A walk through the House of the Rising Sun

The sun rises and sets amidst only the sound of endemic birds and the wind at Hōlua Cabin in Haleakalā National Park.

An ecologist once pointed out to me how the community of residents along the slopes of a mountain can change with elevation, rainfall, soil substrate, topography, directionality. Often the change is subtle, probably passing unnoticed by all but the most astute observer. Sometimes the change is dramatic over a short distance. Haleakalā is one of those places in the latter category, where one can witness marvelous changes in the landscape without even seeing the whole crater.

I walked a loop through less than half of the crater last year and saw many things one cannot see anywhere else in the world. I tried to photograph as many of them as I could, to remember how they look because who knows when I might cross paths with them again. Here is some of what I saw.

Starting my walk I could see all the way across the crater to the other side. Palikū is off in the distance along the left margin of the photo above.

My walk begins on Sliding Sands Trail. The Hawaiian name for the trail is Keoneheʻeheʻe. I'm not sure what that means. The sun is out, but the heat of the day won't become burdensome until the afternoon. Just a jaunt along the trail under the cloudless sky and we are met with an expansive view of the crater from end to end. The far end, Palikū, beckons, but that is not where we are going.

The path ahead looks desolate and arid except for a few naʻenaʻe (Dubautia menziesii) that somehow manage to eke out an existence amongst the loose cinder. Nothing else seems to be living here in this brutal expanse where the surrounds wick moisture right out of you without you even noticing, but that can change. After all, distant Palikū is somehow clearly lush and green, verdant looking, in stark contrast to all that seems to lie before it. We notice a spider with many offspring clinging to its back along the trail. Terry Tempest Williams says you are never alone in the wilderness.

A better view across the crater. Naʻenaʻe in the foreground, cinder cones, then Palikū in the distance.

Close up of naʻenaʻe.

The next thing that catches my eye are the famous silverswords. I don't know much about them except that they are endemic and endangered, found no where else in the world except here in the crater; that someone is farming them for restoration, and at least along the trail there seem to be many more small immature plants than older ones, possibly outplanted; that flowering season is in summer and I've missed it; that the plants flower once, then die, a seemingly risky all-your-eggs-in-one-basket life strategy; that they are a beautiful sight to behold. They look succulent and soft, but the leaves (are they even true leaves?) feel hard and plastic-like, as though they are impervious to trap every bit of moisture in. There's a short detour called "Silversword Loop" up ahead in the distance, but I'm delighted and surprised to see these plants so soon.

Silverswords. I've missed the summer flowering season so I mainly saw dessicating flower stalks and immature plants along the trail, still beautiful and fascinating.

Silverswords, old and new.

We keep walking and it gets drier. We reach a junction and turn left toward Hōlua Cabin, our destination, skirting a grove of cinder cones according to the park map. Soon I feel like I am somewhere in Volcano National Park on the Big Island instead as a field of lava expands before us. For a long time we see nothing but cinder, but we do not stop to look closer.

A small patch of silverswords and pūkiawe with what appears to be a lava field in the background.

A lava field along the trail.

Pūkiawe. I think the berries are bleached white by the sun. Elsewhere in less harsh environments they are pink.

I'm not sure when pūkiawe (Styphelia tameiameiae) first started to appear, but it will be my companion throughout the rest of my hike. The plant has a pleasing form. The leaves are tough and pokey. It is clearly a survivor.

It is a long uphill climb to get out of the low lying lava fields, and soon we seem to turn a corner and it becomes strikingly lusher, almost humid in comparison to where we've come from. The vegetation becomes denser and I see many new plant species we either haven't yet passed or that have been thus far uncommon.

Much more vegetation as we approach Hōlua Cabin.

Vining kūkaenēnē (Coprosma ernodeoides), one of several endemic plants along this section, takes the form of a ground cover with shiny black berries and succulent leaves.

Kīlau (bracken fern) amongst pūkiawe. I assume that's nēnē droppings in the foreground.

This white lichen called stereocaulon becomes a mossy green when wet.

Historic Hōlua Cabin was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and still retains its charm.

A pair of nēnē, the state bird, an endemic goose, are waiting at the cabin. They are comfortable around people, and want us to feed them, but we don't. They are also curious, following me along the trail, watching and perhaps wondering where I will go next.

We help a local group remove invasive weeds the next day, mostly Heterotheca grandiflora from a field they are dominating. It turns out Heterotheca looks similar to the native ʻenaʻena (Pseudognaphalium sandwicensium var. hawaiiense), but Heterotheca looks more weedy, less succulent, grows taller, and seems to produce more flowers. 

Heterotheca grandiflora is the taller flowering individual in the background. ʻEnaʻena is in the foreground. Evening primrose is the yellow flower in the background and is a common but not invasive weed in this area. I believe the grass in the foreground is also native, but not sure the species.

Heterotheca removed.

The hike out is unlike anything we've seen thus far. We trek through a field of grass - it looks like an African savannah from above - and then it's a long, gradual uphill of switchbacks to the Halemauʻu trailhead to climb out of the crater. Right away where the crater wall meets its floor, the vegetation changes again and we see endemic ʻamaʻu ferns (Sadleria cyatheoides). The clouds seem to roll in from the ocean here and up into the crater. There's clearly a lot more water in this area and we seem to be amongst the clouds for a while, and then above them. It is beautiful, it is quiet. The last thing I see before exiting the trail to the parking lot is ʻiliahi, sandalwood. My thoughts turn again to the Civilian Conservation Corps workers that built the trail we enjoyed during the Depression as we head for the parking lot.

What tree or shrub is that? We walked mostly through grass down there.

ʻAhinahina is the silvery feathery plant at center and ʻamaʻu is to its right. The fern gets much larger than that.

Flowering sandalwood.


References and more reading:

Higher Plants and Ferns of Haleakala National Park
(University of Hawaii Botany site)

Hawaiian Ethnobotany Online Database
(Bishop Museum)

Hawaiian dictionary

Haleakala hiking trail map (PDF)

NPS Haleakala publications page article about Haleakala

The Travelling Historian Haleakala trip report

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