What In the World is a Brocken Spectre?

Brocken Spectre.   That’s not a horror movie, or a fake paranormal TV show; it’s a rare atmospheric phenomenon where you see a rainbow around your own shadow.   And we had read that you have a better shot at seeing it in only three places in the entire world:  The Brocken mountains in Germany, parts of Scotland, and Leleiwi Overlook at Haleakala Crater on the island of Maui.

My wife is a genius at getting free or nearly free plane tickets through air miles, so we found ourselves on vacation in Hawaii last summer, a quarter of the way across the world from our home.

The Brocken Spectre (also called Spectre of the Brocken) certainly wasn’t the only reason we were there, or the main reason, but truth be told, I really, really wanted to see it if possible.   Because . . . Coolest Thing Ever!   (at least in the atmospheric phenomena department) . . .  And it’s something few other people in the world have seen.

I knew Andrew (our 11 year old son) would remember it forever.

So at our first real opportunity, we drove the two hours (one way) from West Maui up Haleakala to view the sunset, and check if conditions would lend themselves to seeing the Spectre of the Brocken.

The drive itself is pretty cool.   You start at sea level where the temperature is in the high 80s or low 90s and drive past miles of oceanside with views of multiple other islands off in the distance.

As you start up the mountain–which is essentially the entire eastern side of the island– you wind your way through several different climate zones.   Around 3000 feet the temperature drops into the low 70s and you find yourself in a pine forest a lot like what we have back on the mainland.

You also deal with quite a few hairpin turns as you continue to snake your way up the mountain.   This is screenshot of the latter part of the drive:


There is frequently a cloud layer between about 4000 and 7000 feet (you can almost always see it from pretty much anywhere on Maui).   You drive through it (in the form of dense fog) on the way up, and emerge above it around 7000 feet (though this varies daily).

Being above the cloud layer in bright sunshine–as your long shadow is cast into the thick fog layer below–gives you the opportunity to see the rainbow around your shadow.


Haleakala is a little over 10,000 feet tall, but we parked near 8800 feet and walked the ¼ mile off the road to Leleiwi Overlook.   The overlook peers into a volcanic crater (to the left in this picture) which is large enough to fit the entire city of Manhattan.


There were clouds below us in the crater   (check).   The sun was shining brightly in the sky above us, unobscured by other cloud cover (check).   But–and we hadn’t anticipated this–we were so far up the mountain and it was so late in the day that the sun was actually below us pointing uphill.   So instead of our shadows being projected down into the crater onto the clouds, they just kind of stopped.

So no Brocken Spectre.   I was bummed, but I knew exactly what we had to do next time (if we had a next time).   We could come back earlier in the afternoon when the sun was still high in the sky.   Since dense cloud and bright sunshine frequently alternate very quickly at the overlook (it’s famous for that), we would just wait as long as it took.  We enjoyed the truly spectacular sunset behind us (below) while we were there, then made the long, slow, winding drive back down the mountain.


Joan and I are type A vacationers, so we try to cram as many little adventures as we possibly can into every single trip.   The further we are from home, the more we feel we have to experience because, well, we might not pass this way again.   So every hour of vacation time is a big deal to us because it represents time we could be encountering something new we can’t do back home.

So on our last full day in Maui, I told Joan “we’re a quarter of the way across the world and this is the thing I’ve most wanted to see.  I’ll regret it if we don’t try again”.   I knew I was asking for a lot.   It would cost us another 4 hours of drive time, and who knows how long sitting and waiting at the overlook.   But I was optimistic.   We prayed as a family, told God we’d thank Him no matter what happened, but also that we’d really love to see this rainbow thing, and made the long, slow drive back up the dormant volcano.

We parked and did the 10 minute walk to the overlook and saw this . . . .

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Deep, intense fog.  Everywhere.   Instead of being just above the cloud layer we were in it, and the sun above us was completed obscured.    But the overlook is known for fast changing weather (there was even a sign there with a time lapse photo series showing the crater switching from serious cloud cover to complete sunlight in just a few minutes), so we waited.

Soon another family came out to the overlook.   They had read the same book we had and were hoping for the same once in a lifetime experience of seeing the Spectre of the Brocken.   We talked with them for about an hour.   We learned where they were from, their kids’ college plans, the details of the rest of their trip.   It was great getting to know them.  But the clouds never broke.   They eventually gave up and headed the rest of the way up the mountain to check on the view from the summit.

But I wasn’t leaving.   So we waited.   And waited, and waited.   The sun threatened to come out multiple times.  Over, and over, and over.   But each time it was immediately obscured again by fog.

I kept looking at the little sign explaining how rapidly the weather could change there.  In five minutes.   Five minutes!    Surely we would get those five minutes.

So we continued to wait.    It was 54 degrees.  In Hawaii.   It was damp.   And windy.    I was wearing shorts.  And really, really cold.    (I at least had a light jacket, and Joan and Andrew were dressed more sensibly for the weather).


And finally, it was sunset.   And I was faced with the stark realization.   It didn’t happen.  The sun was gone, and so was the opportunity to see this amazing thing, this once in a lifetime experience that my son would have remembered forever.  I had really believed that God would clear out the clouds for five minutes.   Or even just that the odds were in our favor.  But it never took place.    And it wasn’t going to, since we had to leave the island early the next morning.

I was dejected, despondent, defeated, and depressed.

I knew it, Joan knew it (without me saying a word), God knew it.   The only one who didn’t know it was Andrew, because we intentionally tried to put the best possible face on the situation, and wanted to limit his discouragement.  (another D word).

(Note:   It’s really stupid to feel dejected, despondent, defeated and depressed because you didn’t see a nerdy atmospheric phenomenon when you are on vacation.  In Maui.   And you flew there for $11.   I’m fully aware of that.  I was fully aware of it then.  But that is how I felt, and I couldn’t shake it)

We eventually made the long, slow, twisting drive back down the mountain–in the dark, fog, and occasional rain.  It was quiet in the car.  Joan didn’t say much because she knew how I was feeling.  I was careful not to express out loud how I felt because I didn’t want Andrew to hear and add to the disappointment I knew he must be feeling.

I was frustrated we had missed a once in a lifetime experience, frustrated Andrew wouldn’t have that memory to keep, frustrated I had wasted half a day denying us several other opportunities, and frustrated I’d asked my wife and son to stand in the fog and cold for 3 hours.   And I was still wondering why God couldn’t have scrounged up 5 minutes of sunshine for us in a place famous for shifting from socked in to sunshine in mere seconds.

We continued the fog-laden downhill drive, and eventually went to a mall food court to eat a very late dinner just before they closed.

While we were eating, I asked our 11 year old a question I routinely ask him, especially on vacations:   “What was your favorite thing we did today?”   What was your favorite experience?   I presumed it would be one of our little undertakings earlier in the day, before we embarked on the massive letdown of Brocken Spectre Epic Fail, Part II.

“What was your favorite thing we did today, Andrew?”

“Looking for the Brocken Spectre,” he answered casually, without hesitation . . .

His answer hit me like a ton of bricks, and I tried not to let him see I was holding back tears.

Looking for it.  Not finding it.  Just the sheer experience of seeking it, and the adventure along the way.

While his pastor father–who should have known better–pouted about an opportunity lost, an 11 year old boy understood that it was about the journey.  He would remember the drive up through the clouds, the family we got to know at the overlook, the moments he and Joan and I spent together in the cold and fog just waiting and talking, the memory that was made even if the objective didn’t happen.

And it made a little more sense to me why the clouds never departed that afternoon.   Maybe I had something to learn. . .

He got it.   And I didn’t.

What’s your Brocken Spectre?   What are you striving toward and pushing for that you think will change your life for the better if you just get it to finally experience it?  You probably shouldn’t give up on it.   But don’t miss out on the joys (and especially the people) already there along the way.








At the time of this writing, we’ve been back in our home state of West Virginia for several weeks now.
After dropping off our oldest son at college, we drove back home on an interstate highway through a series of severe thunderstorms.   The very intense storms on I-68 would pass quickly, and a minute or two later we would find ourselves in blue sky and bright sunshine.   We were driving right behind a semi during one of the blue sky/bright sunshine phases of the trip, when the spray from the truck and water on the road surrounded our car.   This caused a half rainbow to form for a few seconds on the left side of our Toyota, from the hood to the rear passenger door.  Andrew was in the back seat when it happened.   We call it Prius of the Brocken . . .

1 comment on “What In the World is a Brocken Spectre?

  1. How wonderful.
    I love that Andrew was all about the anticipation of it all and that you got yourown personal surrounding rainbow. What a memory!!!

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