I first fell in love with Haleakala on a sunset helicopter tour. The timing was impeccable. As we climbed through a cloud bank, the setting sun lit up the caldera and created an impressionist painting of unearthly beauty. My throat got tight and tears flowed freely just looking at it. That’s when I knew that I had to do more than view it from the rim at sunrise with hundreds of other tourists. I wanted to experience it up-close.
My husband and I were visiting Maui the week of September 11, 2001. We had reservations with Pony Express Tours for our ride. We debated whether to go or not go after we heard about the attack and decided that we might as well go. Ours was a small group, a guide and five riders.
This was Pony Express’ most popular ride, the Ka Moa O Pele Junction Ride. We drove to the ranch, signed in, and were given driving directions. We met at the top of Haleakala, at 10,000 feet, in the parking lot. The horses were unloaded from a trailer and matched to each rider’s size and riding ability. We smeared our faces with sun block and off we went.
We descended the Sliding Sands Trail 2,500 feet to the bottom of the caldera. We dismounted and ate a picnic lunch, used the nearest bush as a comfort station, and rode back out again. Total trip: 7.6 miles and about 4 hours.
Haleakala is frequently referred to as a crater. It is not. It was not formed during the eruption. Erosion is responsible for the formation of the giant basin. The outer rim is dotted with distinct cinder cones. Haleakala is not an extinct volcano, merely dormant. The last eruption was 1791.
I commented to our guide about the unearthly stillness… the complete absence of sound. He replied, "Yes, except when the tour helicopters pass over." Well, that day there were no tour helicopters, as all the airports were closed.
We saw the wondrous Haleakala Silversword up close. In the 1920s, it was nearly extinct from cattle and goats grazing and also from human vandalism. It’s rosette-shaped, succulent, and densely covered with tiny silvery hairs. These make the plant glow with a strange metallic glow when the sun hits it. The Silversword is endemic to Haleakala between about 6,000 and 9,000 feet both inside and outside the caldera. The plant only flowers near the end of its life and produces a spectacular flower stalk with hundreds of individual flowers. It sets seed and dies. It takes anywhere from 15 to 50 years for a new plant to reach the flowering stage. The plant was saved from extinction with careful conservation efforts.
Only a few plants can adapt to the harsh conditions in Haleakala. The high altitude, the porous lava soil, and the wind make it difficult for most plants to grow. All the plants inside the basin are protected. Our guide warned us not to let our horses munch on them, as this will result in a fine if caught by a park ranger. After riding for about 15 minutes, my horse made an attempt to grab a mouthful. I gave him a sharp jerk and a verbal correction, "No!" He stopped, turned his head to the side, and gave me a long look. We rode on for a bit and he tried it again. Same thing… a sharp correction and the long look of disgust from my horse. It was a battle of wills. Mine finally prevailed and he stopped trying.
The Pony Express Tours phone number is 808/667-2200. The rides are limited to nine riders. It’s a not-to-be-missed experience. My legs were sore for a couple of days, but it was definitely worth it.