Drive to Haleakala

3 things I wish I would have known before driving to the top of Haleakala

So. You want to drive to Haleakala, eh? Right off the bat I will say that it was probably one of the most incredible road trips of my life, and I can’t wait to do it again. That said, I wish I would have been better prepared for it.

That’s not to say that it was a perfect day or anything. But it could have easily been picture perfect if I would’ve had the foresight to plan ahead (at least just a little bit).

map of maui and haleakala
This is Maui, and that red pin marks the peak of Haleakala. Challenge accepted!
Red rental jeep on Maui
This was my ride for the journey up the volcano. Yeah, it was cool and all, but totally the wrong choice for twisty mountain roads.
driving a jeep
“Let’s see what this baby can do…”

These are three things I wish I would have known ahead of time about driving to Haleakala:

1. Bring sunscreen!

The fact that the US Air Force has telescopes perched on top of Haleakala pointing to the heavens (and beyond) should have been all the reason I needed to slather on sunscreen before stepping out of the Jeep to have a look around.

The atmosphere is so thin and crisp at that altitude that I literally burned my forearms from walking around unprotected for 10 minutes – something that I don’t think has ever happened to me before.

It’s not like I could feel myself actually cooking or anything, but it was quite the shock to get back in the Jeep only to realize that I had turned as pink as a lobster after such a brief walk on the rim. I know I’m really white, but come on!

standing on top of Haleakala
Standing atop Haleakala, burning myself to a crisp without even realizing it. RIP to my bald head I guess.
Haleakala road
Sunscreen is absolutely mandatory when venturing out above the clouds like this. Pasty white people beware!

Standing on the top of Haleakaka will likely be one of the most memorable moments of your life, and you’re going to want to have a good look around. Spending hours up there gazing down on the world below (and reflecting about life in general) is something I recommend for all visitors to Maui, but do know that it can be very hazardous to your health if you aren’t careful. Make sure you are protected!

2. Don’t attempt it if you easily feel motion sickness in a car

I drove out of the rental car lot feeling really happy and excited to begin this journey – until I stopped 5 minutes later to plug the route into Google Maps. That’s when I saw that the only way up to the top was via Haleakala Hwy.

Keep in mind that I am a car guy through and through, and that I love tight and twisty mountain roads as much as I can get them, but the looks of that gnarly route was giving me anxiety.

haleakala highway route 378
A map of the Haleakala Hwy (the only way to drive to the top). So crinkly that it’ll test the stomach of any traveler who attempts it.
driving to top of maui
20mph hairpin turns for miles and miles. You’ll be happy to know that there are lots of good places to pull over and puke your guts out though. The state of Hawaii calls these spots “lookouts”, but it’ll be obvious why most people are stopping…

Making matters worse was the fact that I was in a Jeep, which sits very high off the ground and isn’t the best vehicle for carving tight mountain roads. It didn’t stop me from forging ahead though, but by the time I got up the top I was feeling a bit queasy and glad to be finished with the drive. For a few minutes at least. The drive down was just as bad.

driving a jeep to top of maui
Anybody got an LS-swapped Nissan 350Z drift car I can borrow? This Jeep is totally the wrong vehicle for these roads!
road to top of maul Haleakala
Trying to look cool leaning against an equally cool Jeep is really hard when you’re not totally sure if lunch is going to stay down or not.

The only time I ever feel motion sickness in a car is when I’m a passenger. It’s usually ok if I’m driving, but the Haleakala Hwy is so tight and curvy that it had me feeling rough by the time I reached the top. To be honest, I think I would’ve been dead if I was a passenger instead of the driver.

If you’re a wimp like me and you’re determined to do this drive, do yourself a huge favor and take motion sickness medicine of some kind before you go. Yeah, puking on the highest point of Maui sounds like a fun story to tell your buddies from the comfort and safety of sea level back at home, but I can’t imagine the hell it would be feeling that sick at 10,000 feet of altitude.

If motion sickness is going to be a problem for you, and you still really want to do an epic road trip, maybe consider driving from Miami to Key West instead. It’s just as scenic, and the road is nearly arrow straight. 

3. That $30 entry fee

OK, this point isn’t that big of a deal, but it was somewhat unexpected. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that there would be an entrance fee. It is a national park after all, so it should be no surprise that they don’t allow anyone up there without shelling out some cash. In my defense, I didn’t have to pay a fee at any point during my Joshua Tree road trip, so that’s probably why this caught me off guard.

red jeep on maui
$30 is a small price to pay to experience this kind of beauty. Oh, and I checked, but there is no “guy who owns a car website and is going to write an article about the experience” discount (sadly).

I certainly wasn’t going to complain about any fees though – the official entrance to the park is about 3/4 of the way up the volcano, and at that point I wasn’t about to turn around and go back. I had made it that far (feeling queasy and all), and no way was I going to miss out on one of this world’s most magnificent landmarks!

Wrapping it all up

So there you have it. I had considered driving the road to Hana instead of doing this trek up to Haleakala, but I don’t regret my decision at all. Standing up there on top of that volcano, looking down on the world beneath my feet – it was like nothing that I had ever experienced in my life and I’m finding it very difficult to put that experience into words.

It was such a powerful moment that I almost felt as if it had changed me, clearing my head of miscellaneous and unimportant thoughts, helping me to focus on my place in this world how best to spend my remaining years.

I also spent a few moments thinking that I will never doubt the recommendations of kind Avis rental car ladies from here on out, and I am 100% certain that the altitude and thin air had nothing to do with it. Those gals know what they are talking about!

view from Haleakala
It’s a moving experience to be looking down on the world like this, so be prepared to ponder some really deep thoughts.

How I ended up driving to the very top of Maui

The story of how I ended up driving to the top of Haleakala is as interesting as the drive itself. I basically arrived in Maui on a flight from the US mainland without any idea about what I was going to do that day. This is what I wrote about the experience for a travel blog I was going to post this on:

Arrival in Maui

It was 9:30 AM Hawaiian time as the plane was taxiing into the gate at OGG, and the reality of having an entire day ahead of me before I would be able to check into the hotel hit me like a giant coconut falling from a swaying palm tree (the really tall kind). Now, there are certainly worse places in the world to be faced with an entire day with nothing to do, but it’s an empty feeling I don’t like and it had me Googling “things to do in Maui” on my phone even before they turned the fasten seatbelt sign off.

I suppose most normal people would’ve done that kind of research even before booking tickets to the islands, but you know me – I’m not normal, and this is a blog mostly about airplane stuff anyway so little details like that tend to get lost in the clutter. I may be a clumsy and clueless tourist at times, but I’m happy to announce that I actually found something fun and cool to do that day (something totally worth sharing here on the blog).

Turning lemons into lemonade coconuts into coconut milk

It all started with trying to find a killer deal on a car rental, and once I had a Jeep secured it was all about trying to figure out which direction I wanted to go. Thankfully the Avis car rental staff there at the airport are super friendly, and all it took to solve that conundrum was a simple question to the nice lady who handled my reservation:

Me: Let’s say that you, a resident of Maui, had a rental car and roughly 6 hours to kill. What would you…
— cutting me off even before I finished the sentence —
Avis lady: Haleakala!! (while pointing to the hills somewhere in the vicinity of the northeast)

It took a split second to realize that she wasn’t cursing at me, and that she was actually making a very enthusiastic recommendation to drive to the very highest point on the island. I also suspect that this was a question that she’s heard a time or two before, and feeling the vigor in her voice declaring Haleakala as THE thing to do made me not doubt it for a second.

There was no need for a second opinion – I was willing to take her word for it no questions asked, and I peeled out of the rental car lot with a smile on my face and child-like enthusiasm to reach the highest point on Maui sometime within the next two hours.

As you saw in the pics above, it was totally worth it.

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