Wilderness Area

Rainbow on Keonehe'ehe'e Trail.
Rainbow on Keonehe'ehe'e Trail.

James Petruzzi

Wilderness Designation

The Wilderness Act of 1964 directed federal land management agencies to assess roadless areas of 5,000 acres or more for suitability as wilderness as part of the initial establishment of a National Wilderness Preservation System. This prompted completion of wilderness suitability study for the roadless areas of Haleakalā National Park. The preliminary wilderness proposal included 17,750 acres of the park and encompassed most of the Haleakalā Crater and much of the Kīpahulu Valley. Overnight cabins already existing in the crater were excluded from the proposal as enclaves. Nine miles of surface telephone line connecting the overnight cabins in the crater to the headquarters building were also excluded with a 20-foot wide corridor along the length of the line.

An overwhelming majority of the agencies, private organizations, and individuals who participated in the first public hearings supported wilderness designation. In fact, several of these supporters favored recommendation of more acreage than was included in the initial proposal. Taking public suggestions into consideration, 1,520 additional acres were added to the final recommendation; 1,500 acres were added along sections of the north and south rim of the crater to facilitate more efficient management of the wilderness area and the 20-acre telephone line corridor that was originally excluded was added with the stipulation that the line would be removed and replaced with radio communication. In addition to the recommended wilderness acreage, 5,500 acres were included as potential wilderness additions. This acreage consisted of State and private lands bordering the recommended wilderness in the Kīpahulu Valley above Palikea that could be converted to designated wilderness in the future through documentation in the Federal Register if qualifications for designation were met. These additions brought the final recommendation to include 19,270 acres of recommended wilderness and 5,500 acres of potential wilderness.

On October 20, 1976, under Public Law 94-567, Congress designated all 19,270 recommended acres as the Haleakalā Wilderness, adding further protection to the unique landscapes and ecosystems found in the Haleakalā Crater and Kīpahulu Valley. On February 1, 2002, 5,449 acres of potential wilderness were converted to designated wilderness via the Federal Register (67 FR 6944) following acquisition of these lands by the federal government and verification that non-conforming uses had ceased. This addition brought the total acreage of the Haleakalā Wilderness to the present 24,719 acres – 74% of Haleakalā National Park. 51 acres, owned by East Maui Irrigation, Inc., remain in the potential wilderness category.

Molten earth, erosional forces, and ocean have worked in concert over millennia to shape the land that is today Haleakalā National Park. The unique variety of terrain, vegetation, and scenery found here successfully capture the broad spectrum of ecology found across the Hawaiian Islands and specifically on the island of Maui. The park is an epicenter of biological diversity and evolution and was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1980. Over 90% of the native biota of Haleakalā National Park are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands with nearly 50% endemic to Maui. Haleakalā is also home to over 50 Federal Threatened and Endangered Species (TES) with several additional TES candidates and more than 50 Species of Concern.

Within this setting lies the Haleakalā Wilderness. Over 8,200 acres of this wilderness are additionally protected as a Biological Reserve. Two distinct areas make up the Haleakalā Wilderness: the Haleakalā Crater, and the upper portion of the Kīpahulu Valley above the level of Palikea Peak at 2,000 feet elevation. Other-worldly, moon-like features dominate the stark crater landscape while lush wet forest vegetation covers the rugged terrain of the Kīpahulu Valley. Palikū Ridge extends north-south along the eastern rim of the Crater and the western rim of the upper Kīpahulu Valley forming a natural barrier between these very distinct and unique areas of wilderness.

Two hikers look back at the volcanic landscape they have covered on their wilderness hike.
Two hikers enjoy the visual contrast of the approaching clouds as they look back at the landscape they have travled during their wilderness hike.

Matt Wordeman, NPS Volunteer.

Wilderness Character Narrative

Volcanic, geologic, and erosional forces have made the Haleakalā Wilderness what it is today, a place of extreme contrasts in terrain, ecology, climate, and scenery. In geologic terms, this rough and varied landscape is a relatively new landform. Over 81 million years ago molten lava began to ooze from beneath the ocean floor at what is called the “Hawaiian hot spot,” an area in the Pacific Plate where the Earth’s upper mantle melts to produce magma. As the hot spot changed location with the movement of the Pacific Plate, the Hawaiian Island Chain formed above the ocean surface along the northwest trajectory of plate movement as a series of shield volcanoes. In its entirety, the chain consists of 132 islands, reefs, and shoals stretching 1,500 miles from the youngest of the islands – the “Big Island” of Hawai’i in the southeast – to the oldest – Kure Atoll in the northwest. In some areas more than 30,000 feet of cooled lava rise from the ocean floor, with the majority of the chain’s landmass lying below sea level. As a whole, the Hawaiian Island Chain demonstrates nearly all life stages of a shield volcano, clearly demonstrating both the building and erosional processes that continue to transform these islands and their underwater counterparts. The island of Maui, as the second youngest island in the chain, is currently in the “renewed volcanism” stage as the Haleakalā Volcano returns to activity after over several hundred thousand years of dormancy and erosion. The Haleakalā Volcano is thought to have last erupted in the 18th century with at least ten eruptions occurring over the past 1,000 years.

From this intricate volcanic past, the Haleakalā Wilderness was born. Two distinct ecological environments comprise the Haleakalā Wilderness: the Haleakalā Crater and the upper Kīpahulu Valley. Although formed by the same volcanic forces and elemental cycles, slight differences in aspect, topography, volcanic history, and trade wind influence have resulted in drastic differences between these neighboring areas of wilderness.

A cinder cone rises from within the Haleakalā Crater.
A cinder cone rises from within the Haleakalā Crater.


The Haleakalā Crater

The Haleakalā Crater, unlike its name suggests, is not a true volcanic crater, but is actually a summit depression created by erosional forces during a long period of dormancy when streams in the Ko’olau and Kaupō valleys converged to create a large crater-like depression that was later partially filled by renewed volcanic activity. The crater itself drops 3,000 feet from an elevation of 10,023 feet at Puʻu ʻUlaʻula to the crater floor. The vast floor of the Haleakalā Crater spans approximately 7 ½ miles in length and 2 ½ miles in width at the top of an active volcano that, in its entirety, rises almost 28,000 feet from the ocean floor. Cinder cones stud the central crater amidst multi-hued variations of volcanic rock and soils while along the crater perimeter hearty vegetation reclaims this volcanic landscape. Wilderness in the crater area is open to the public but receives only a fraction of total park visitation.

View of the Upper Kīpahulu Valley.
View of the Upper Kīpahulu Valley.


The Kīpahulu Valley

The Kīpahulu Valley is a place of lush cloud forests broken by clear streams and cascading waterfalls that eventually terminate in the Pacific Ocean. Unlike the sometimes stark semi-arid environment of the crater, the rainforest of the Kīpahulu Valley is wet, densely vegetated, and abounds with diversity. The upper elevations of the Kīpahulu Valley contain near-pristine native cloud and rain forest habitats that are home to a wealth of native and highly specialized species. Due to the fragile nature of the unique and endemic biological resources found here, public entry is not allowed in this area of wilderness. A large portion of wilderness in the Kīpahulu Valley is additionally protected as a biological and scientific research reserve.


Visitor use of the Wilderness Area

An unexpected and dramatic landscape at the top of the world, the Wilderness Area encompasses 24,719 acres and countless microclimates. Elevation change from rim to the floor can be 3,000 feet (914m). You can day hike, spend the night in a tent at one of the two Wilderness campgrounds, or reserve one of the three historic cabins along the trail. Your steps will take you from brown and red cinder cones, towering hundreds of feet tall in dry, cold desert air to cloudforests dripping with red and green native ferns. Nēnē and endemic honeycreepers can be seen in the lower, wetter parts of the Wilderness area during the day. Seabirds can be heard (in season) at night, and stars saturate the sky. Photographers will quickly run out of superlatives.

The Wilderness Area of Haleakalā can be accessed by two mountaintop trailheads: Halemauʻu Trailhead at 8000 feet (2438m), and Keoneheʻeheʻe (or Sliding Sands) near the summit at 9740 feet (2969m). Both trails merge eventually and lead down the southeast side of the volcano to the relatively barren and unpopulated coast in the Kaupō district.

Overnight camping requires a permit, cabins must be reserved, and it is always advisable to stop by a Visitor Center before a day hike to discuss your plans. Weather can be severe and is always changeable and unpredictable. Water is scarce, altitude can be a major factor, and certain seasonal restrictions may apply.

Last updated: May 12, 2018

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Haleakalā National Park
PO Box 369

Makawao, HI 96768


(808) 572-4400

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