Sunrise reservations gone in minutes; tweaks considered

Waitlist, cancellation capability mulled but changes not likely soon because park lacks control over system

Visitors watch the sunrise from the Haleakala National Park summit in 2015. Park officials are working to modify a Haleakala sunrise reservation program in the future to allow for cancellations and a waitlist. • Photo courtesy Haleakala National Park

The Haleakala National Park sunrise reservation program sells out in a matter of minutes and officials are hoping to institute a cancellation system with a waitlist in the future — but they have no idea when that could happen.

The park implemented the reservation program nearly a year ago in response to steadily increasing traffic and overcrowding at the summit over the past couple decades. Park officials held a public meeting that drew about eight people Wednesday night to present a draft environmental assessment released earlier this month. It seeks to come up with solutions to improve safety and the overall experience of the popular trip for visitors and residents.

“We’re not the only park dealing with this issue, and I think, in a way, it’s a wonderful problem to have because it means we’re well-loved,” park Superintendent Natalie Gates said. “The question is: ‘Are we being loved to death?’ And that’s where we have to make hard decisions.”

While several alternatives were proposed during the draft environmental assessment process, the park has proposed to maintain the current reservation system with some modifications. Those could include overbooking to account for no-shows, creating a waitlist, allowing people to release their reservation online if it won’t be used, and preventing visitors from reserving more than one day within a certain time period to prevent hoarding.

Park officials clarified, though, that they could not implement the changes anytime soon because they do not have power over the reservation system. The system is used by national parks nationwide and is contracted out by the federal government.

Visitors routinely double-parked and blocked access during sunrise hours before the park launched its reservation program in February. • Photo courtesy Haleakala National Park

One change the park did make was in the way it releases its 150 available parking spots in advance of the 3-to-7 a.m. sunrise reservation period. The park initially released a large portion 60 days in advance, with the remainder held until two days before the day of the visit.

The park has since increased the amount of reservations held two days before. Those have sold out within 10 minutes of release, Gates said. She noted, however, that the change has not fixed its no-show numbers. Those range from 20 to 30 a day.

“One thing we can’t do is exceed our 150 tickets,” she said. “If we want to consider overbooking like airlines do, we just have to be very careful and do it in a very considerate way. It would vary on the season, if it was a holiday or on the weather. There’s a lot more no-shows when the weather’s bad. So it’s a little tricky, and we may never fill 100 percent.”

Visitors without a reservation are still not allowed up to the summit until after 7 a.m. And, the park turns away about 10 cars per day, officials said. Gates said many of the visitors in turned-away cars admitted that they knew about the reservation system, but they were trying to get in nevertheless.

Residents at Wednesday’s meeting wondered if people without a reservation could be let in if there were no-shows, but Gates said it would cause some visitors to come up hoping they might get in and lead to a line of cars outside the gate entrance.

“We have to be somewhat strict,” she said. “If there was a ton of pull-offs, we could say wait, but then we would expect people there every day.”

Kula resident Dominick Marino was disappointed that he is no longer able to spontaneously drive up for the sunrise without a reservation.

“There’s no problem with me making a reservation, but now it’s kind of scheduled,” Marino said. “It takes the spontaneous thing out of it. It would be cool if there was some way for guys like me, who have lived here for 40 years, could go up and do some photography or hiking.”

Pukalani resident Roni Gonsalves asked if the park and community could highlight the overall park experience rather than the sunrise trip. Park officials said they continue to advertise the entire park and noted that the second busiest time period is between 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We’ve been so targeted on sunrise, sunrise, sunrise,” Gonsalves said. “We really need to get the word out that it’s beautiful through the whole day. We’re not taking away the experience; we’re just shifting it.”

Roadside signs reminding motorists of the park reservation system have been installed in numerous places leading up to the 10,023-foot crater, which has helped inform tourists unfamiliar with the park. Concerns over the safety of visitors and park staff and for sensitive natural and cultural resources at the summit were initially raised in fall 2016, according to the draft environmental assessment.

Average vehicle traffic increased 21 percent for sunrise – the most popular time at the park – between 2015 and 2016. In September 2016, noncommercial vehicles regularly exceeded the 150 available parking spots by an average of 100 vehicles each morning, officials said.

The worst day was July 26, 2016, when the park counted 384 cars.

“We hoped the crowding experience would actually self-regulate the numbers,” Gates said. “But hope is not a strategy, so it didn’t work. That’s been the past 20 years.”

Due to the limited amount of parking spaces, park visitors would frequently drive fast to claim a parking stall despite the darkness and being unfamiliar with the park, said Mark Daniels, contractor for the park’s environmental study. He added that “fender benders” were a regular occurrence, and it was “not uncommon” for fights to break out over parking.

Visitors would park in the middle of access lanes or double-park behind other cars, Daniels said. And, people would abandon their vehicles on Crater Road to view the sunrise if they could not reach the lot.

The cars parked on the narrow road caused problems for emergency vehicles responding to calls at the summit. Daniels said 46 percent of all medical calls from 2015 to 2016 occurred during sunrise hours.

Limited sunrise viewing spots also led visitors to hike off trail or climb on rocks in the dark for better vantage points. People would turn off the road and park directly on habitat protected for endangered species.

Daniels showed photos of smashed vegetation, including a plant knocked over by a car. Among the native wildlife protected at the park are the Haleakala silversword, a flightless moth and the Hawaiian petrel seabird.

The desecration of the park and the large, sometimes noisy crowds diminished the park experience for visitors, especially cultural practitioners, Daniels said.

Since the reservation system launched in February, traffic has decreased and overall safety has improved. Fewer visitors are walking off trail, and no cars have been spotted outside designated parking stalls.

The park averages about 500 to 600 cars a day.

Gates encouraged residents to send their comments to the park and attend future meetings. Public comments are accepted online, via email or postal mail through Feb. 20.

“We get our best ideas from these meetings,” she said.

Online comments may be posted at the National Park Service Planning, Environmental and Public Comment website, parkplanning.nps.gov/sunrise.

Comments can be mailed to Haleakala NP, Sunrise Visitor Management EA, Attention: Linette King, P.O. Box 369, Makawao 96768; or emailed to HALE_Superintendent@nps.gov with the subject line “Sunrise Visitor Management EA.”

Comments will not be accepted by fax. Bulk comments in any format submitted on behalf of others will not be accepted.

The draft environmental assessment can be found at parkplanning.nps.gov/sunrise.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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