo Gap. “And why...are we the only ones enjoying this incomparable grandeur?” he wondered aloud, according to his wife, Charmian, in her 1917 memoir, Our Hawaii.

On my solitary expedition, the silence of Haleakala did not last long. As I picked my way across the lava fields, the first gusts of wind arrived, then dense clouds that were filled with icy drizzle. Soon the temperature was plummeting and I could barely see my feet for the fog. Thunder was booming by the time I reached Holua cabin, one of three public refuges crafted in 1937 from redwood with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps. They’re the only man-made shelters in the crater other than park ranger cabins. I lit a wood-burning stove as the sky erupted in lightning. For the rest of the night, tongues of crackling light illuminated the ghostly, contorted lava fields. Pele, the volatile ancient Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes, must have been displeased.

The story of Haleakala National Park is inseparable from that of Hawaii itself, whose transformation from independent Pacific kingdom to 50th U.S. state has largely been forgotten on the mainland. When the federal government created the park in 1916, less than two decades after it seized the archipelago, it ignored the crater’s cultural importance for native Hawaiians. But in recent years, Haleakala’s ancient status has gained new attention.

Part of the world’s remotest island group, Maui was first settled by humans around A.D. 400-800, possibly by Polynesians,who arrived in outrigger canoes after navigating 2,000 miles of open sea. Called Alehe-la by the ancient Hawaiians, the island’s imposing peak eventually became known as Haleakala, or “House of the Sun.” It was from its sacred heights, legend holds, that the demigod Maui lassoed the sun as it passed overhead, slowing its passage across the sky to prolong its life-giving warmth.

Though ancient Hawaiians built their villages along Maui’s lush coast and the slopes of Haleakala, many made visits to the crater, although how many are not known. “There was no permanent habitation,” says Elizabeth Gordon, the park’s cultural resources program manager. “Just temporary campsites, sometimes in caves and lava tunnels. But it was a very special place.”

The summit was the site of religious ceremonies, says Melanie Mintmier, an archaeologist working with park service staff in Haleakala. “There are ancient ritual sites along the rim, and sacred places within the crater that we know about from legends and oral traditions.” The ancient Hawaiians came also to hunt birds, which provided feathers for ceremonial cloaks as well as food, and to carve adzes out of basalt from a quarry on the western side of the rim. Many foot trails wound through the crater, and a path was also paved. Parts of it survive, as well as the remains of temple platforms, stone shelters and cairns. But park authorities won’t disclose the locations because many of the places remain sacred. “Hawaiians today use some of the same sites in Haleakala as their ancestors used for ceremonial purpose,” says Gordon. “It’s a vibrant, living culture.”


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