By Mark Anderson
In my youth I made many work-based trips to Kauai, vacationed on Oahu a few times (including running the 1998 Honolulu Marathon), and even visited the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. I never made it to Maui despite strong recommendations from several friends. Earlier this month I finally made it.
This wasn’t supposed to be a climbing trip; this was an opportunity for the kids to go to the beach, the pool, and back to the beach again. I mostly wanted to explore a new island, eat some Thai food, and keep my hands as dry as possible (OCD sport climber at work).
One thing I really wanted to do was ride a bike up Haleakala. Haleakala is the massive volcano that essentially created the island of Maui. What remains of its summit rises to an altitude of 10,023 feet above sea level, and there is a paved highway all the way to the summit—an obvious cycling objective. It is said that the road to the summit is the shortest climb to 10,000-feet of any paved road in the world. Perhaps this is tourism propaganda, but Haleakala is a worthy objective regardless.
My road-cycling interests revolve completely around “climbing”, which in cycling terms means riding uphill. I’ve ridden the ten highest paved passes in Colorado, and completed a number of other noteworthy “climbs”, including riding to the summit of three Colorado 14’ers. I think my friend Rob first turned me on to the idea of riding Haleakala nearly two decades ago, but as soon as Maui entered the discussion, I knew the ride was an absolute must-do.
The “official” route starts at the ocean in the north shore town of Paia, and winds 38 miles to the summit (gaining the full 10,000 feet). As a hack cyclist, I generally couldn’t care less what is “official”, and instead concern myself with only the interesting parts of rides. An 80-ish mile ride would consume an entire day (and probably wipe me out for the following day as well), so instead I started where the climb begins in earnest, in the town of Kula. This left me with 7,000-feet of completely unbroken climbing over 21 miles—still a bit longer (in terms of both vertical gain and mileage) than any continuous climb I’d ever done.
While prepping for our trip, I learned that a popular tourist activity is to drive up Haleakala early in the morning to watch the sunrise from the summit. This has become so popular/cliché that you now need to reserve a parking spot in advance (barf). I wanted to start early to avoid getting rained on—generally in the Hawaiian Islands the weather is best in the morning, then gets cloudy (and potentially rainy) in the afternoon. Since I was coming from four time zones to the east, starting early was no problem, so I decided I would up the ante a bit by trying to get to (or near) the summit by sunrise. To illustrate my lack of commitment to this goal, I never bothered to find out what time the sun rose (but I figured it was between 5:30 and 6:00am).
I woke up a 2:45am and started riding around 4:15am by headlamp. Once above treeline, the stars were so bright that I could navigate just fine without the lamp, but I switched it back on whenever I heard a car approaching. The road surface was immaculate, with well-painted shoulders and centerlines the entire way, which made nighttime navigation a breeze.
One of the coolest things about the ride is that it features ~32 switchbacks. Switchbacks are fun, to the extent that riding a bike uphill is fun. The most famous cycling climb in the world—Alpe D’huez—is renowned for its 21 switchbacks over 8.6 miles. Though not quite as steep, Haleakala starts with an onslaught of 22 consecutive hairpins in the first 7 miles! Eat your heart out France! The opening hairpins are followed by a long straight stretch, then 10 more less-tight hairpins over the last ~10 miles to the summit.
Since it was too dark to see mile markers or altitude signs, I passed the time and marked my progress by counting these switchbacks. I reached the National Park entrance station at 5am on the nose, an altitude of 6,800’ and almost exactly half-way in terms of mileage. The ranger seemed pretty surprised to see me at this early hour, but I reassured her that this was totally normal behavior for me.
The station had a sign that tipped off the day’s sunrise—5:37am. It had taken about 45 minutes to do the first (and presumably easier) half, so there was no way I would make the summit by sunrise. Instead I aimed to get to one of several lookouts on the north ridge by that time (most of the road climbs the west side of the mountain). It looked like a thick layer of clouds to the east would prevent viewing of the actual sunrise anyway.
By now I could see pretty well, and the views were absolutely stunning. The air is so clear on the islands that it seems like you could reach out and touch the shimmering beaches over ten miles away. As the sun creeped through the clouds I pulled over for the first time to snap a couple pics of Haleakala’s shadow stretching over the island of Kaho-olawe and the sunrise to the east.
The grade kicked up a bit in the last two miles, finally culminating in a leg-burning stretch over 10% a few hundred meters below the summit. Just as this section leveled off, I pedaled past a cinder cone and caught my first glimpse of the Big Island (aka Hawai’i) to the southeast. I reached the summit just after 6am—it was clear, calm, and teeming with tourists. I’m not a summit lingerer, so I took a few selfies, pulled on my windbreaker, skull cap and extra gloves, and prepared for the long and frigid descent.
Typically, descending is the best part of climbing, but there are exceptions. If it’s “too cold” you can expect to suffer, often including uncontrollable teeth-chattering and upper body cramping as your body fights hypothermia. On one occasion—Pike’s Peak—the descent was just plain too steep, too twisty, and too packed with motorists to enjoy. Haleakala was 95% joy. It was a bit on the cold side, but I was able to stay warm enough by pedaling and drafting off the numerous cars. It was never so steep as to be scary or out of control, although often the cars were too slow for my taste. The one unpleasant bit was on the upper mountain when the northeastern cloudbank crept onto the roadway. The temps dropped to sub-freezing in an instant, and the road soon became coated in water. Fortunately, this section was brief and completed without incident.
I was back to my car by 7:15am and back to our house in Lahaina by 8:30. The ride was incredible, and after thinking about it for a week, I’d say it’s easily one of the top 3 rides I’ve ever done. The road surface is flawless, the views are unparalleled, and the difficulty is reasonable and consistent. Frankly it was easier than I expected, and had I known, I wouldn’t have trained so hard, haha (ya, I know—maybe do the whole thing before talking a bunch of trash, eh?). The rides in Colorado are generally not as steep or sustained as Haleakala, so I expected to be under-prepared. However, my rental bike was so superior to my home bike that it made the ride fairly casual. Surely the fact that more than half the ride was below my home altitude of 7500’ was a big help too.
With Haleakala in the bag, and the kids happily splashing in the waves, there was only one thing left to do—find some rock to climb….