So we opted for sunset instead. We slept in, and felt quite smug about it. Then we packed ourselves a lunch (the third and final helping of our fantastic pasta) and dinner (sandwiches) plus as much water as we had bottles.
At the base of the mountain the landscape was a mix of open ranchland and woodland, reminding me of northern California. Our GPS unit handled the route well, although occasionally got confused by the hairpin turns, convinced we'd overshot and started urgently "recalculating". Many cyclists passed us heading down from the peak - one-way cycling tours are popular, with cyclists dropped off by bus at the top early in the morning. Only a few hardcore cyclists were headed in the opposite direction, slogging their way up.
As we got higher the trees disappeared and the land looked increasingly dry, yet we still saw cattle ranching at surprisingly high elevations. Near the top, at about 8,800 feet, we stopped at Leleiwi Lookout - I was ready for a break from the switchbacks, and it was time for lunch. We both felt a little woozy getting out - the rapid ascent to a high elevation really did have an effect. The view from the lookout was fantastic - such a stark landscape of nothing but volcanic cinder, yet an amazing spectrum of colour within it - grays and browns shading to greens and reds.
We read at the visitor's center that Haleakala isn't really a volcanic eruption crater - it's an erosion crater filled partially with lava and gravel. The visitor's center and the start of the Sliding Sands trail are at the top edge, looking down into a huge bowl with a variable shape of smaller cones and canyons. NASA has trained astronauts here, because it resembles the landscape of the moon more than most other places on Earth.
One of the most surprising aspects of down into the bowl along Sliding Sands Trail was how quiet it was. Once we got into some shelter, away from the wind, the air was completely still. All the hikers were strung out at considerable distance from each other, and you didn't hear anyone's footsteps against the soft, crumbly footing. It was rather meditative - continually advancing down an almost imperceptibly changing landscape. But in the back of our minds we kept thinking about the return up the trail, which would be considerably more difficult because of the high elevation - we'd seen a number of miserable-looking people on the ascent. We decided that we would give ourselves three times as much time to go up as we spent going down.
Horse tours down the trail were popular, and we debated the effects on the landscape - the horse droppings must have changed the fertility of the soil, maybe even bringing in seeds, because the limited vegetation was clustered along the trail. We were excited to finally spot the silversword 'ahinahina plants, native to that area - no need for horse droppings to keep them alive.
The ascent was not as difficult as we'd feared - a bit of pulse pounding in our ears, a few more frequent pauses to catch our breath, but pretty manageable. In fact, we ascended too quickly - it only took us one and a half times as long as our descent, not three times, which left us with too much time at the summit before sunset. We climbed another small side trail and circled the summit more than once.
The summit was incredibly windy compared to being inside the bowl on the Sliding Sands trail. We'd brought all of our winter gear that we'd worn in from our flight out of Toronto - gloves, hats, fleeces, windbreakers - and it still wasn't enough. We ate our sandwiches inside the car to escape the cold, and watched a few sunset tour buses unload - all of their tourists were outfitted with matching puffy winter coats. Even with the tour buses there weren't many visitors - sunset doesn't attract the same numbers as sunrise, although we'd read that it can be just as fabulous.
Apparently the ideal conditions for sunrise or sunset are a clear sky overhead and clouds below to maximize the colours. Unfortunately our conditions were the opposite - overcast above and no clouds below. But the transformation from pale pink to blazing gold as the sun set was still dramatic - I would take a photograph, think I was done, and then a few minutes later realize that the sky had changed colour yet again.
The drive down was long and slow, in second gear the whole way. One of the upsides of heading down after dark was that all the cyclists were gone - the only obstacle I had to watch out for were the cows. Although they hadn't been anywhere near on our ascent, at night they were clustered right at the edges of the road, seemingly mesmerized by the traffic.
The view from Leleiwi Lookout
On top of the world, clouds at our feet, as we eat our lunch
The view down Sliding Sands trail
Mark inserts himself into my panoramic photo-taking
Signs of erosion
A view from further down Sliding Sands
Horses coming back up the trail
The silversword 'ahinahina plant
The summit (see how the wind is blowing out our jackets?)
The observatory seemed like it was in the way of the best view, but looking at the photos now it provides a good focal point
Sunset over the distant volcanic peaks
The final moments of sunset