Sunrise at Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii: Catching the Elusive Green Flash

Many centuries ago, the goddess Hina, whose tapa cloths just wouldn’t dry, called on her son Maui to help her lasso the sun over the crater of Haleakala and demand it to slow its journey across the sky. The ancient Hawaiians were thrilled with the extra sunlight, lovingly christening the crater “house of the sun.” Centuries later, on an early morning in March of this year, Maui’s sun, up early as instructed, once again shocked her spectators and broke green over the horizon.

sunrise haleakala crater mauiThere is, of course, a certain mysticism to Hawaii’s landscape, whether or not the sun really did promise to walk instead of run across the sky that day. The fabled sunrise at Haleakala, like many activities, can offer an exceptional spiritual experience: while it can be cold, exhausting, and cloudy, it can also be beautifully jaw-dropping. Sometimes, it can even be downright surprising.

While many will tell you that it isn’t exactly a myth, the legendary green flash is not something most expect to see after the 2 1/2 hour drive up the 10,023 foot volcano in the middle of the night. What they do expect to see, and why it’s so essential to set your alarm for 3:30 a.m., is the sun. Getting up at this hour, I know, might sound like an utter nightmare on a vacation, but the middle-of-the-night drive—and the coffee and coconut candy at the little shop on the way down—is absolutely worth the sleep sacrifice. Plus, if you’re staying anywhere near Ka’anapali or the eastern coast, renting a car and getting up at least this early is a necessity. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself crammed in line to pay the $10 at the gate and regrettably without a parking space.

This being my first trip to the islands, I had been on-my-knees-begging my boyfriend to join me for the transcendent sunrise experience atop Haleakala since I’d read about it in his revered Maui Revealed guidebook. Though I am definitely not a morning person, I wanted to see the place where Maui once caught the sun.

So we set the alarm. At 4:30 a.m., as we reached the base and began threading our clunky Oldsmobile rental through Haleakala Highway, the rising height began turning Maui’s glittering lights into distant little stars and the beaches and villages into a fish-shaped island. By the time we’d reached the top, the sky was quickly becoming a messy palette of pink and orange, but the four of us—me, my boyfriend Ryan, his sister Rachel, and her beau Bardia—had made it.

“You did bring a scarf, didn’t you?” Rachel asked me as we slid into one of the last parking spaces at the summit, wrapping her neck in a thick wool scarf. Unfortunately for me, though, my thin zip-up jacket was about it. I’d been told that Haleakala can be chilly—cold, even—but a scarf? The words “scarf” and “Hawaii” seemed about as mismatched as the haphazard outfit I scrambled together from the loose pieces of clothing in the trunk.

maui sunrise haleakala craterAs fate would have it, the chill in Haleakala Crater did not disappoint: on this day in late March, it was a cool 27 degrees. The rest of the sun-seekers, flung across the dark grey lava rocks, looked like statues under their long white blankets; some were kneeling and praying, some were cuddling children, and some were simply sharing wooly layers. Scattered across the horizon, teeth chattering under blankets, in scarves, and among clouds blushing pink, we waited.

And then, a flash. An apple-colored flicker splintered across the clouds just before the sun popped over the horizon.

I grabbed Ryan’s jacket. “What was that?”

“You mean the sunrise?”

Ryan, it appeared, had blinked.

According to Maui Revealed, the green flash appears, ever so rarely, when the sun’s rays pass through the thickest part of the atmosphere, causing the light to bend as it does in rainbows. Hawaii, I’d later learn, is one of the best places on earth to catch the elusive green flash—if you can avoid blinking at the precise moment the sun pops through the fluffy clouds.

That afternoon, after we’d thawed out, descended the volcano, had at least one coffee, and devoured entirely too much coconut candy, we walked along the shore at nearby Waiehu Beach. There, I couldn’t stop thinking about that split-second lime-green flash and how I’d seen something as rare as triple rainbows. I thought about how, unlike the ancient Hawaiians, we have long abandoned legend for explanation, and yet, seeing the sun turn from green to yellow was as inexplicably enchanting as it might have been all those centuries ago. Perhaps, though, that’s the point of middle-of-the-night voyages.

Perhaps, tapa cloths or not, we need to capture a bit of the sun sometimes, too.

sunrise at haleakala crater, maui

SonoranGal Kristin Mock is originally from Atlanta, Georgia but currently calls Tucson, Arizona home, where she enjoys the cacti, the sun, and the close proximity to Mexico. She edits a travel blog and is currently working on her first book, a travel memoir of Spain, Malta, and Colombia.

Editor’s note: If you don’t want to drive yourself to the top of Haleakala Crater, consider a sunrise bike tour. A local outfitter will bus you to the top of the crater, along with a fleet of fat-tire cruisers, and then lead the group down the curvy roads to the bottom. I’ve done this twice now — once with my intrepid mother in law — and found it a fun, unusual, rewarding experience! –ColoradoGal

6 Comments on "Sunrise at Haleakala on Maui, Hawaii: Catching the Elusive Green Flash"

  1. I’ve seen it and it’s pretty amazing. Perfect way to start the day and prepare for the flying descent down on a bike.

  2. I’ve seen a double rainbow on a crisp Spring Pennsylvania morning, however, your colorful description of this spectacular, albeit split-second experience, brought me to the summit with you and Ryan — as if I were a third member of the party. How fantastic to see ‘mother nature’ in her full glory as few on this planet have seen. You are now members of a special group of planet earth’s citizens. Treasure the memory.

  3. If those aren’t gorgeous photos I don’t know what is! I enjoyed the article as well 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Nomadic Samuel! If you can believe it, I took the photos on my pocket Canon camera–the view is so spectacular, you don’t even need to lug a digital SLR up there! 🙂

  4. Great article about a unique experience. The green flash is not something many actually get to experience. Luck was with you. I’ve added this to my bucket list. Thanks for a personal take on this.

  5. LOVE this – it makes me happy to know you did NOT blink! More coffee, please…

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