The Softer Side of Haleakalā

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Coastal campsite at Kīpahulu in Haleakalā National Park.

Burning sunrises. Barren landscapes. Massive basins. These are the images that come to mind for most people, who see Haleakalā from near its summit. But I had not thought about those things in some time. At my campsite at Kīpahulu, each and every rock was smothered in bright, green vegetation, very much alive and well and welcoming.

The road to Hāna has been well-traveled for a long time, and more recently, tourists have taken to driving the complete circle, continuing south on Highway 360 until it turns into 31 – the Pi‘ilani Highway – to get back to the middle of Maui. This has made the backside of Haleakalā National Park and the Kīpahulu Reserve a hot spot of sorts, heavily visited considering its remoteness.

I myself have driven this route several times, and I won’t knock it – it’s a spectacular drive. Yet on this most recent adventure, I craved more. With all the drive-by tourism happening, what was it like to stay out there, to wake up there? I found this typically busy area to be a whole new world at off hours. Almost eerie, like visiting a school when class is not in session, but in a good way.

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Many of the hikes out there, like the bamboo forest at the beginning of the Pīpīwai Trail – can get crowded. But wake up at sunrise, put on your shoes, and wander to the trailhead? I was in and out and back at my tent for coffee before I saw another person hit the trail. To stand amongst the tall trees, observing the way the individual bamboo stalks stood together to form one unit, with not another soul in sight, was a special thing. No one taking pictures. No one talking. No one to share the energy with – the ultimate conversation between man and nature. I would return again for that opportunity alone.

As for the campground itself, it’s a fantastic combination of lush, green wilderness, craggy sea walls, and rhythmic ocean. Find a spot on the cliffs. Enjoy the stars. Hit the trail first thing, and absorb what it was like hundreds of years ago, before tourism.

An Accidental, Illegal Hike to Hot Lava

As soon as I reached the end of the five-mile hike and approached the moon-like terrain of the volcano, the smell hit me in the face: a burning, smoky scent reminiscent of a smoldering charcoal grill. I looked out over the dark surface, the rising heat creating a blurry visual effect when I looked close enough. But there was no sign of any lava.

As we left the tree line and officially stepped onto the surface of the Kahaualea Reserve, our guide explained that we were standing on day-old rock, formed by small eruptions of lava that harden when they hit the air. Under us, he explained, the Pahoehoe lava flowed at nearly 2,000 degrees. With what I thought to be an obvious question in mind, I tapped him on the shoulder. If there’s lava flowing through these fields right underneath us, should I be worried about, you know, falling through and losing half my leg?

He laughed. “Lava will never sneak up on you,” he said. “If it’s openly flowing, you will burn the hair off your legs and eyebrows before you ever get close enough to step in it.”That didn’t make me feel better. He put his arm on the back of my neck and pulled me onward. Under us, I could hear the crunching of the hardened lava, or “volcanic glass,” named for its brittle texture that chips away as you walk on it, breaking off in shards sharp enough to cut up your hands, which is why I suited up with gloves, long pants and closed-toed shoes. Volcanic glass is the geological equivalent of meringue — it has a crispy exterior, but an airy constitution overall.

Hawaii-Lava-Hike1I always thought staring into a campfire was the most memorizing thing in the world. That changed when we came around the corner and I finally saw it. Lava oozed from the earth, red and black and blob-like, jelly bursting from a stale donut. It didn’t so much flow as it did crawl. It was alive, like a snake that was constantly shedding its skin, the hot red ember moving down, leaving a trail of hardened black “earth” in its wake.

I could feel the heat intensely now, especially on sensitive parts of my body, like my eyebrows. So when my guide handed me a four-foot long stick and nudged me towards the flow, I was skeptical. I came to within five feet before having to cover my face with my arm. Reaching out with the stick in one hand and leaning away with my head and shoulders, I poked the stick into the lava. It was then that I learned how thick and intimidating lava really is, the texture much closer to mud than water.

Retreating from the heat of the field, I could feel the shards of volcanic glass lodged in my sock and irritating my skin. Aside from the killer happy-hour story that comes along with the experience, what makes seeing the lava so intriguing is its sheer intimidation and stature, the fact that it seems like it’s from some other planet.

There’s also something to its significance and role in ancient history. As I watched it cool and harden, I felt like I was getting glimpse into the construction of the planet as we know it.

Unfortunately, the high I was feeling would not last through the evening. Upon returning home and relaying the story of my adventure, a friend pointed out that he was surprised I was able to enter the Kahaualea Reserve, that he thought it was closed by the DLNR due to the volcanic hazards. Over the course of the next few days, I would learn, via the news, that the tour company had indeed broken the law. They were being accused and fined by the government for accessing the closed area. Apparently, my group was not the first, nor the last. Pele would not be proud.

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Even though my involvement was indirect, I was disappointed to be associated with it, to have my memory tainted. It shows a complete lack of respect for the land, not to mention the safety of the group. It put a stain on what had otherwise been an incredible experience.

I’m left today with torn feelings. The good is a changed perspective, one where I can imagine the first eruptions that formed the ground on which I’m walking. I’m reminded that the lava’s still flowing, and the Earth is still changing.

The bad part is that now, every time I hear about the lava flow, I think of my time up there, and the irony that the experience really was too good to be true.