A bicycle. One of the most beautiful spots on earth. 35 miles. 10,000 feet of climbing. Feelings of pain and exhaustion waiting to happen. If this is your idea of a great vacation, keep reading.
Since I picked up road biking a few months ago, I have fantasized about someday doing a multi-day bike tour. Adventure Cycling and REI (among others) offer a variety of tours with different difficulty levels, lengths and, of course, locations. To get in the mood (and training state) for such a trip, I felt getting a few more prolonged and intense rides under my belt would be good.
The combination of great airfares and the fact that I found out that one can actually ride up Haleakalā on Maui, led me into booking a trip to the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands for mid-November. And so I found myself on a beach in Pāʻia in the early morning hours of November 15, in full cycling gear and my Specialized rental bike leaned against a tree nearby— it was time to rock n’ roll.
The adventure started with tipping my toe into the water of the Pacific Ocean, a lovely symbolic ritual that underlines that this ride starts at 0 elevation. After a few pedal strokes, I left the small town of Pāʻia, the official start of the ride. For quite a while, the sides of the road are lined by farmland on one side and little housing and small businesses on the other. But with every minute, the area gets less and less populated. Due to the amount of rainfall this part of the island gets, green is all around.
After riding for about 6.5 miles and climbing roughly 1,500 feet, I reached the town of Makawao, more than double the size of Pāʻia, with quite some shops and lunch places along Baldwin Ave. After the intersection with Makawao Road, Baldwin Avenue becomes Olinda Road which greeted me right away with a steep 13% climb of around 300 feet in length (which is probably the steepest section of the whole climb, so be relieved to get that out of the way at the beginning).
At the 8-mile marker, I turned right onto Hanamu Road, avoiding continuing riding on I-390 and eventually reaching a dead end. So not missing that turn is quite imperative. From Hanamu Road, I connected to I-377 (or Haleakala Hwy) via the short Kealaloa Ave. For the next 4 miles, I admired the lush green on both sides of the road and the incredible views of West Maui while climbing and climbing and climbing…. Conquering that stretch, the area showed signs of civilization again when I reached settlements that are part of the Kula region. The sign for Haleakala National Park, which I have been waiting for finally manifested at mile marker 14 and about 3,400 feet of elevation, directing me onto Crater Road and further up the mountain.
The following 7 miles seemed like a never-ending string of switchbacks, first meandering around nice residential areas, but only after 2 miles presented me with vast open space. During that 7-mile section, you are climbing up about 2,300 feet and reaching 5,700 feet after around 21 miles. I reached that point after roughly 3 hours (to put that in perspective, the fastest rider in the 2011 Cycle to the Sun bike race was already enjoying the views from up top for 11 minutes at that time).
A pretty much straight climb to 6,500 feet over about 3.3 miles brought me to a right bend with lots of forest and vegetation before reaching another milestone: The Haleakala National Park entrance (where I paid my $5 entrance fee (in 2011)) at 6,700 feet and a total of just over 24 miles. 11 miles and 3,300 feet of climbing to go. You have either the option to fill up your water bottles at the entrance (water hose at the back of the building) or at the Haleakala National Park Headquarters Visitor Center (restrooms with water fountains on the left side of the building), which is about 1 mile up the road from the park entrance.
Above the Clouds
From here on out, there were 8 more turns (stretched switchbacks) between me and the final stretch to the top. The vegetation grew increasingly sparse with every foot of elevation, and the views became more and more gorgeous (above the line of clouds at this point) as I climbed further toward the summit. 7.7 miles of gruel climbing up to 9,200 feet, with rest stops about every 500 feet, finally brought me to that last stretch where you feel really close to the top (the operative word is “feel”).
At 9,800 feet, your mind might trick you into thinking you are already there (with the parking lot of the Haleakala National Park Visitor Center to the left), but there is still a significant stretch to go. Actually, it is only about 0.7 miles and a bit over 200 feet of climbing, but having been on the bike for 6 hours and 15 minutes, this felt like a real hard challenge. Eventually, after 6 hours and 24 minutes, I reached the summit at 10,023 feet, 35 miles from the beach in Pāʻia, where I had started this epic ride.
For about an hour, I took in the scenery and surfed the waves of emotions of my accomplishment; it was then time for the equally thrilling downhill ride (for which the regular tourist type has to pay for). Luckily it was not terribly cold at the summit (in the mid-60s), but nevertheless, I put on my arm and leg warmers as well as my wind breaker and long finger gloves and cruised down. The downhill took me about 90 minutes.
Thoughts on the ride
The ride was one of the most strenuous things I have ever attempted and is comparable to hiking up Mount Whitney. Especially after 6,000 feet, the elevation started to get to me. The fact that I started out from 0 and had already covered 20 miles of constant climbing really affected my performance. In the beginning, I had teamed up with another fellow rider, John from Vancouver, B.C., whom I had met in the public parking lot in Pāʻia. Having done a couple of triathlons and Ironmans, I was no match for his speed, so we split up after about 1 hour of riding to keep going at my own pace, which was important.
The traffic was surprisingly heavy at the beginning of the ride in the Pāʻia and Makawao area but died down a bit, and picked up again, fueled by tourists driving up the volcano. In general, I found it to be fine, unfortunately, with the occasional driver coming a little too close, but luckily it worked out without incident.
As Mike points out in his guide, picking a nice day for the ride is pretty important. I had kept a close eye on the forecast when heading to Maui, and the day right after I got there turned out to be the best one, with sunshine and clear skies pretty much all the way. You certainly want to try to avoid a day with rain or fog.
In terms of food and drinks, I brought multiple energy bars and gels with me, as well as Gatorade powder sticks, which make it real easy to turn regular water into an electrolyte-rich sports drink. There are certainly ways to stock up on food along the way (in Pāʻia or Makawao), but the only time I filled up my 2 25oz Camelbak Podium Big Chill bottles was at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center.
Instead of bringing my own bike, I ended up renting a Specialized Secteur Comp from Island Biker Maui, which came to a total of $200 for the whole week (which would have included a bike rack, that I did not end up needing since Alamo upgraded me to a minivan). It included a pump, an Island Biker Maui-branded water bottle, 2 bottle cages, flat repair tools, a spare tube, and a Specialized helmet.
I ended up going with them since I ride a Specialized at home, and they turned out to be the cheapest option for a weekly rental. When I did my research, I also found these other options which may or may not suit you better: