Into Haleakala volcano

HALEAKALA NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii -- In mountaineering terms, the volcano that created the eastern half of Maui about a million years ago is no Matterhorn. At 10,023 feet, Haleakala is topped by a bone-dry crater instead of an icy pinnacle, and it’s easy to reach--by car, no less--from island beach resorts.

More than 1.5 million day-trippers annually drive 22 miles up switchbacking Crater Road (Route 378) from the hamlet of Kula to the national park visitors center on Haleakala’s rim. Once there, they get a real-live Imax thrill by peering into the bowl-like crater (7.5 miles long and 2.5 miles wide), which nature has painted in garish shades of black, ochre and chartreuse.

Some, with water bottles and calories to burn, hike a few blistering miles down into the crater, walking a network of gravelly lava trails before turning around and heading back up. Others arrive in vans for the sunrise, which lifts off in an ice cream sundae of pink-and-white whipped-cream clouds. Then their guide puts them on bikes for a breezy glide back down Crater Road.

But dedicated hikers who want a more intimate experience with the great sleeping volcano (it last erupted in 1790) start at the top and walk down into it on the 17-mile Kaupo Gap trail.

My brother, John, and I hiked the trail last summer, descending the west side of the deeply eroded crater, then crossing it on Sliding Sands trail. The route out, back on Kaupo trail, follows a water-carved valley on its southeast flank, sculpted by mudslides and lava flows 1,000 years ago, to the lonesome little Kaupo General Store on the southeastern side of Maui. You can finish the walk in two days, but we took three so that we would have plenty of time to hack around in the crater and get into shape for the long hike down on Day 3.

Snug cabins along the way, groves of rare koa trees and the chance to hear nenes, an endangered species of bird endemic to Hawaii that makes a mooing kind of sound, are among the virtues of the Kaupo Gap trip.

And its drawbacks? From start to finish, it’s downhill all the way. This may sound like a virtue because the trail crosses the crater, then spills down to the sea through a gap in the side. So the last day’s hike, descending from 6,400 feet at bucolic Paliku cabin, where we stayed on the second night, to Kaupo General Store near sea level, was an 8.4-mile killer. The trail has cursedly few switchbacks, which means the going is straight down most of the way. Small, round lava rocks along the path act like ball bearings underfoot, conspiring with gravity to pitch you head over hiking boots.

Halfway down, my legs felt like burning logs from keeping the brakes on, and, despite the blazing Hawaiian sun, John looked as pale as a TB victim. If it had rained, which it often does in the windward sections of the crater, the trail would have turned into a muddy, slippery obstacle course. This is what the national park’s “Hiking Kaupo Gap” brochure says: “The steep drop is matched by rugged volcanic scenery and spectacular ocean vistas. For the unprepared hiker, however, Kaupo trail can be an experience in misery: blistered feet, tortured knees, intense sun or torrential rain, and no available drinking water.”

Maui was in the middle of a drought in July, and it didn’t rain--indeed, the weather was perfect, with afternoon temperatures in the 70s and 45-degree nights--which is one of the reasons the Kaupo Gap trip was one of the peak backpacking experiences of my life.

John said we weren’t really backpacking because we stayed in national park cabins in the crater at Kapalaoa on the first night and at Paliku the second. These cabins ($40 per night for one to six people, and $80 for groups of seven to 12) each have 12 padded bunks, utensils and dishes, big wood-burning stoves, long refectory tables and benches, firewood and outhouses. “Backpackers’ Ritz-Carltons,” John called them. But he’s a purist.

It was backpacking to me because I carried a pack with water, food, personal gear and a sleeping bag (all carefully wrapped in plastic), and went for three days without a shower.

If you want to do the Kaupo Gap trail on your own, staying at Kapalaoa and Paliku cabins, you need to enter a lottery two months in advance. The winners get the cabins to themselves. (Back-country tent camping, with pit toilets, is available at Paliku, and you can sometimes call the park at the last minute to claim cabin cancellations.) John and I were lucky. We entered the lottery in the spring and got cabins at Kapalaoa, in the cindery desert at the bottom of the Haleakala crater, on a Friday night, and gorgeous Paliku, beneath a rain forest cliff, on Saturday.

To prepare for the hike, John took me on ridiculously strenuous bushwhacks in the Santa Monica Mountains, and I bought a water purifier and gaiters, which proved completely extraneous on this trip. Our chief concern was finding water, not fending it off.

There are water tanks at Kapalaoa and Paliku cabins. (For safe drinking, the contents must be treated.) Two days before we set out, the ranger who gave me my back-country permit told me to carry enough water for the hike, because the tanks could be dry--a daunting prospect, given the added weight.

The morning we left, another ranger said there was no problem at Kapalaoa but that the tank at the Paliku cabin was dry. He gave me detailed instructions on how to find water at the ranger patrol cabin nearby. Just to be safe, I carried two quarts of bottled water, along with the lightweight purifier.

John and I were in Maui on a family vacation that included our parents and my niece. The family had rented a sport utility vehicle and dropped us off at the start of the hike. But that didn’t solve the other logistical problem posed by the one-way Kaupo Gap trek: At trail’s end we’d be stuck in a remote area in the southeastern corner of the island, a two-hour drive over unpaved Highway 31 from the park visitor center where we started. I hated to ask our family to travel three hours from where they were staying at Napili Bay to pick us up. Some people hitchhike back; others have friends pick them up. But we splurged on an alternative: a cab that met John and me at the Kaupo General Store around noon Sunday. (The ride to Napili Bay cost $125.)

Like most everyone who drives up Crater Road, we paused near the visitor center to take pictures on the afternoon we set off. There, the clouds that often veil the crater revealed nearly 19 square miles of rockslides, lava flows and cinder cones, rimmed by jagged peaks. Older than the active Kilauea crater on the Big Island of Hawaii by at least 500,000 years, this crater was formed not so much by volcanic sputtering as by erosion, with two big gaps in its sides: Koolau to the north, giving way to the Keanae Peninsula, and Kaupo to the south, yielding to the arid pasturelands of 11,300-acre Kaupo Ranch, a working cattle ranch. Like all Hawaiian volcanoes, Haleakala erupted in the middle of the Pacific plate (2,500 miles from other landmasses), and it once reached a height of 15,000 feet before erosion whittled it down.

Back then, a petrel or gull flew over the island and left, in its droppings, a brave new world. Scientists call it adaptive radiation, the creation of myriad species from a single type left in an isolated paradise, with no predators to curtail development. Take, for instance, Hawaiian lobelia plants. From one island castaway, about a hundred species of lobelias evolved, including the amazing giant lobelia, with the same diminutive orchid-like blooms as the common garden variety, but 15 feet tall and visible for miles. Fifty-two species of Hawaiian honeycreepers also evolved from a single nectar-drinking songbird, though 18 of these species are known only through the fossil record. Twelve have been lost since Capt. James Cook saw Maui in 1778, and 14 of the remaining 22 honeycreeper species have been classified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered.

This is an old story in Hawaii, where thousands of alien species, like ginger, pigs and mongooses, have been introduced, preying on or crowding out native plants and animals. As a result, 75% of plant and bird extinctions recorded in the U.S. are Hawaiian species, and in Haleakala National Park there are six kinds of endangered birds and nearly three dozen types of endangered plants.

To protect Haleakala’s fragile native flora and fauna, 34 miles of fences have been erected to keep marauding goats and wild pigs out of the park. Most of the lush rain forest section of the park in Kipahulu Valley, east of the crater, is a scientific reserve, off-limits to the public. And perhaps it is not a bad thing that few are tempted to undertake the Kaupo Gap hike (park Supt. Don Reeser estimates that 1,000 do it each year) because it meanders through gardens of gleaming silverswords, found nowhere else on Earth, and the feeding grounds of rare Hawaiian nenes, which descended from off-course Canadian geese.

John and I were little more than two miles down the Sliding Sands trail when we saw our first silverswords, which can grow more than 5 feet tall and bloom in otherworldly lava rock gardens. By the time we reached crater bottom, the sun was starting to sink, and the day hikers we’d passed had trudged back up to the rim. Occasionally a sightseeing helicopter flew over, breaking the volcanic silence with a racket that sounded, as John put it, like the Tet Offensive. The sky was exquisitely clear, so we could see the rounded crests of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea lying on a bed of clouds on the Big Island 100 miles south. The trail, visible ahead of us halfway across the crater, had recently been traveled by horses, which John said ought to be diapered.

Curmudgeonly comments notwithstanding, he is an excellent backpacking partner, appreciative, careful and capable in the outdoors. When we reached Kapalaoa cabin, beneath the southern rim of the crater, he stoked up the stove and did the cooking (using an impressive array of mangled pots left in the cabinets and purifying water from the faucet in the kitchen sink). Meanwhile, I lighted candles and read aloud from a booklet by Arthur C. Medeiros and Lloyd L. Loope called “Rare Animals and Plants of Haleakala National Park.” I’d organized the food, but none too well, as it turned out. Though I’d brought freeze-dried dinners, with desserts, and omelets for breakfast and a handful of energy bars, I’d somehow forgotten provisions for lunch. After dinner that night, we divvied up the energy bars for midday meals.

Early to bed, early to rise is the backpacker’s rule, chiefly because there’s nothing to do after the sun sets. I slept rockily. The bunk was comfortable enough, but across the room, it was my snoring brother who sounded like the Tet Offensive. So I got up around 5:45 a.m. to follow a puffy little bird, called a chukar, around a nearby cinder cone. John was awake when I got back, giving me the perfect opportunity to go back to sleep, which is why we didn’t set off for Paliku until after 11 a.m.

It’s just 3.4 miles from Kapalaoa to Paliku cabin, which is as pretty a spot as I’ve seen. The fiddlehead ferns at the front door and acres upon acres of bushy native raspberries, bearing inky fruit, made it seem like the Hawaiian version of “Little House on the Prairie.” Several hundred yards beyond, there’s a second cabin, for rangers only, and a fenced pasture with horses, used for packing in supplies. There, half a dozen zebra-striped nenes posed complacently while we took pictures.

In this little corner of heaven, we also found manna: a box of oatmeal on a shelf in our cabin, with just enough left for lunch, topped by raspberries. The tap was dry, and we couldn’t find water near the ranger cabin, so I climbed the ladder propped against the tank behind Paliku, where several inches of water remained at the bottom. Using a bottle with a line tied around its neck, I did the dipping, while John carried the pots I filled and put them on the stove. There was mint around the tank to perk up tea and sunshine all afternoon, inviting me to nap on the front lawn while birds piped in the tops of nearby trees.

Later, a group of bedraggled tent campers turned up, without water and unaware that the tanks at Paliku could have been dry.

John and I set out for Kaupo the next morning just after dawn, aiming straight for the lip of the gap. The first few miles, over a tree-lined trail built in the ‘30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, were surprisingly easy. We reached the park boundary at the 3.7-mile mark, where the trail yields to a jeep road crossing hot, dry Kaupo Ranch. The national park is working to acquire property adjacent to the ranch and hopes to reroute the Kaupo Gap trail through a rain forest valley to the east. But for the time being, you must descend the gap on the jeep road.

I cannot overstate its brutality. Rocky and gouged, it heads straight downhill for five miles at an alarming pitch, with no cover from the sun. When we finally dragged ourselves onto the porch at the Kaupo General Store, we must have looked a sight: drenched with sweat, eyes glazed and feet screaming to be released from boots. The taxi driver, who was there to meet us, couldn’t believe we’d walked all the way down from the top, and he wanted to know how old we were, which I took as a compliment on the long drive home.