The Sliding Sands Trail (also known as Keonehe’ehe’e Trail) on Haleakala Volcano in Maui is one of the most unique hikes in the United States. It’s like being on another planet with the barren landscape, volcanic cinder cones, and vibrant rust colors.
The Sliding Sands Trail is an out-and-back trail that starts near the summit of the Volcano at nearly 10,000’ above sea level. You begin the hike by trekking downwards toward the crater for 5.6 miles before turning around and ascending back up.
If hiking 11.2 miles isn’t your thing, there are a few options for hiking this trail depending on your ability, time allotted, and preferences.
In this complete guide to hiking the Sliding Sands Trail, I’ll cover what to expect hiking, alternative routes, flora and fauna, and everything in between!
Sliding Sands Trail Snapshot
|11.2 miles out and back (5.6 miles one way)
|4 out of 5
|4 to 8 hours
|Year-round, but it is drier in the summer months (May – October)
|Near the trailhead at the Visitor’s Center
|As of 2022, $30 per vehicle and $25 per motorcycle, valid for three days. Additionally, National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass or a Hawaii National Parks Annual Pass will cover the fee.
|Hiking, camping, sunset/sunrise views, photography, star-gazing
|Volcanic cinders and boulders, unique landscape, endemic wildlife
|Reservation is needed from 3 am to 7 am. Visitors without a reservation can enter the park at 7 am.
Sliding Sands Trail Location
The Sliding Sands Trail is in the summit area of Haleakala National Park in Kula, Maui. The trailhead is by the Haleakala Visitor Center parking lot, which is about 0.5 miles before the summit of Haleakala.
Getting to the Sliding Sands Trailhead is relatively straightforward. Once you enter Haleakala National Park on the summit side, you continue along Haleakala Highway to the Haleakala Visitor Center.
There’s one main road to the park, so you can’t get lost. The entrance to the park is at 7,000’ elevation. The Haleakala Highway snakes up the volcano to the summit, which is at 10,023’.
There is a big sign right before the Haleakala Visitor Center parking lot, so you can’t miss it!
There’s plenty of parking for the Sliding Sands Trail. There are two parking lots near the trailhead. The first is to park at the Haleakala Visitor Center and walk a short distance to the trailhead. The other parking lot is along the Haleakala Highway.
If you get to the park between 3 am and 7 am, you will need a reservation. However, after 7 am, you can enter the park without a reservation.
There are bathrooms at the visitor center but not anywhere else on the trail.
Tip: The park rangers at the visitors center are very insightful. Have a chat with them to find out the conditions of the trail, essential insights, and information about the plants and animals before beginning your hike
Which Visitor Center do you go to for Sliding Sands Trail?
There are two visitor Centers in the Summit District of Haleakala National Park. Shortly after entering the park, you’ll come to the Headquarters Visitor Center at about 7000’. This is not the Visitor Center for the Sliding Sands Trail. However, this is a good place to stop and acclimate to the altitude change and use the restroom.
As of March 2022, the Headquarters Visitor Center is temporarily closed, but the restrooms are open 24/7, and there was a park ranger set up outside to answer any questions.
Keep driving along Haleakala Highway to reach Haleakala Visitor Center for Sliding Sands trail, just before the summit at 9740’. This visitor center is open seven days per week from 9 am to 2 pm.
How to Hike Sliding Sands Trail: Choose Your Adventure
There are four ways to experience the Sliding Sands Trail, depending on the amount of time you have, your ability level, and how you want to experience Haleakala.
Hike the Full Sliding Sands Trail Out-and-Back
To get the full experience, you can hike the whole 11.2-mile out-and-back Sliding Sands Trail. This is a good option if you have the time and are a more experienced hiker.
The trail starts near the Haleakala Visitor Center, near the summit. Unlike most trails, you begin this trail by descending toward the Haleakala crater for ~5.6 miles. Then turn back the way you came, and ascend back up the volcano rim.
Sliding Sands Trail Dayhikes: Hike Part of the Trail Out and Back
If hiking 11+ miles doesn’t sound like a good time, you can turn at any point and still catch some amazing out-of-this-world views. The whole Sliding Sand Trail is spectacular.
Distance to the first overlook is just 0.25 miles away (0.5 miles round-trip) from the trailhead with only a 50’ elevation change. This would be a doable hike for almost any ability level.
Cabins or Tent Camping Areas from Sliding Sands Trail
There are three cabins and two Wilderness Tent Camping Areas in Haleakala National Park that you can reach from Sliding Sands Trail. If you want to spend more time exploring the crater, staying multiple days is the best option. See below for more information on costs, reservations, and campsites on the Sliding Sands Trail.
Combine the Sliding Sands Trail with the Halemau’u Trail for an 11-mile Point to Point Hike
The other option is to combine the Sliding Sands Trail and the Halemau’u Trail for an 11.2-mile point-to-point trail across the crater floor and back up to the Halemau’u Trailhead. You can either hike from the Sliding Sands Trailhead to the Halemau’au Trailhead or vice versa.
Sliding Sands Trail to Halemau’u Trail
This route is slightly easier since you’re going downhill for a more significant portion of the hike.
Starting Point: Haleakala Visitor Center
Ending Point: Halemau’u Trailhead
Distance: 11.2 miles
Halemau’u Trail to Sliding Sands Trail
This option is more strenuous. You can do it in one day, but it’ll be a long and challenging day of hiking.
Starting Point: Halemau’u Trailhead
Ending Point: Haleakala Visitor Center
Distance: 11.2 miles
Since this is a point-to-point trail, you’ll need to figure out your transportation before embarking on this hike. There are no shuttles or transportation systems in Haleakala National Park, so you have a few other options.
- Hitchhiking at Haleakala
This first option works well for a small group of 3 people or less.
The National Park System recommends parking your car at the Halemau’u Trailhead parking lot and hitchhiking to the Sliding Sands Trailhead. Then, hike back down to your car.
There is a “Hiker Pick-Up” area by the Halemau’u parking area designated for hitchhikers doing the Sliding Sands Trail.
Tip: There is much less traffic when the weather is poor, so it may take longer to find a ride. If possible, choose a sunny day (weather can change quickly on Haleakala), or account for the time waiting to get picked up.
- Go With a Group in Two Cars
If you’re with a larger group of 4+ people, the following two options are for you.
If you have access to two cars and you’re with a group of people, you can park one car at either the Halemau’u parking area or the Sliding Sands parking area and use your other car to get to your start point.
You will hike back to the first car, and then you’ll be able to drive back to your other car.
- Go with a Group and Split Up
Again, this option only works if you’re with a larger group of 4+ people.
Two (or more) people will be dropped off at either the Sliding Sands parking are or the Halemau’u Parking area. The other group will take the car to the other trail point and hike in the opposite direction.
Coordinate a meetup spot ahead of time at a midway point to exchange the car key and ensure you’re moving at similar paces. You will likely not have cell service on the trail, so make sure to coordinate a spot and approximate time to meet ahead of time.
The dropped-off group will hike to the car and then drive to pick up the other group at the opposite end.
Tip: the hike from Halemau’u to Sliding Sands is a bit tougher and takes more time.
Hiking the Sliding Sands Trail
Because of the high altitude, you are at greater risk of Altitude Sickness. Altitude sickness is caused by lower oxygen levels and reduced air pressure at higher elevations.
Symptoms of altitude sickness can include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and rapid heartbeat. Symptoms usually resolve after returning to lower altitudes. However, medical intervention may be necessary.
Most cases of Altitude sickness are mild but can become life-threatening and can happen to anyone. If you are concerned about altitude sickness, speak with your doctor before going to Haleakala.
The Sliding Sands Trailhead is easy to find. There are signs from the visitor center parking lot that guide you to the Keonehe‘ehe‘e (Sliding Sands) Trailhead and the shorter Pa Ka’oao Trailhead.
Follow the marked path parallel to the Haleakala Highway for a short distance to the Trailhead.
This trail starts near the summit, so you start by descending about 2800’ for roughly 3.9 miles toward the crater floor.
Tip: The way out is deceivingly easy since you’re primarily going downhill. Ascending back up is quite a bit harder, so save plenty of time and energy for the hike back up the volcano. NPS recommends allowing twice as long for the way back
The trail is heavily trafficked and easy to follow. You get amazing views of the volcanic landscape immediately as you begin to hike the large sandy switchbacks down to the crater.
The landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen before and starkly different from Maui’s tropical beaches and rainforests almost 10,000’ below. The trail is sandy and barren, with vibrant red, orange, and black dunes and rocky volcanic cinder cones in the distance.
After about 0.25 miles, you reach the first overlook. This is a good place to turn around if you’re just looking for a short and easy hike with all the amazing scenery still.
Hike for 2.5 miles and reach the Ka Lu’u o ka O’o cinder cone. This could be another turning point for a challenging but shorter day-hike.
At roughly 3.9 miles in, you’ll reach a fork in the trail where you can choose to finish by heading toward the Halemau’u trailhead or continuing straight along the Sliding Sands Trail.
Following along the Sliding Sands Trail, continue to hike along the crater floor for another 1.7 miles. Here you will come to Kapalaoa Cabin.
Before you reach Kapalaoa Cabin, you will come to three different junctions. If you have the time and energy, you can explore these other crater floor trails or turn around and head back to the trailhead.
Whichever point you choose to turn around, you will have to ascend back up the crater rim to the parking lot. Going back up is more strenuous and can take double the amount of time as hiking down. It’s a great workout!
Protecting the Trail
Haleakala is home to many plants and animals that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Straying from the trail can disrupt the habitat and leave lasting damage for years to come. Haleakala is also home to many sacred Hawaiian cultural sites. Because of this, it is imperative to stay on the trail at all times.
It is also important not to take anything out of the park, including the rocks. Rocks, or pohaku, are sacred to Hawaiians. Not only is it illegal to take rocks from Hawaii, but it’s also culturally inappropriate.
According to Hawaiian legend, taking rocks or sand from the island subjects you to Pele’s Curse. Pele is the goddess of fire and volcano and considers the rocks and sand to be her children. She is protective of her children, so anyone who steals them is subjected to bad luck until the rocks are returned to their proper home.
As always, follow the seven principles of Leave no Trace and learn how to apply them to your visit to Haleakala.
Sliding Sands Trail Review
The Sliding Sands Trail was one of the most spectacular hikes I’ve ever done. The barren volcanic desert is like no place I’ve ever been before. The pictures do not do justice. You need to experience it in person.
If you’re only going to do one hike when you go to Maui, this is the one you want to do. Even if you just hike a short distance, it’ll be worth it!
I know everyone has a different opinion, so check out these reviews to hear other points of view.
What to Bring
Depending on how far you plan on hiking, there are a few essential items you’ll want to make sure you have when doing this hike.
- Clothing Layers: It can get quite chilly at the summit of Haleakala. The temperature at the summit of Haleakala typically ranges from 40 – 65ºF but can get below freezing. The summit generally is about 30º cooler than the coast.
You can go from intense warm sunshine to cold, damp rain in just minutes, so it’s important to bring layers of clothing that you can take off or put on.
- Rain Coat: The weather is unpredictable on Haleakala. You may quite literally be walking through a damp cloud. So even if the weather calls for sun on the day you go, having a rain jacket would be smart.
- Hiking Boots: While the trail would be doable in sneakers or hiking sandals, a good pair of hiking boots or shoes would be more comfortable, especially if you plan to hike long distances.
- SPF/Sun Protection/Hat: UV exposure is significantly greater at higher altitudes than sea level. You definitely want to make sure you’re protecting your skin from the sun.
- Food and Water: As a dietitian, this is always the most important item on my list! This is a challenging hike, so water and fuel are essential.
- Hiking Poles: Since this hike steadily descends as you make your way toward the crater, you may want to bring hiking poles to save your knees.
Quick Tips and What to Know Before You Go
No Gas Stations
There is no place to stop and get gas in Haleakala National Park, so fill up beforehand. It’s about 10 miles from the entrance to the Sliding Sands Trailhead and takes about 30 minutes to get there.
No Place to Get Food
There is also no place to get a meal in the park, so make sure you eat a good meal first, especially if you’re going to do a lot of hiking.
The Haleakala Visitor Center sells snacks like beef jerky and macadamia nuts.
If you’re passing through the town of Paia, I highly recommend stopping at Choice Health Bar for an Acai Bowl with a scoop of protein. It’s the perfect combination of carbohydrates and protein to fuel your hike and tastes delicious!
Sliding Sands Trail Weather Insights
While it’s a good idea to check the weather before you go, the weather at the summit of Haleakala is highly variable and unpredictable. It can go from sunny to cloudy and rainy within minutes, and the weather doesn’t always match the predicted forecast.
You can check out the conditions at the summit on the park’s live webcam.
On the day that we went, we checked the forecast in the morning, and it called for clear skies the whole day on the summit. By the time we got there in the early afternoon, it was cloudy and raining. A few minutes later, it was sunny. The clouds rolled in and out all afternoon. Although the clouds obstructed the views at times, it was a nice break from the sun’s heat.
Sliding Sands Trail Map
There is no cell service on Haleakala, so make sure to download a trail map before hiking.
The Sliding Sands Trail is relatively straightforward to navigate, but if you’re going to be exploring any other trail as well, you’ll want an offline map to ensure you don’t get lost.
Best Time to Hike Sliding Sands Trail
Time of Year
While the weather doesn’t change drastically throughout the year, you’ll have less chance of rain in the summer months (May – October) since this is the dry season.
Time of Day
There is no wrong time to go! However, you will need a reservation if you’re there from 3 am to 7 am for the sunrise.
The park is most crowded at sunrise and sunset, but then the crowds tend to peter out. If you want to avoid crowds, you could go at mid-day.
Trail Closures and Announcements
Before making the trip to Haleakala, it’s best to check for closures, announcements, alerts, and trail conditions.
Plants and Animals on Sliding Sands Trail
While the summit area of Haleakala looks barren and lifeless, there are unique plants and animals here that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Because the Hawaiian islands are isolated in the middle of the pacific ocean, native animals arrived at the islands by either flying, wind, or swimming and adapted to the unique environment. Over time, the plants and animals that arrived at the Hawaiian Islands, isolated from the rest of the world, evolved into unique species.
Roughly 90% of the species in Hawaii are endemic, meaning they can only be found in Hawaii.
The high altitude and volcanic desert of the summit area of Haleakala creates a unique ecologic zone that’s home to some of Hawaii’s rarest plants and animals.
Animals and Birds of Haleakala
Not surprisingly, the only native mammals in Haleakala National Park are the Hawaiian monk seal (not in the summit area) and the Hawaiian Hoary Bat.
However, there are quite a few endemic bird species in the summit area of Haleakala, including:
- Maui Parrotbill (Kiwikiu)
- Pueo (Hawaiian Short-Eared Owl)
- ʻUaʻu (Hawaiian Petrel)
Plants of Haleakala
Vegetation is sparse in the summit area of Haleakala. However, some unique plants have adapted to the summit’s extreme climate.
The most notorious plant on Haleakala is the ‘ahinahina, or Haleakala Silverswords. These plants can live up to 90 years but only flower once. So you’re fortunate if you get a chance to see one flower. Take in the beauty from a distance as these plants are very delicate, and stepping on the root system could kill them.
Protecting the Endangered Wildlife
Unfortunately, due to invasive species and livestock, predators, mosquito-borne illnesses, and climate change, many endemic plants and animals are near extinction.
You can do your part to help preserve this beautiful and unique habitat by:
- Staying on designated trails at all times.
- Clean up after yourself, don’t leave any litter.
- Don’t take anything out of the park, including the rocks and sand.
- Drive carefully through the park. Be careful not to hit any of the birds or animals.
- Keep your distance from the birds and animals.
- Clean your shoes of any dirt and seeds before going into Haleakala National Park.
- Don’t feed the birds.
- Camp in designated areas only.
For more information, check out the National Park Service website.
Haleakala is a large shield volcano that makes up over 75% of Maui. Haleakala began forming roughly 2 million years ago from a sequence of fluid lava flows. The oldest exposed lava flow is about 1.1 million years old.
Haleakala is technically still an active volcano since eruptions will eventually occur again. However, the volcano is in its post-shield alkalic stage, meaning the eruption rate has significantly reduced. The last eruption occurred sometime between 1480 and 1600.
The Haleakala crater is actually not a true volcanic crater, or caldera. It’s believed to be formed by erosion. Two large valleys expanded into the summit area and merged to form the crater.
The name Haleakala means “house of the sun.” Early Hawaiians originally applied the name just to the summit area. However, now it’s used for the entire East Maui volcano.
The name Haleakala is derived from the ancient legend of the demigod Maui. According to the tale, Maui stood at the summit of Haleakala and snared the sun to slow down its path and increase the length of the day.
Other Hikes in Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park consists of the Summit Area (where Sliding Sands Trail is located) and the Kīpahulu District. You can only access the Kīpahulu District from the Hana Highway. Because the Kīpahulu District cannot be accessed from the Summit Area, I will only include hikes in the Summit area in this post.
Distance: 0.5 miles total (0.25 miles one-way)
Difficulty: 1 out of 5
Trail type: Out-and-back
Elevation gain: 108’
Location in Park: Summit Area near Sliding Sands Trail
Distance: 7.6 miles total (3.8 miles one-way)
Difficulty: 3.5 out of 5
Trail type: Out-and-back
Elevation gain: 2,375’
Location in Park: Between mile markers 14 and 15 along the Haleakalā Highway.
Distance: 0.3 miles total (0.15 miles one way)
Difficulty: 1 out of 5
Trail type: Out-and-back
Elevation gain: 108’
Location in Park: Between mile markers 17 and 18 along the Haleakalā Highway.
Distance: 0.5 miles
Difficulty: 1 out of 5
Trail type: Loop
Elevation gain: 175’
Location in Park: Between mile markers 10 and 11 along the Haleakalā Highway.
Distance: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 2.5 out of 5
Trail type: Out-and-back
Elevation gain: 1,099’
Location in Park: Between mile markers 10 and 11 along the Haleakalā Highway.
Other Things to do at Haleakala National Park – Make A Day of It!
Haleakala at Sunrise
Head to the park early and catch the sunrise before hiking. This is probably one of the most popular attractions at Haleakala. Seeing the sunrise from 10,000 feet above sea level is a one-of-a-kind experience. You will need a reservation to be at the park from 3 am to 7 am for the sunrise.
Haleakala at Sunset
While sunrise at Haleakala is more popular, the sunset is just as spectacular. So if you didn’t get a reservation for sunrise, or just don’t want to wake up that early, you can go to the park later and catch the sunset. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to stay for some stargazing.
Because of the high altitude and minimal light pollution, Haleakala is one of the best places for stargazing. However, make sure to pack along warm clothes since it can get quite cold at the summit of Haleakala at night.
Haleakala National Park Camping- Places to Stay in Haleakala National Park
The summit area of Haleakala offers a variety of camping options, including drive-up tent camping at Hosmer Grove Campground, historic wilderness cabins, and backcountry camping.
Sliding Sands Trail Camping
You can hike to the historic cabins and wilderness campgrounds from the Sliding Sands Trail.
For the campsites and cabins, you will need applicable permits and reservations. You can make reservations up to 6 months in advance.
Sliding Sands Trail Cabins
There are three cabins in Haleakala National Park that you can only reach by hiking. The cost is $75 per night (as of 2022), and you can stay a maximum of three nights per 30 days.
- Hōlua Cabin is at the base of the crater. It is a 7.4-mile hike (one-way) to the Holua Cabin from the Sliding Sands Trailhead.
- Palikū Cabin is the furthest away from the trailhead. It’s a 9.3-mile hike (one-way) from the Sliding Sands Trailhead.
- Kapalaoa Cabin is at the end of the Slidings Sands Trail, so it is 5.6 miles (one-way) away from the trailhead.
Sliding Sands Trail Campsites
There are two campsites available by permit in Haleakala National Park that you can also only reach by hiking. The cost is $8-9 per reservation (as of 2022), and you can stay a maximum of three nights per 30-day period.
- Holua Campsite is 7.4 miles (one-way) away from the Slidings Sands Trailhead.
- Palikū Campsite is 9.3 miles (one-way) away from the Sliding Sands Trailhead.
Other Must-Do Hikes on Maui
Looking for another once-in-a-lifetime hike to do while you’re in Maui? Check out the Waihe’e Ridge Trail!
Looking for a short and easy hike near beaches and restaurants? Check out the Dragon’s Teeth Hike in Kapalua.
Sliding Sands Trail FAQs
It depends on how much the trail you do. You can turn around at any point but allow for twice as much time going back since you’ll be climbing up the crater rim. If you do the whole trail, it will take anywhere from 4 to 8 hours, depending on your pace and number of stops.
Sliding Sands Trail is absolutely worth hiking! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime hike. Even if you just do a ¼ mile, you’ll still experience amazing volcanic views.
It’s easy to find. Take the Haleakala Highway up to the Haleakala Visitor Center, about 0.5 miles before reaching the summit.
Yes, if your kids are walking-age. You can turn around at any point, depending on your kid’s age and ability level. Make sure to bring plenty of water and snacks.