The winding road to the summit reveals stunning views and rare flora.©Hawaii Tourism Japan
Scaling Haleakala on two wheels
By Maritn Rabbett
It is dawn in Kīhei on the southern coast of Maui. I look out my window and see the naked summit of Haleakalā in a halo of pink. A cloudless sky is a good omen for a cycle up the mountain. I drive to the relaxed surfer hangout of Pā‘ia, where, each year in August, the A-types receive their adrenaline rush by taking on the Cycle to the Sun, a ride from sea level to the summit of Hawai‘i’s third tallest volcano. My goal is to increase my stamina in training for the California AIDS Lifecycle Ride, a seven-day annual fundraising cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles. If I can ride up the volcano, I know I can ride just about anywhere!
Singing to my iPhone playlist of various balladeers, I begin the 36-mile ascent on my trusty Spanish-made Orbea Orca, up Baldwin Avenue through Makawao and to upper Kula. Singing while cycling makes me happy and keeps my mind from the ache that eventually forms in my legs as the paved grade sharpens upward. The scent of the eucalyptus trees draws me higher. The open pastures of rolling grasslands remind me of Scotland, and yet Hawaiian sheep dot the landscape like furry marshmallows.
As the morning sun warms the ground, a few clouds form, and I push faster. I want to reach the 10,023-foot elevation before the heat of the day creates a crown of mist. At 6,000 feet, I spy two paragliders hovering over me, their brightly colored blue-and-yellow sails a sharp contrast to the pastoral green slopes and azure sky.
The ride to the top requires stamina. ©HTA | Kirk Lee Aeder
Curve after curve I climb, my pace steady after the initial slog from Kula Lodge past the Haleakalā Zipline. The vegetation changes as I pass through Maui’s various micro-climates, with protea, lavender, persimmon, olive and coffee farms painting their broad strokes of color on the landscape. Now at the higher elevation, I inhale the fresh and invigorating scent of pine. I enter Haleakalā National Park and pay my entrance fee of $5 (good for seven days) and stop to fill my water bottles at the visitor station. The encouragement from incredulous tourists buoys and inspires me.
Certain spots are clouded in fog, but as I climb, the sun breaks through and warms me as the temperature drops. At 9,000 feet, my lungs begin to tighten as the air thins. As I reach the top I am elated, not only by accomplishing my goal, but by the magnificence of the view. The isthmus between the two grand peaks of Maui gleams with fields of ripe sugarcane. The waves of the north shore are visible on one side, with the calm of the south coast on the other. I give thanks to the akua (gods) of the āina (land) for my safe arrival.
Now at the summit, I can see the Hawai‘i Island volcanoes of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai, as well as the Islands of Lāna‘i and Kaho‘olawe. Like a crescent baking in the sun, the snorkeling paradise of Molokini basks on the south shore. Its underwater treasures have astonished many a snorkeler, including me, and seeing it from above transports me to its oceanic cathedrals. On very clear days you can also see O‘ahu, but not today. Still I miss nothing, and I take it all in — the shimmering of the sun on the ocean, the West Maui Mountains, the sister summits, the clarity of the air — while my throat tightens at the magnificence of this moment.
The night sky will make your heart leap. With friends, I have camped several times in the crater carrying a 40-pound pack with provisions. I have never seen the Milky Way brighter. Watching the stars at night from the crater floor is akin to what I imagine it would be to view the solar system from outer space. You can easily see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye, as well as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.
One of Hawai‘i’s preeminent kūpuna (elders) told me that this is where the original Hawaiians came from. I think of this every time I see the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a, the “Star of Gladness” known in the West as Arcturus, or Makali‘i, named after the Pleiades and one of Hawai‘i’s prominent voyaging canoes. Myth or not, such thoughts come easily in the abject stillness of this sacred, otherworldly place.
The silversword flourishes in the harsh climate of Haleakala. ©Hawaii Tourism Japan
Few people are aware that there are three wilderness cabins for public use in the crater through the National Park Service (Kapalaoa, Palikū, and Hōlua), each equipped with twelve padded bunks, a wood burning stove, firewood, catchment water, moderately equipped kitchen, and a convenient yet private outhouse. The minimal fee is probably the best deal in Hawai‘i. Anything you carry into the crater you must carry out, meaning no ōpala (garbage) can be left behind!
The Sliding Sands trail at the summit leads you down a gravel-like lava trail, into a primeval landscape of black, red, and orange cinder cones decorated with the rare and stunning āhinahina, the silversword plant and the crater’s botanical jewel. The personality and hues change dramatically with the positioning of the sun and the ever-changing climate. I have watched unforgettable sunsets in this ethereal setting; the mana (energy/life force) of this landscape is palpable.
Strange as it may seem, on one visit I heard celestial music as I meandered deep into the crater. I understood why meditators find this place profound. After a night storm, I awoke to a breathtaking sight: an emerald mountainside of cascading waterfalls at Palikū. The morning brought a gaggle of nene (Hawai‘i’s State bird) to wish me “Aloha kakaiaka!” (good morning) in their inimitable goose honk.
The trek across the valley terrain is a dramatic adventure, with prehistoric vistas at every turn. If you listen, you can hear the calls of the delicate honeycreepers: the ‘apapane with its bright crimson top and white bottom, the ‘i‘iwi with its fiery red body and black wings, and the ‘amakihi, yellow-green feathers on the males and olive green on the females. Just hearing their song is a gift; seeing them is even rarer. Their colors are a contrast against the monochrome of the Halemau’u switchback trail that leads you out of the crater. Kaupō Gap is another exit on the Kipahulu/Hana side of the mountain, but it is a steep descent and hard on a cyclist’s knees!
The ride down the mountain is the reward for the journey of a lifetime. Several commercial outfits sell bicycle tours down Haleakalā on heavy, slow-moving bikes. Thrilling though the downhill ride may be, the true adventurist will face the challenge of cycling up and down the mountain, as well as sleeping within Haleakalā’s breast. Earning the respect of the Hawaiian demigod, Maui, is no easy task. He lassoed the sun after a lengthy battle and made it promise to move more slowly, thus giving us winter and summer seasons. Maui named the mountain Haleakalā, the “House of the Sun.” Each time I visit this sacred mountain, I become something larger than myself. Everyone who has been to the top knows that Haleakalā has the power to transform.
Just remember, if the adventure proves daunting, sing! And a good tune to carry? “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”