Bike ride up (and down) a volcano

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 then keep on reading.

Ever since picking up road biking a few months ago, I fantasized about doing a multi-day bike tour in the not so distant future. Adventure Cycling and REI (among others) offer a variety of tours with different difficulty levels, lengths and, of course, locations. In order to get in the mood (and training state) for such a trip, I felt it would be good to get a few longer and intense rides under my belt. The combination of great air fares 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 following is a description of my own experiences while riding up the volcano, however if you are looking for an even more detailed trip report, I encourage you to visit Mike Jacoubowsky’s definitive guide for riding up Haleakalā.

Starting Out

The adventure started with tipping my toe into the water of the Pacific Ocean, a nice symbolic ritual and it 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, there is green 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 made a right turn onto Hanamu Road, avoiding to continue 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 of green to both sides of the road and great views of West Maui, while I was 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.

Crater Road

The next 7 miles were what seemed like a never-ending string of switchbacks, first meandering around nice residential areas but only after 2 miles presented me with wide open space. During that 7 mile section, you are climbing up about 2,300 feet and reaching 5,700 feet after a total of 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) 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 more and more sparse with every feet of elevation and the views more and more gorgeous (above the line of clouds at this point) as I climbed further towards 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 real 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 no, 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 real hard challenge. Eventually, after a total of 6 hours and 24 minutes, I reached the summit at 10,023 feet, 35 miles away 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 (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 pretty comparable to hiking up Mount Whitney. Especially after 6,000 feet, the elevation starts to get to you and combined with the fact that you started out from 0 and had covered 20 miles of constant climbing already really affects your performance. At 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 not really a match for his speed, so we split up after about 1 hour of riding to keep going at my own pace, which was definitely important.

The traffic was surprisingly heavy at the beginning of the ride in the Pāʻia and Makawao area, 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, it is pretty important to pick a nice day for the ride. 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, as well as the Sunrise Country Market on Crater Rd), but the only time I filled up my 2 25oz Camelbak Podium Big Chill bottles was at the Park Headquarters Visitor Center.

Bike Rental

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, a 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 (prices are per December 2011):

  • Maui Cyclery (99 Hana Hwy, Paia, HI 96779): Scott Speedster S20 ($45/day, $220/week)
  • West Maui Cycles (1087 Limahana Pl, #6, Lahaina, HI 96761): Specialized Performance Road Bike (1 day: $60, 3-6 days: $50/day, $220/week), Auto Bicycle Carrier (1 day: $5, 3-6 days: $3/Day, $15/week)
  • Maui Road Bike Rentals by Boss Frog’s (locations in Kihei and Lahaina): Fuji Aero 3.0 SST ($50/day, $200/week), bike rack ($15/week)

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