Ride to Haleakala
Map and Elevation Profile
Other Uphill Ride Reports
The road from the top of the dormant Haleakala volcano in
Maui is unique in that it is almost a steady descent from about 10,000 feet to
sea level - there is only about 400 yards of uphill in the whole 37 miles of
downhill to the ocean. Many commercial outfits offer you a chance to "bike
down the volcano" - they first drive you to the summit in a van, then you
hop on a rental bike for the downhill (more on this later). I decided to bring
my own bike to Hawaii and do the ride uphill instead.
On our first full day in Maui (in order to use the time change to our
advantage), my wife and I drove up to the summit to catch the sunrise. This gave
me the opportunity to scope out the two major starting routes to the summit -
Baldwin Ave. from Paia, and the lower portion of the Haleakala Highway from just
outside of Kahului. Both of these routes then merge before continuing on to the
summit. Baldwin Ave. is more scenic and curvy, while the lower portion of the
Haleakala Highway is a straight four lane highway connecting urban Kahului with
the upcountry. The route recommended in the book "Short Bike Rides in
Hawaii" uses Baldwin Ave. for the uphill and the Haleakala Highway for the
downhill - a recommendation that looked OK to me.
Instead of using the book's starting point at a park in Kahului, I decided to
forego the extra mileage and start the ride directly from the Paia town parking
lot (warning I didn't find any public restrooms in town). The downside of this
was that I would have to ride four miles of the Hana Highway (Highway 36) into
the tradewinds at the end of the day in order to get back to the car. (This is
not as much of a problem when starting from Kahului, since the winds are much
calmer in the morning.) Starting at the intersection of Haleakala Highway and
Hana Highway is not possible because there is nowhere to park.
I got some last minute advice from Island
Cycles in Kahului ("start the
ride early"). Although I had my own bike, for future reference I also
checked out the rental bikes available at West Maui Cycles in Lahaina. They are
decent Cannondale R300 road bikes with triple cranks, Sora componentry, and STI
shifting - although the gearing from the stock triple crank is a little too high
for my climbing tastes. (As an aside, I also got some advice from the shop on
taking your bike on interisland flights - Aloha Airlines only requires that
pedals be removed and the handlebars turned, while Hawaiian Airlines is
requiring that the bike be in a box.)
I drove out to the Paia town parking lot and got started at first light at
545 AM - the temperature was 74 degrees. Once I turned on Baldwin Ave. the road
started going uphill. After leaving town, I saw mostly small houses and sugar
cane fields - even passing a sugar mill that is still in operation.
I hadn't been on the bike for a few weeks, so I wasn't trying to break any
records with the climb, generally taking it slow and easy. Furthermore, I had my
heavier travel bike to help slow me down instead of my favorite climbing bike,
Even though the sun had finally risen over the clouds, the temperature wasn't
that much warmer by the time I reached Makawao, due to its higher elevation.
Makawao, with its old wooden storefronts, is said to be a Hawaiian cowboy town,
but don't expect to see anybody riding around on horseback.
Baldwin Ave. becomes Olinda Road after passing through Makawao. Olinda Road
was noticeably steeper than the climb on Baldwin, twisting and turning as it went
past homes with nice views. I didn't remember the road being this steep, so I
knew something was wrong. I pulled out my directions and found out that I should
have only been on Olinda Road for only a mile or so - I had missed my turn and stayed on
Olinda Road 3 miles more than that! So I had to backtrack 3 miles down the hill
to get back on course - with an additional penalty of 900 feet of elevation.
Soon I turned onto Haleakala Crater Road, the next stage of the climb. The
first part of this road passes through some residential areas at about 4000 feet
elevation. The temperature here was cooler than sea level, yet still pleasant -
an excellent location for those who like to play in the tropics, but don't want
to live in the heat and humidity. I stopped at a small store here, as it would
be my last chance to refuel before the climb to the summit.
It was at this point in the ride that I would see most of the downhill tour
groups, each group spaced about 10 minutes apart. A typical group would have
about 15 people outfitted in rain jackets and motorcycle-style helmets riding
single file, with a guide riding in the front and the van taking up the rear.
Typically the group was held to a slow speed - therefore, the guide in the front
and the van in the back would communicate by radio in order to find the
best moment for the group to pull over to allow faster traffic to pass.
<begin safety rant>
The tour operators often portray this downhill as a ride that anyone,
including your grandmother, can do. However, one tour book that I read claims
that there is about one serious crash per week. (I found a few internet links
regarding crashes on these downhill tours: #1,
Regardless of whose side of
the story is closer to the truth, all of the crashes that I have heard of
appear to be result of people riding beyond their abilities. Whether it's the
tour companies prodding the riders on (as the book I read had claimed), or the
riders pushing themselves past their comfort zone, I don't know. But according to my casual
observation they were going no faster than 15 mph on average - which would be
considered a very slow downhill speed for an experienced cyclist. Riding
downhill, while not requiring any physical exertion, does require some knowledge
of when to brake, how hard to squeeze the brakes, knowing how fast is too fast,
how to negotiate tight turns, etc. I would suggest that anyone who hasn't been on a bike in a while find a
small hill at home on which to practice before doing the downhill "for real".
<end safety rant>
After passing through the last of the residential areas on Haleakala Crater
Road, the view changed into switchbacks carved into open green pastures. The sky
was clear enough to see the road stair-stepping up until it disappeared out of
view - the summit along with its final approach were further back and couldn't
be seen from this point. This was clearly the most difficult part of the ride -
I was at about 5000 feet elevation and doing the mental arithmetic, calculating
whether or not I could make it up and back before sunset. I pressed on, knowing
that if worse came to worst, I could turn around and retrace my steps to the
After the green pastures, the climb became a little less steep upon entering
Haleakala National Park at 7000 feet. The landscape changed to volcanic rock,
with low-lying bushes growing out of the rock. The flightless Hawaiian state
bird - the nene - could occasionally be seen running across the road.
At 8000 feet I began to notice the usual mountain riding sensations. I had to
back off on my effort due to the noticeably thinner air. I started to feel
nauseous due to the elevation. Clouds would occasionally pass through briefly,
although it never got cold or wet enough to put on my jacket.
Finally, at 4 PM, I reached the summit at 10,023 feet! Although there are
spectacular volcanic views from the top, I didn't stay very long to look around
in order to make time for the descent.
Other than the bumpy cattle guards, the ride was smooth sailing all the way
down. In one spot a tourist in a Ford Mustang pulled into the slow vehicle
turnout in order to let me pass. Using the straight as an arrow Haleakala
Highway instead of Baldwin Ave. for the descent allowed me to effortlessly reach
a top speed of 47 mph.
Finally, there was the four mile stretch into the tradewinds to make it back
to the car in Paia, ending the 82 mile "sea to summit ride". Whew,
what a day!
Map and Elevation Profile (click for larger versions)
Route Directions (excluding unplanned detour)