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Waimea Canyon is often experienced by hikers who explore its natural wonders by foot. On the Waimea Canyon Bicycle Downhill tour with Outfitters Kauai, however, visitors savor views of the dramatic chasm while exerting little effort and getting lots of thrills.
Clients don’t need to be in top cycling shape to take part in the downhill tour. All they need is basic bicycle control, a willingness to follow orders and a desire to spend time in Kauai’s great outdoors.
I brought all of those things to the Outfitters Kauai headquarters in Poipu, where clients checked in at 6 a.m. for the adventure. Our lively guides, Aaron and Dee, handed out helmets to the participants. They gave us a training session in the Outfitters Kauai parking lot to make sure each of us knew how to balance on and pedal a bike. Then we hopped in the company van and headed west, enjoying coffee, juice and muffins along the way.
During the 75-minute drive, the guides regaled our group with fun facts about Kauai from an insider’s point of view. They told us the meaning of Kalaheo’s unusual street names, such as Opu (stomach) and Piko (navel). We passed quaint Hanapepe, where the television miniseries “The Thorn Birds” was filmed, and we learned about the history of Waimea town, once home to a thriving sugar plantation.
From there, the van started winding up the two-lane switchback road that borders Waimea Canyon, giving us a reverse look at our cycling route to come. Near the top, we stopped at a popular lookout area and snapped photos of the gaping gorge, which — at 10 miles long, 1 mile wide and 3,600 feet deep — is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. As we stretched our legs, the guides pointed out waterfalls and mountain goats on faraway ledges.
I was glad I wore layers — as the company’s website suggested — because temperatures were chilly at the 3,600-foot elevation. For many of us, shivers also came from anticipation as the guides unloaded our bikes and we chose our wheels for the 12-mile downhill trip. Aaron and Dee took time to discuss tips for the upcoming ride, emphasizing safety first. They reminded us that we should ride only as fast as our comfort zone allowed. We learned the best way to use the brakes and how to handle the hairpin curves.
“No passing,” Aaron said. “Stay in a single line. If you break the rules, you’ll have to ride down the hill in the van.”
With just a few turns of the pedals, we began our descent, with Aaron on the lead bike and Dee driving behind us.
The downhill glide stimulated all the senses. My cheeks tingled in the cool breeze, and my ears were filled with the whoosh of the wind. I breathed in the heady scent of eucalyptus. Occasionally, when I briefly looked away from the road, I marveled at the canyon’s chiseled walls of oranges, greens, reds and purples.
Part of the tour’s appeal is its simplicity. Just hold on tight, follow the leader, and let gravity do the work. From time to time, we stopped for views, accompanied by narration from the guides. At one point, we pulled off the pavement and gazed across the ocean to the island of Niihau, home of a native Hawaiian settlement and off-limits to all others. Aaron spun its unique story as Dee passed out water and island-made cookies.
After about 75 minutes of riding, the road flattened, and I pedaled steadily for the first time. The final destination was rural Kekaha, where we returned our bikes to the guides and boarded the van for the drive back to Poipu. I turned for one last look at the mountain we had just descended. Waimea Canyon was now hidden from sight, but after coasting down its ancient flanks, it felt like an old friend.