Where to Get Away From it All: Haleakalā, The Quietest Natural Place on Earth

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Haleakalā National Park on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

There really is no better feeling than leaving the busy city streets behind and heading up a dormant volcano to catch the world’s most beautiful sunrise and breathe in the crisp air. There are no beaches to be seen, no green mountain ranges or waterfalls and you may wonder if the surface of another planet would look the same. Haleakalā crater is said to be the quietest natural place on the earth.

When was the last time you really heard nothing?

Haleakala quietest place on earth
The Hawaiian silversword, ʻāhinahina sparkling with water droplets.

With all the audio-visual stimulation in our everyday life, it’s easy to forget the importance of silence and how special that time can be. Recording engineer Gordon Hempton has gone around the world for the last 30 years, set out to find the last natural places on earth with the least human noise. Many locals know it to be true, but Hempton was the one who actually measured the decibels and added Haleakalā to his short list. Last year, Maui filmmaker Tom Vendetti was inspired by Hempton and released the documentary The Quietest Place on Earth with stunning shots of the landscape.

Lessons from silence

When I began the descent down to the crater floor, I felt a real sense of isolation unlike anything I’ve ever felt in any other place. Some parts of the trail look the same in all directions; a sea of black and red volcanic ash and cinder with a sprinkle of contrast from the silverswords scattered throughout. They say you will be able to find “inner peace” here, but I felt nothing remotely close to peace. I am an over-thinker and silence can do this to such a person, or is it that I am just too used to all the background noise? After awhile of listening to my own crunching footsteps, the beauty of the unusual surroundings completely took over my senses and there was no way back (quite literally if you’re in the middle of the Sliding Sands Trail).

We live in a world filled of noise and it wasn’t always that way.

Haleakala hike
Taking a water and photo break while the mist settles in. Make sure to pack enough water for the entire trip as there is none accessible on the trail.

Significance of the Sacred Haleakalā Summit

The legend of Maui

The Hawaiian word Haleakalā means ‘House of the Sun’, which coincides with a well known local legend. One of the most famous ancient Polynesian demigods Maui, noticed that the sun would zoom across the sky day after day leaving the earth with short days and long nights. With not enough time for his mother, the goddess Hina to finish her work and crops failing, Maui went up to the top of Haleakalā to snare the sun. “Promise me you’ll move more slowly across the sky!” Maui yelled after lassoing ray after ray of sunshine and holding the sun at a standstill. With no other choice, the sun struck a deal with the demigod. “I’ll slow down for just half of the year” he said and Maui agreed, so the summer and winter seasons were created.

Native Hawaiian usage

According to archaeological excavations done by Bishop Museum in the 1920s, the crater and summit were used extensively by the Native Hawaiians, although because of the harsh environment, there were no settlements there. Multiple terraced platforms and stone shelters were discovered along with graves of both adults and children. At the time, archaeologist Kenneth Emory thought that the platforms could have served as altars for rituals to Lilinoe, the goddess of Haleakalā.

The crater floor is scattered with ahu, rock mounds, altars or shrines, some as small as a few rocks laid on top of one another and others are large mounds covering grave sites. There is also evidence of an ancient road, paved with blocks of lava, dubbed Kihapi’ilani Road after the Makawao chief who is said to have commissioned it.

Haleakala quiet - silversword
The endangered silversword ( ʻāhinahina) is found only in the Haleakalā crater, while another subspecies lives on Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

What can survive in such an inhospitable terrain?

haleakala nene Maui
The endangered Hawaiian nēnē goose. They feed on seeds, berries, herbs, flowers and fruits.

Although it seems like a desolate wasteland, Haleakalā is home to many endangered and endemic species like insects, ʻāhinahina, the Haleakalā silversword, the Hawaiian nēnē goose and the ‘ua’u petrel, a migratory seabird. It is advised not to feed or give water to any wildlife or get too close to the silverswords, which have shallow roots. There is a strict ‘leave no trace’ rule and no one is to explore off of the path because of damage to the fragile ecosystem.

If not for the hike or the peace and quiet, visit the summit to learn about the incredible geology, ecology and Hawaiian history of this very special place.

Hiking Keonehe’ehe’e, Sliding Sands Trail to Halemau’u

The trail can be difficult for those who don’t have experience with longer hikes because the 11 mile one way trip (you must leave a car at one end) is compounded with the exertion of hiking at an elevation of 10,000 feet. Hiking down into the crater and out again also gives the trail an almost 3,000 foot elevation gain. This could be the reason why I only passed about three other groups of hikers during the entire journey, which was surprising, but boy is it worth it.

Starting at the visitors center, the clearly marked trail meanders through the crater floor next to cinder cones, lava tubes and jagged lava outcrops. The weather is constantly changing here. It can feel like you are right next to the sun (there is no cover on the entire trail) or it can be freezing cold and misty with hurricane like winds, then become extremely still like the world has been put on hold. Just make sure to be prepared for everything!

Trail markers just barely visible in the mist.
Trail markers just barely visible in the mist.

Staying in the crater overnight

Of course 11 miles can be done in one day, but if you have the urge for a more immersive escapade, stay overnight at one of the three rugged cabins (I say rugged because there is a pit toilet and access only to non-potable water that must be treated) or at one of the two wilderness campgrounds. Cabins accommodate 12 and cost $85 per night. Reservations must be made well in advance.

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