Sea to Sky: Up Up & Up Haleakalā

February 21, 2020

Watching sunrise from the peak of Haleakalā is at the top of every Maui tourist’s bucket list. Tour companies even offer visitors the chance to bus to the peak of the dormant volcano to see the sunrise, and ride down on a bicycle. Some of us, on the other hand, prefer the challenge of climbing up to breezing down. If you happen to find yourself on Maui and seeking an asskicker of climb, look no further than Haleakalā: 10,023 feet (3,055 metres) in just 36 miles if you begin Paia, 48 miles if you start in Kihei as I did (though the first 12 miles are absolutely flat, making the vertical portion of the journey nearly identical in length). The ascent is entirely paved, with an average grade of 5.3%. Though not a technically challenging climb, Haleakalā is long and steady, and you will be punished severely if you forget to pack warm layers for the descent. Below is my ride recap. You can also check out my (rather unimpressive) stats on Strava, as well as some GoPro footage on Youtube.

From Wikipedia: “Haleakalā (“house of the sun”) is a massive shield volcano that forms more than 75% of the Hawaiian Island of Maui…In Hawaiian folklore, the depression (crater) at the summit of Haleakalā was home to the grandmother of the demigod Māui. According to legend, Māui’s grandmother helped him capture the sun and force it to slow its journey across the sky in order to lengthen the day.”

An annual bike race, Cycle to the Sun, challenges riders to test themselves against the clock in a battle to the top of the volcano, the fastest athletes finishing in under three hours. My goal, in contrast, was merely to reach the summit and get back to Kihei in time for happy hour. I completed the climb in 2018 and knew that while it wasn’t steep, it shouldn’t be underestimated.

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Stoke level through the roof

7:13 am / sea level

I left our AirB&B in Kihei with six gels, two bananas, two cereal bars, and two water bottles topped up with carb mix and electrolytes. The sun was barely up, but temperatures were already warm. I wore a reflective vest, and stuffed a pair of arm warmers, toe covers, and blue Latex gloves in my jersey pockets. I definitely should have packed a rain jacket (REMEMBER TO PACK A RAIN JACKET!) but I didn’t have one compact enough to fit in my pocket, so I left my bulky jacket behind.

I enjoyed a dozen flat warmup miles as I pedalled across the island on the bike path running parallel to the Mokulele Highway. A headwind pushed against me all the way to Puunene, where the relics of the sugar plantation made for eerie early morning companions. From there, I took Hansen Road to Haleakala Highway / Highway 37, and turned my wheels east to start in on the grind.

9:00 am / 1,450 feet

Haleakala Highway is a major roadway and not a particularly fabulous cycling route. However, it features ample shoulders, which I figured would leave plenty of room for morning commuters to pass, unlike some of the smaller, narrow roads leading uphill to Pukalani. I turned off on Old Haleakala Highway and continued climbing, stopping at every gas station in Pukalani to try and buy sunscreen that I’d neglected to put on that morning. There was no sunscreen to be had, however, but with cloud cover steadily building on the face of the volcano, I realized that I probably wouldn’t need it after all. Old Haleakala Highway turns into Haleakala Highway / State Highway 377, and as traffic died out the scenery became nice and lush, with ranch views, eucalyptus trees, and green vines draped along roadside fences.

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View toward Maui’s north shore

10:00 am / 3,450 feet

After passing Kula Lodge and Market, I hooked a left on Crater Road. The market would have been a good place to stop if I hadn’t already refilled my bottles in Pukalani, but instead I chomped another gel and kept pedalling, determined to maintain momentum. The switchbacks kicked in as soon as I started up Crater Road, and my legs began to burn. I kept the pace relaxed, settling in on my rhythm and enjoying the ever-changing surroundings. At the base of Crater Road there are quite a few fruit stands (which I would later be thankful for when I ran out of food on the descent). Front yards boast strange and wondrous tropical flora, including bird of paradise, and ember-red flowers that flamed like dragon’ breath against a backdrop of leafy green. I encountered groups of cyclists heading down the mountain, as well as drivers who honked their horns in encouragement, their passengers offering fist pumps from the window. Go, me!

Approx. 10:45 am / 5,000 feet

Mid-morning cloud cover is common on the mountainside, and at 5,000 feet I found myself in white-out conditions, pedalling in and out of showers. I was also beginning to fatigue, both physically and mentally, which was worrisome because I was only halfway to the summit. Between showers, the air remained thick with mist, the precipitation enough to render my GoPro footage unwatchable. Which is a shame, because there is something so lovely about being up in the clouds, even if you only catch glimpses of what is around you. From what I witnessed (and what I remembered from my previous year’s climb), the road skirted the edge of a mountainside, trees reduced to shrubs as the elevation continued to ratchet up. I regretted not bringing a rain jacket, though I wasn’t cold—yet.

Somewhere in the cloud, I met a local cyclist named Michael and we rode through the park gates together. Haleakalā National Park hosts over one million visitors a year and is home to a variety of distinct ecosystems and several endangered species, including the nene, or Hawaiian goose. I wished I had the time and energy to explore some of the park’s hiking trails, but alas, that will have to wait for a future adventure.

If you ever make the pilgrimage up the volcano by bicycle, however, I hope that you meet Michael, who lives in Pukalani and rides up on an almost weekly basis. He is a kind and genuine soul, with a wealth of knowledge about the climb.

“Today, I’m feeling blessed,” he said, when we first met. “Absolutely blessed.”

Then he chuckled to himself, which brought a huge grin to my face as well. Because really, is there any better way to describe how outrageously fortunately we were to be climbing up an enormous volcano in the rain, other than absolutely blessed?

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Looking up at the volcano from the lava fields near Ahihi Bay

Approx. 11:50 am / 7,050 feet

The Park Headquarters at 7,050 feet is a great place to take a pitstop, refill bottles, and use the toilet. I gobbled down the last of my bananas and chatted with Michael as he layered up for the descent—he had to get back to Pukalani in time to pick up his daughter from school. After we said our farewells, I pulled on my own arm sleeves, toe covers, and silly blue hospital gloves, setting out into the low vis with both front and rear lights flashing. The pitch of the slope increased from the Park Headquarters and the wind picked up, stirring showers into a slurry that bombarded me from all sides. I watched water droplets ping off the lava rock as my fingers went numb, and cursed myself for not packing a rain jacket. Thankfully, the cloud began to break up as I climbed higher, opening brilliant blue windows of light. Soon, the rain quit for good, and I began to dry out, my body temperature returning to comfortable.

1:10 pm / 10,023 feet

The landscape became increasingly lunar as I closed in on the summit. I pedalled among lava rock punctured by tiny bushes that eventually disappeared altogether on the volcano’s highest slopes. Through gaps in the cloud, I could see down the slope to where the land remained emerald, with pockets of pine trees among the lower lying bush and grazing fields. Further still was the city of Kahalui, and somewhere beyond that the curve of the island as is expanded around Mauna Kahalawa, or West Maui Volcano. I fought for those final two thousand feet, failing in any attempt to coax my legs to move just a little bit quicker than the sluggish pace they had begrudgingly settled into.

“Of course you’re struggling,” I reminded myself. “You’ve been riding on an indoor trainer for the past three months. Since you’ve been on island you’ve spent more time under water than on the bike. This is supposed to be a challenge. Just keep at it.”

The grade leapt to a whopping 9% for the final half-mile to the summit, which was precisely what my burning quads wanted after a half-day of climbing. But it remained glorious just to be present on that rock-strewn mountainside, inching toward the sky under my own steam and muscle. I threw my weight into the pedals and repeated Michael’s words like an incantation: “Today, I’m feeling blessed. Blessed. I am blessed. Absolutely blessed.”

Miraculously, the final push to the top was the only Strava segment that my time improved on from last year. I reached the summit of Pu’u ‘Ula’ula, or Red Hill, breathless and grinning, dashing up the dozen or so stairs to the lookout station with my bike hitched over my shoulder.

But there was nothing to see, much to the despair of every single person who had made the drive and now stood loudly lamenting their misfortunate. The peak was socked in with fog, crushing any opportunity for postcard-worthy snapshots from the island’s highest pinnacle.

But I didn’t mind. Despite the shifting weather, I had already enjoyed hours of incredible views on the way up, and anticipated more to come on the descent. Besides, the only photo I needed was a selfie in front of the elevation marker at 10,023 feet.

I was well and truly blessed.

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Haleakalā summit