Downhill Delight

Cruising down Crater Road

By: Maribeth Mellin

Muddy water splashed from fat black bicycle tires, drenching my new Nikes. Frigid winds reddened my nose. Drenching rain and swirling mist fogged Haleakala, Maui’s House of the Sun. Why had I agreed to a 2 a.m. wakeup call for a dawn bike ride down a volcano?

I knew it was worth it. I’d once driven dark roads up Haleakala, Hawaiian hymns on the radio, and witnessed a soul-churning sunrise. It was a magical Maui moment worth repeating. Cruising downhill from 9,000 feet to sea level on a twisting, two-lane highway promised to be even more memorable.

Thousands of cyclists do the Haleakala ride every year and rave about the experience.

“We’ve only lost two,” Maui downhill guide Luis Montijo joked during his pre-dawn pep talk. “They fell asleep.”

Little chance of that during a chilly tropical storm. Our group huddled in a heated van as the sky lightened ever so subtly around 6 a.m. We could spot car headlights in the parking lot, and little else. Rain stung like sleet when I ventured to the edge of the crater to see if the sun might break through the gloom.

During a quintessential Haleakala sunrise, the sun pops into view over the snow-capped peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island in the distance. Viewers line the southeast edge of Maui’s volcano, watching the light wash crater walls with a russet golden glow. White clouds streaked coral and pink float beneath the 10,000-foot-high crater, parting for occasional views of dense forests and the sea.

This was not one of those mornings. Yet four hours after the non-sunrise, an irrepressible grin strained my wind-burned cheeks. Whooshing down the curving Crater Road on two wheels was a major, thrilling rush. I have trouble staying balanced on a stationary bike, yet I’d raced over 15 miles per hour down slippery asphalt, leaning in and out of S curves and braking on command. I wanted to do it all over again, immediately.

Some of my co-riders were equally enthusiastic. Others were eager for hot showers and beds. Our group of 11 had dwindled to nine when we actually started riding. One very disappointed little girl couldn’t handle the bike companies have strict regulations about height, age and ability. The boy-frame bikes have fat tires, large comfy seats and “no fail” drum breaks. Short people struggle to straddle the frame during frequent sudden stops. The company outfitted us with warm raingear, waterproof gloves and helmets during a 4 a.m. stop at the base camp where we joined about three dozen other sleepy riders for coffee and muffins.

On a perfect day the ride starts just after sunrise at the crater and continues 38 miles to the coast. The fog was so dense we had to start farther down, at 7,000 feet. After trying out our bikes and reciting the rules (single file, no overtaking, stay to the right, don’t clutch the front break) we followed Montijo onto the highway. It took absolutely no pedaling to reach frightening speeds downhill racing is far harder on hands than legs. Clouds obscuring breathtaking scenery didn’t bother me much, since I didn’t dare look anywhere beyond the road and our guide. The support van following us stopped traffic when we hit dramatic curves and radioed Montijo with oncoming traffic warnings. The first 10 miles were a wet blur.

We stopped for photos when the sun briefly illuminated yellow and green fields, then cruised toward Kula through waves of moist eucalyptus and lavender scented air. The sun shone on Victorian cottages, celebrity homes, horse ranches and dazzling panoramas, then disappeared as we splashed through puddles of water streaming down hill. By the time we stopped for breakfast in the cowboy town of Pukalani, we riders were drenched in the strangest places. The rain kept on during breakfast and accompanied us on the last leg of the ride through the center of Paia, a hippie town near Maui’s north shore. Gradually shedding our slickers and rain pants, we stood on the sand and watched surfers ride fearsome gray waves. By noon I was back in my hotel room bundled in a soft terry robe, more than ready for a long nap. When I packed for home the next morning my shoes and jeans were still drenched, but nothing dampened my grin.


To help your clients make the most of their Haleakala ride, provide the following tips:

Packing: Pack a windbreaker, sweatshirt, layers of thermal clothing (silk thermal shirts are perfect), gloves and an ear-warming headband or cap. Long pants and closed-toe shoes are essential for the bike ride.

Timing: It can take up to four hours to reach the crater from resort hotels, allowing time to stop at a bike company’s base camp to pick up gear. Advise clients to do the ride early in their vacations, before they’ve adapted to the time change. Two a.m. doesn’t seem so painful when it’s 5 a.m. or later at home. Allow ample time for the drive, as bumper-to-bumper traffic near the top of the road is common. Plan to be on top a half-hour before sunrise (the Maui News and some weather reports list the time).

Take a Tour: Some independent types (jokingly called “roadkill” by tour guides) prefer to rent a bike and do the downhill ride on their own. Joining a tour is far more comfortable for the uninitiated. Rates for the 38-mile sunrise ride with hotel transport and breakfast are about $150. Day tours without meals or transport cost about $100.

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