A Bicycle Ride Up Haleakala
(with the French Alps as training)

Copyright © 2004, Kathryn Harrington and Marc San Soucie

As 2004 began, the only advance travel plans that my husband Marc & I had were to visit Europe again with our bicycles, and to visit Maui again later in the year.

At the end of July, we took our 5th trip to Europe with our bicycles and with Breaking Away Bicycle Tours for the Tour Des Alpes trip. This trip took in some of the best terrain in the Alps of southeastern France and northwestern Italy. Besides the two-country cultural and culinary experience, we challenged each other up many mountain passes, including the likes of L’Alpe D’Huez, the Colle d’Agnello, Mont Cenis, Sestriere, and Col du Glandon, all them used at one time or another in the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia.

As if all that weren’t enough, we had planned early on to take a long escape to Maui – 6 days in the warm sun during November. With the hard work we put in on the bikes all year, we figured we could spice up the trip by taking bicycles to Maui and tackling the long climb up Mount Haleakala. This mountain is home to many downhill cycling companies, who guide visitors down the 36-mile descent on rented bikes. It is considered odd at best to ride up the thing, but that’s never stopped us. We brought along our trusty travel steeds, and bicycled the 36 miles up, from sea level to the summit at 10,023 feet, riding through a cloud layer along the way. We had visited the Maui and Haleakala the year before, so felt comfortable that the ride from sea level to over 10,000 feet would be very doable. Haleakala ride diaries that we read on the Internet confirmed the feasibility of the ride, providing ride details, elevation and mileage data, and photos. (Example: pages.prodigy.net/hamachi/Haleakala.html, and briandesousa.com/bicycling/rides/haleakala.htm)

From the coast to the summit the ride is 36 miles long and gains 10,023 vertical feet. The average grade is a shade above 5%, and nothing on the ride is very steep. It increases gradually to about 6000 ft, up to 6%. It then decreases back to about 4-5% the rest of the way to the top. The only exception is the last little climb to Red Hill (the top), which is about 8-10%.

We took our Co-Motion CoPilot bicycles, which we bought equipped with SNS couplings and travel suitcases. We’ve used these bicycles for three of our European trips and love them for their ease of travel and their wholesome steel goodness. While packing and unpacking them is a bit of a chore, the benefits of riding bicycles that are familiar and well tuned to us are many.

On arrival on Maui we started putting our bicycles together and ran into a major mechanical issue caused by clumsy amateur mechanickery. The next day we stopped into West Maui Cycles in Lahaina. We were really pleased with the service we received there, and our mechanical problem was handled most satisfactorily. They also rent good bicycles, so this might be a reasonable option if you don’t want to travel with your own bike.

Two days before the Haleakala ride, we enjoyed an afternoon ride along the northwest coast of the island, from Kaanapali up past Kapalua toward the north end of the island. If we hadn’t known that we’d be tackling the big monster a couple days later, we’d have ridden the 50 mile loop tour of the northwest portion of Maui. The coast road was spectacular, with a lot of extremely serious steep rollers overlooking the ocean.

Our big ride day started early, at 5:30am, when we woke to eat breakfast and drive through the rush hour traffic to the northern tip of the east portion of the island. We began pedaling from the Paia town parking lot at 7:30am. I was expecting a hot humid ride (uncomfortable for me), and was pleased to instead enjoy comfortable temperatures, though the first hour was a bit humid. We took plenty of spare clothing in case we encountered rain or chilly conditions, as rain was considered a 40% possibility. I took my “mondo-condo” under-seat bag, stuffed with a bike jacket, 2 PB&J sandwiches, 6 GUs, a couple of cheese sticks, 2 Luna Bars, and a snack baggie with more powdered Gatorade. (I ate 1-1/2 sandwiches, all of the GUs, the cheese sticks and 1 Luna Bar in addition to a small fruit bar on the way up and a couple of apple bananas from the store on the way down.) I rode with two water bottles (one with Gatorade.) I used shoelaces and toggles to secure to my handlebars a stuff sack with additional clothing (long fingered gloves, vest, and a pair of lightweight tights.) It worked out really well. I rode in a no-sleeve jersey and shorts and was comfortable all day. Since I tend to get cold on downhills, I did wear all of my warm clothes on the way down.

From Paia we rode south, up Baldwin Avenue, through lush Hawaiian farmland (mostly sugar cane) to the town of Makawao. This stretch of the ride was the most mentally challenging, simply because it was early and humid, and because the massive northern face of Haleakala was always visible ahead of us. Past Makawao, we rode up and turned east for a brief spell of no pedaling, then turned left onto the Haleakala Highway, where we were greeted by group after group of descending bicyclists on cruisers doing the famed sunrise downhill ride.

After a bit we turned left onto Haleakala Crater Road, which marks the start of the serious switchbacks. The Sunrise Market, at 3500 ft elevation on the 2nd hairpin up from the junction, was a wonderful place to stop. We used the restroom facilities, bought a small fruit salad, more water and a couple of apple bananas – yumm!) There are some homes in this area at about 4000 feet elevation.

Once on the relatively short switchbacks of the crater road, we saw elevation markers all along the way, providing a good gauge of progress. This stretch was the most steep, probably averaging close to 6%. We rode up into a cloud layer at about 4500 feet, emerging back into sunlight at about 6500 feet above the clouds.

At the park entrance booth, elevation 6800 ft., you get a good view of the long switchbacks ahead for the ride up. From this point on, the terrain is all volcanic, with an array of colors. The lower visitor center, at 7000 feet, provided another good spot to eat more food and take on more water. The next few miles were not as difficult as we expected, and we felt absolutely great the rest of the way up, enjoying fabulous views of Maui and Haleakala. The upper visitor center area, at about 9700 feet, provided another rest break (bathrooms and water.) From here it was only another half mile to the summit. We rode up the sidewalk to the summit viewpoint and took photos. Many of the tourists were curious about our ride up, and all had passed us in their cars before. The whole day we only saw one other cyclist (descending) who might have ridden up the hill, while we saw nearly a hundred in the descending groups.

The climb took 5-1/2 hours of riding, 7-1/2 hours total, with ample stops for food and water. We were never severely challenged by either the climbing or the weather, and we found that the altitude was never a problem. We seldom experience altitude issues in our Oregon adventures below about 11,000 feet, so this wasn’t surprising.

The ride down was swift, thanks to an excellent road surface, sweeping turns and the need to pedal only a couple of times. We rode the same route down as the way up, avoiding the Haleakala Highway altogether (its rush hour traffic and possible trade winds, which never transpired.) The descent took about 1-1/4 hours, at an average of about 25 MPH.

All in all, this ride was much easier than I expected. It would be no problem whatsoever to ride it on a tandem – up or down - and we did talk about that idea on the ride up and afterward. We would heartily encourage anyone thinking of doing this ride to go ahead and plan on it. It’s only a 36-mile ride, after all, with just a little bit of climbing!