I got into Kahului, Maui at 10pm, August 13, 2013, with a backpack and bike panniers full of gear, a boxed up touring bike, and one hell of an itinerary. I wanted to circle the island on a bicycle. My friend Mel was there to help by picking me up and letting me crash at her place in the late hour. Fun was in order. Endurance was crucial. Sleep was critical. Let’s do this.
Day 1: HALEAKALA!!!
Not wasting any time, I left early the next morning from Kihei with my bicycle and touring cargo to ride for 2 days on Haleakala, a 10,000 foot volcano on the eastern side of the island. The plan was to go across the island to Kahului, turn southeast on Haleakala Highway, eventually get to Crater Road, and climb its 6+% grade and endless switchbacks all the way to Hosmer Grove Campground at 6,800 feet. Then I planned to get up early the next morning, pedal another 3,000 feet to the summit, and catch the sunrise from the highest point in the island. The first day would consist of 35 miles, 24 of it uphill, 11 more uphill the next day, then all downhill from summit to sea level.
I rode northward to Kahului on on Mokulele Highway, and crossed a flat plain of sugarcane farms between the rugged mountains of West Maui and the larger, solitary Haleakala Volcano in the east. I turned southeast onto Haleakala Highway and watched as it made a straight climb up the mountainside for 7 miles. Not even halfway up, I already starting drying out and losing breath, eyes stinging from sweat, legs already starting to burn. The grade increased and I had made significant elevation gain within the hour.
I was surprised at how well-kept and bike friendly the road was, with a huge shoulder and bike lanes. Apparently there was a big push by the local cycling enthusiasts to make the roads safer for cycling. It made the difference, and I would easily recommend that area to other cyclists in search of good highways like I always am. I reached the upcountry town of Kula, turned uphill on Old Haleakala Highway, and continued to climb up one of the island chain’s biggest volcanoes, winding about the many turns through the upcountry.
I was a few hours in, nowhere near my goal, and had already tapped my water dry. The midday sun was baking in the upcountry, and despite having trained my ass off for this, I was getting a beating and drying out. With no idea where the next watering hole was, I pushed onward for 4 more miles, losing breath and taking breaks under every tree I could find. And I thought my Denali trip was rough.
I got to a restaurant near the exit to Crater Road. I refilled my water supply, drank three full glasses from the bar, and kept going. Crater Road is the main road that climbs up Haleakala, switching back and forth for 21 miles into Haleakala National Park, all the way to the summit. From there, you can look out over the crater to the east and hike the trails into the barren expanse of volcanic terrain. The summit is famous for its sunrise, which happens high above the cloud line. Crowds of people drive up there every morning to see it, and many outfitters shuttle cyclists there as well, where they watch the sun come up and then go flying back down. Only a few badasses ride it from the other way.
Knowing that there would be 11 switchbacks on the first section, I tried at first to keep count. I counted all of two before realizing that I was too out of my mind to keep count. The road had already steepened. Coming out of the forests at the bottom, I looked up the slopes of the volcano in horror as one switchback after another went up and up, and up and fucking up for what seemed like forever. A road sign said 3,500ft in elevation. You’ve got to be kidding me. I knew it would be hard, but didn’t expect it to be like this. At that altitude, the clear air gave way to the day’s extremes, making the high slopes blazing hot during the day and cold at night. I was in a desert of thinning air. 3,700ft and climbing, one brutal inch at a time.
I stopped on the side of the road every few hundred feet, resting my legs, trying not to drink water, occasionally telling somebody in a car that I’m alright. If you want to call not being unconscious alright, I was whatever a person’s exhaustion was at a factor exponential to fucking altitude. 4,100. I would rest, climb a few hundred feet, rest, and keep going. This went on and on and on, for hours and hours. The land below started to fade behind the humidity and glare of the mid-afternoon sun. And I was nowhere close to my goal for the day, the campground at 6,800. Every mile might as well have been 5 at the rate I was going.
I got to the straighter part of the road, hoping the grade would ease up, only to see more of the same shit. Finally, 3 miles shy of the campground, I got off, put my sandals on, and started pushing my bike up the hill. I had had enough of this. At 6,500, I reached the first forest since the beginning of Crater Road, and cooled off in the fog of the mountain’s cloud belt. The road lingered right along the forest’s tree line, passed the campground, and continued switching its way back and forth on steep elevation grades for 11 more miles all the way to the summit. In the setting sun, the mountainside turned orange and then red. Cars continued to go upward. I coasted my bike down a side road to Hosmer Grove to set up camp and call it a night.
That campground was a great reward for everything I went through that day. It sat at a small grove right at the tree line, facing the volcano’s summit. Absolutely beautiful. The sun set behind the clouds above West Maui mountains, and in no time the temperature took a dive. I wouldn’t say I was prepared for the altitude-induced exhaustion that made this trip so utterly brutal, but I had done enough winter camping to know what to bring for the cold weather. I layered up, ate dinner, and immediately fell asleep.
Free of any humidity or light pollution, the sky looked amazing from that altitude. For the first half of the night, its mountainside reflected an otherworldly glow beneath the moonlight. I came out again a few hours later after the moon had set, and could see every star in the galaxy. Having lived in the city for the last 15 years, I forgot what stars even looked like. I hadn’t seen the Milky Way that clearly since I lived on a farm as a kid.
Day 2: DESCENT!!!!
My plan was to get up a few hours before sunrise, ride 11 more miles and 3,000ft in elevation gain to the summit, and watch the sunrise. This plan got botched due to exhaustion. I overshot my limit on this one, realizing that hauling camping cargo up a mountain like that is a lot like trying to sprint across a desert. You can push yourself for a while, try to talk yourself into believing that you can make it, but eventually you’ll wind up on the ground with blood coming out of your eyes and pee that looks like a cloudy knockoff of orange flavored Gatorade.
The fact was, anytime I tried to pedal uphill, my quads would burn and tire out within minutes, I would lose my breath, and would have to stop. I was trained and prepared in every other way, but it wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t acclimated to the altitude. I think I could have waited another day and made it. If I packed more food and gave myself another nights sleep, I probably could have got to the summit. But I was on a schedule with lodging reservations in Wailuku and Hana. So I left the campground at sunrise for a 6,800ft descent to Kahului and 10 mile ride to Mel’s house in Kihei.
Immediately, I started gaining speed. A LOT of speed. With the cargo, I was accelerating at a rate that I never would have believed. I came out of the trees by the campground to the open, barren side of the volcano and looked down at towns and shorelines 6,500ft down. It was absolutely the most terrified I have ever been on a bike. Arms and feet were shaking in utter panic, and all I could do was hold on and focus, so I wouldn’t go flying over a switchback and land on the next one down. In no time, I hit 6,000ft, then 5,500, 5,000, 4,000, flying downhill around one sharp turn after another, practically burning my brake pads to tar. I rode the breaks so hard that my fingers hurt terribly whenever I let go. I would fly around a switchback, descend even further, do another, and then another, and then another. People have died trying to do this shit. And there I was, hauling ass down a huge volcano on one of the most exhilarating rides of my life.
I turned north on the highway at 3,500ft. It straightened out and the grade lessened. With bigger shoulders and straighter road, as well as a stop at a local cafe for breakfast and badly needed coffee, I was actually able to relax and enjoy the rest of the ride downhill. Finally at sea level again in Kahului, I pedaled south to Mel’s house and rested up for the afternoon and evening.
Day 3: West Maui – If You Can’t Climb It, Go Around It
I was proud of myself. Not because I hauled ass on Haleakala the last two days, but because I fixed an indexing problem on my bike’s derailleur without any help, saving me a few hours that I would have had to wait for a shop to open. My bike maintenance classes paid off.
I got moving on the southwest shoreline of West Maui on Honoapiilani Highway at sunrise. The newly paved and well maintained part of the highway wound along the cliff sides with easy gains in elevation and a big shoulder for the traveling cyclist. To the east, the sunrise broke over Haleakala, lighting up Maalea Bay in a glow of emerald and sapphire. The beaches were already crowded with surfers and tourists. The road straightened out towards the western town of Lahaina, and the island of Lanai stood some ten miles west under a canopy of clouds. To my right, steep, rugged canyons and ridges of the West Maui Mountains stood under cloud cover of their own, giving way to a dense, lush rainforest that only the most ambitious hikers try to penetrate.
Thirty miles of that highway were easy, straight riding with smooth pavement. Then all at once, shit got real. On the north side of West Maui, between Kapalua and Wailuku, there were 20 rough miles of steep climbs, scary descents, hairpin turns, and a good stretch of busted road. It was awesome overall, but I had to earn my right to enjoy it the only way knew how: on my bike. On a good note, the cloud canopy kept me cool. I climbed and descended the cliff sides for what must have been hours. I lost track of time and thought.
In the middle of the most remote, rugged section of the road lies the village of Kahakuloa, a little town with 100 people, a few roadside stands, and two churches. Right next to the town, the Kahakuloa Head stands 636 feet above the shoreline. I passed through the town and right by it on my way to higher ground. The road got even rougher, passing through more rainforests and ranches, making me think that I might well be somewhere in South America. I climbed the slopes of the mountainside for 5 miles, and then finally descended on straight, smoothly paved highway all the way to the hostel in Wailuku. I got there in the late afternoon, already too tired to do anymore sightseeing.