Down the Sliding Sands of Haleakala
To walk amid the lava and cinder cones of Haleakala is to learn about hidden life found nowhere else on the planet.
Ms. Hand launches into what she calls the mountain’s four-part story. Chapter One is volcanism. Haleakala, like other Hawaiian volcanoes, is a particular geological phenomenon, a shield volcano. Current theories state that a stable “hot spot” in the mantle below the earth’s crust has cooked and melted the ground beneath Hawaii’s volcanoes for millions of years to produce steady streams and fountains of lava. That’s why the mountains don’t often erupt violently, but gradually add land and cinder cones until the massive tectonic plates upon which they rise creep away from the hot spot. Haleakala, though quiet, is technically in a “renewed volcanism” stage, still building more cinder cones; the last eruption was off the Makena coast around 1790.
We descend into the valley. Almost immediately we can feel the sheer silence of the place, a silence that suggests the immense, calm patience of geological time.
During that enormous span of centuries the second part of Haleakala’s story transpired: erosion. The summit of Haleakala is not classically a crater or caldera, but an erosional valley. After the lava came wind, rain and ice. Streams flowing down the Ko‘olau and Kaupo Gaps slowly carved huge valleys, even as new eruptions tossed up more pu‘u.
Haleakala’s rocks are neither black like young Big Island basalt, nor red like the thoroughly aged and oxidized rocks of Kaua‘i. In the autumn of their years, the pu‘u of Haleakala, 1,400 to 3,000 feet below us, are wreathed in a spectrum of reds, blacks, dark purples, and golds that we admire as we hike the trail along the cinder slope. The colors have emerged through oxidation and other erosional forces. Oxidized magnesium creates a dark purplish tint, iron is rust red, and various limonites have turned yellow. “Dikes” are another erosional feature—huge grey spires of lava that cooled more slowly and became harder than the rocks surrounding them. The softer rocks eroded, leaving the dikes projecting above them.
And then there are “windrows,” emitted somehow by the substrate, that look like invisible hands have been raking the cinders, a Haleakala mystery that no one has ever solved.
As we proceed, we encounter young men clambering up the slope. Rachael tells them courteously that footprints can damage the delicate life beneath the cinders, which is why hikers are asked to remain on established trails. With a promise to stay on the trail, the young men continue their hike, which turns out to be a mission of mercy. They are looking for an invasive species, African fountain grass, a cottony weed that spreads almost as voraciously as the dreaded miconia, choking out native plants.
Plants and animals brought by “waves, wings and wind” are the third part of the story of Haleakala. A remarkable assortment of life resides within these cinder slopes. There are wolf spiders that carry their babies on their backs and hunt as mobile predators, since the winds up here prevent them from spinning webs to trap their prey. Flightless moths. Numerous native beetles. ‘Ua‘u (dark-rumped petrels), sea birds that fly up to these mountain slopes, use their beaks to burrow into the rocks, and nest.
Plant life is dominated by the amazing “silversword alliance,” a family of plants related to the ‘ahinahina, the silversword itself. Silverswords are endemic, having evolved from their original form when they landed on our shores to become truly extraordinary plants. Their remarkable adaptations include shallow root systems that can catch the scant moisture trapped in cinders, long tap roots that anchor the plants against the wind, and brilliant silver skirts of needle-shaped leaves that reflect the intense sunlight. As for why the ‘ahinahina flowers once in 50 years with a storm of purple blooms and then dies—that’s another Haleakala mystery.
At our feet we spot a kupaoa, a green relative of the ‘ahinahina that emerged through adaptive radiation (the process by which a species evolves from its parent stock to fill a new ecological niche.) There are also hybrids of the kupaoa and silversword scattered across Haleakala. At one time the silversword was threatened with extinction. The plants were used for lei and collected for parade floats. Pigs, goats and cattle roamed the park and grazed on them. Only a belatedly imposed, strict hands-off policy saved the plant that has become a symbol of Haleakala and the uniqueness of Hawaiian ecology.
Humans are the fourth and most decisive chapter of the Haleakala story. While the Polynesians brought in 30 to 40 plants and animals, the Europeans introduced hundreds. Before human contact, new species arrived in these islands perhaps once every 10,000 to 100,000 years. Now new species arrive about every 18 days, most of them insects hitching rides on agricultural shipments or visitors’ clothing. Many become invasive. Native life forms, adapting to Hawaii’s benign environment, long ago shed their natural defenses, and so are easily crowded out by aggressive newcomers.
To preserve an intact wilderness like nowhere else on the planet, the naturalists of Haleakala, in Ms. Hand’s words, “try to not interfere, but assist in a manageable way.” They seek out breeding grounds of the native nene (Hawaiian goose) to keep track of their birth rate; unfortunately this year was a harsh winter and apparently no goslings survived, so the rangers are setting up experimental food stations to try to boost next year’s survival rate. Park resource personnel trap rats and mongoose to protect nesting ‘ua‘u. With 32 bird species in the various climate zones of the park threatened with extinction, such active management is essential to protect the ecosystem of the mountain.
We come to a stop at one of the most magnificent view spots along Haleakala’s trails. To our left is an enormous smooth gray bluff scooped out of the mountain. Across the valley below us is the huge cinder cone Pu‘u o’Maui, and in front of that is Ka Lu‘u o ka ‘O‘o, a pu‘u whose name means “plunge of the digging stick,” from which a stream of smooth, dark pahoehoe lava long ago emerged. To continue down the trail is to take a six- to eight-hour hike, descending 1,400 feet, amid such geological features as the multicolored Pele’s Paintpot, and Kawilinau, or “bottomless pit” (now safely fenced). A network of trails leads through vistas where changing gradations of color sweep across cinder cones, clouds drift above groves of silversword, and paths climb through cinders and grassland to the lush Kipahulu rain forest.
As we turn back, a group of vistors on horseback seems to float our way before suddenly coming upon us in a cloud of dust—then recede quickly across the immense landscape and diminish to specks. While I know how fragile the environment of the mountain is, at this moment it’s human activity that seems transient and small, set against the immense majesty of Haleakala.
If you go...
What to expect: Haleakala’s summit can be reached from Kahului via Route 37 to 377 to 378. Figure about two hours from Kihei, three from West Maui. Weather is unpredictable; be prepared for cold (30°F to 50°F), a snappy wind-chill factor, sudden rain and intense sun. For a recorded forecast, call 808-877-5111.
What to bring: Each person should carry raingear, layered clothing, windbreaker, a cap or hat with a tight band, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Sneakers are okay for most day hikes; slippers are definitely not. You’ll also want to bring at least three quarts of water and plenty of trail food—you burn up calories and water fast at high altitudes. And be
prepared to carry all trash out with you.
Cautions: Going down Sliding Sands is deceptively easy; coming up is a whole lot tougher, especially if your descent takes much more than an hour. This cindery trail is so grueling that experienced hikers prefer to traverse the crater floor and ascend via Halemau‘u, a switchback trail cut out of solid rock. The footing’s firmer, and Halemau‘u exits the crater about 2,000 feet lower.
Altitude is also a challenge, especially when you’re climbing, so allow twice as much time for your return. Nausea, headache, dizziness and shortness of breath are signs of altitude sickness; turn back quickly if you experience any of these symptoms.
Stay on the trail at all times; shortcuts off the trail damage the delicate chain of life of the region. Remove seeds from boots, raingear and tents (if you plan to camp) before hiking in. Treat the park as a cultural and natural preserve—don’t feed any birds, and don’t remove anything.
For information on cabins and campgrounds, cultural history programs and guided hikes, call the Ranger Station at 1-808-572-4400.