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The island of Maui is made up of two large volcanoes called… well, that’s a little confusing. The largest mountain, on the east side, is commonly referred to as Haleakala, meaning house of the sun. To the ancient Hawaiians, Haleakala referred only to a portion of the summit of the mountain, not the whole mountain. In fact, as far as we know, they had no name for either of the two large mountains that make up Maui. But the word Haleakala has been used so often in recent years to describe the entire mountain that it’s now generally accepted.
The other great mountain is topped by a small peak called Pu‘u Kukui, or hill of the candlenut tree. A bit duller, huh? That name has never been used to describe the entire mountain, so it’s commonly referred to by its less-than-exotic name, West Maui Mountain. Even scholarly geology books refer to them as Haleakala and West Maui Mountain. Annoyed at the western name, visitor bureaucrats are now pushing to refer to West Maui Mountain as Mauna Kahalawai, but that name was never accepted by Hawaiian linguists. We’ve also heard tour guides, such as boat captains, refer to West Maui as Halemahina, or house of the moon. Sounds so symmetrical next to the house of the sun, but it’s bogus.

Maui Map

West Maui is the older of the two mountains. Streams have cut deeply into its slopes, and the results are lovely. Though you’d expect more erosion on the wet side, an accident of geology capped the wet side with more erosion-resistant lava, so big valleys aren’t as prevalent as they normally would be.
Haleakala is the younger, still-active mountain. It’s just over 10,000 feet high, but it wasn’t always so. At one time it rose to 15,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the world at over 32,000 feet high (when measured from its base at the bottom of the ocean). But Haleakala is crushing itself under its own weight. Someday it will sink back into the sea. (But probably not before your trip here.) Its smoother slopes and 10,000-foot height hide an enormous volume of rock. The Hana side is a lush wonderland whose beauty is legendary. Kihei is in the dry rain shadow of the mountain, so there are few streams or eroded areas. The summit features the awesome  Haleakala Crater. (Actually it’s an erosion crater.)
At one time, all the islands surrounding Maui formed one big island, which geologists called Maui Nui. (Meaning Big Maui—darned clever, those geologists.) In fact, if you’d visited here just 18,000 years ago, during a mini ice age that drastically lowered the sea level, you could have driven from Maui to Lana‘i and on to Moloka‘i. (Of course, finding a rental car might have been an issue.) As the volcanoes sank and the seas rose, the mountains separated, forming today’s configuration. They continue to sink, and in about 15,000 years Maui will be two separate islands. We live in an era when Maui is perfectly arranged to easily explore the two sides. Enjoy our fortunate timing.

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