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The ups and downs of cycling ‘the longest, steepest paved road on the planet’

Haleakala, a 10,000-foot volcano, has been one of Maui’s top attractions for decades. It’s not hard to see why.

Biking up Haleakala volcano on Maui takes riders from sea level to 10,023 feet — often a long, slow grind — but the high-speed descent only takes 60 to 90 minutes and includes just 45 feet of vertical gain on the entire ride down. The descent takes riders by mounds of lava rock, over cattle grates, often right through the clouds, and through quiet neighborhoods with fruit stands and jacaranda trees.
Biking up Haleakala volcano on Maui takes riders from sea level to 10,023 feet — often a long, slow grind — but the high-speed descent only takes 60 to 90 minutes and includes just 45 feet of vertical gain on the entire ride down. The descent takes riders by mounds of lava rock, over cattle grates, often right through the clouds, and through quiet neighborhoods with fruit stands and jacaranda trees.Kari Bodnarchuk

PAIA, MAUI — My bike ride up a 10,000-foot volcano happened the way good adventures often do: Without much planning. I checked the local forecast, chatted with staff at a bike shop, and looked at a visitor map of the island, only half of which I took with me (weight savings). Then I set off the next day to cycle up Haleakala, not exactly realizing the magnitude of the ride — both a butt-numbing uphill grind that progressed, at times, at near-walking pace, followed by a thrilling eye-watering descent from high above the clouds through a rugged volcanic landscape home to nene birds and a staggering number of hairpin turns. The ride follows the route of the legendary Cycle to the Sun (Haleakala means “house of the sun”), a 36-mile annual bike race on what is billed as “the longest, steepest paved road on the planet.”

All went well — it was a stunning ride — but a description with a few tips may help you make the most of your adventure and take away some of the guesswork I faced. Also, it should be noted, this is a major undertaking suitable for more experienced riders. Weather and other factors — or a simple miscalculation on the descent — could have serious consequences. I bike year-round and had months of triathlon training behind me when I completed this ride.

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Unless you bring your own bike, rent one well in advance. You have a couple of good options: Maui Cyclery in Paia rents Felt and Scott carbon road bikes (and one 43cm Titus for a smaller rider) and West Maui Cycles in Lahaina rents carbon Specialized bikes, including the Tarmac (available in 52cm-61cm) and Roubaix (available as small as 44cm). The bikes at West Maui Cycles all have names — I chose the New Hampshire for good luck.

Check the weather (locals rely on www.noaa.gov or the Windy app) and then, as everyone recommended, start early. That way, you can avoid commuter and school traffic and get more of the ride done before the temps heat up — there is virtually no tree coverage on the entire route.

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I took off around 7:15 a.m. — early by my vacation standards — and was the last uphill rider to depart that day. I saw dozens of downhill riders (more on them later) and seven or eight solo riders coming down the mountain throughout the day, but not one other person behind me.

The journey up the mountain takes about 5 to 6 hours for most people, but weather can be a factor. Clouds and moisture often build by mid-morning around 5,000 feet to 7,000 feet, meaning you could still be cycling for hours, wet and chilled. Ideally, the early start lets you get above the cloud zone and, with luck, remain dry.

Begin the ride near the ocean at the public parking area in downtown Paia, as I did, or park 1,700 feet higher up the mountain in the small town of Makawao. I followed the advice of someone at West Maui Cycles who said, “If you’re putting in all the effort, you might as well start from sea level” (thanks, May).

Biking up Haleakala volcano on Maui takes riders from sea level to 10,023 feet. The ride, if started in the seaside town of Paia, follows the route of the legendary Cycle to the Sun (Haleakala means “house of the sun”), a 36-mile annual bike race on what is billed as “the longest, steepest paved road on the planet.”
Biking up Haleakala volcano on Maui takes riders from sea level to 10,023 feet. The ride, if started in the seaside town of Paia, follows the route of the legendary Cycle to the Sun (Haleakala means “house of the sun”), a 36-mile annual bike race on what is billed as “the longest, steepest paved road on the planet.”Kari Bodnarchuk

The first 8 miles take you from Paia through small neighborhoods and then open land as you head southeast. You soon may question — as I did — whether you’re still on the right track. Keep going right through the small town of Makawao, a plantation-turned-artsy town of 7,200 located on the northwest side of Haleakala. This hip upcountry town has a Buddhist temple, a mercantile, boutiques, and art galleries and is the best place to stock up on power bars and calories (check out the general store or take a right on Makawao Road to the family-run Pukalani Superette grocery store).

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After passing through town, Baldwin Avenue turns into Olinda Road — you’ll know you’re on the right route when you hit Makawao’s version of Heartbreak Hill, a short quad-burning climb leading out of town. Continue just over a mile until you see the red buildings and open fields of the Maui Polo Club (games and tailgating on Sundays bring more cars to the area). Here, take a very important and often-missed right-hand turn onto Hanamu Road or else you’ll continue climbing in the wrong direction (a small and rustic wooden sign points to Haleakala, but it’s easy to overlook — and many do).

This rolling and partially shaded route takes you a mile up to Kealaloa Avenue (bear left) and then a short distance to Haleakala Highway (Route 377), a two-lane relatively well-paved winding road up the mountain.

Here, I crossed paths with the first of about eight downhill bike groups on the mountain that day. One of Maui’s top attractions for decades has been biking down Haleakala. Outfitters transport riders up the mountain and drop them off with bikes, helmets, and guides. Then cyclists enjoy a virtually pedal-free ride down the volcano, enjoying sky-high views and glimpses of uphill riders moving in slow-mo.

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These downhill bike tours began at the summit of Haleakaka up until 2007, when the increasing number of bike crashes (and several deaths) led the national park to ban commercial bike tours within park boundaries. Now, one company (Bike Maui) takes riders by van to the volcano’s summit for a look-see, but the actual downhill bike tour for all outfitters runs from a staging area just below the park entrance (at about 6,500 feet, 11 miles below the summit) to sea level — and, in my opinion, misses out on the most spectacular part of the ride.

Once I joined Haleakala Highway, I followed the road up through small neighborhoods with jacaranda trees and eventually stopped at Kula Lodge (on a local’s recommendation) to refill my water bottles. The lodge has a restaurant and bar (tempting) and five cozy chalets that would mark the perfect place to start the ride if I ever did it again. Just up the road past the lodge, turn left to continue on Haleakala Highway.

The journey from this point up to the park entrance took me through a pastoral landscape with fields of grass, small patches of trees, and a seemingly endless number of switchbacks so sharp that cars must slow to 15 miles per hour.

Thankfully, the clouds began to gather as they often do at this elevation, blocking the sun and cooling the air. It wasn’t until I reached 6,500 feet — the staging area where I met another group of downhill riders — that I emerged above the clouds. Here, I passed through an amazing forest of eucalyptus trees, seeming so out of place in this otherwise open and rugged landscape. Hawaii’s first Superintendent of Forestry, Robert Hosmer, planted eucalyptus and conifer trees here and at several other high-elevation spots in the early 1900s, for possible future development of a timber industry. Hosmer Grove Campground now has five tent campsites tucked among the trees.

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Bikers must pay $15 to enter the park at the entrance booth (credit card only as of January this year, although the ranger kindly took my cash). Just up the road at about 7,000 feet, you’ll find the visitors center where you can refill water bottles and use the restrooms (the center was still closed because of COVID).

Since I had paid my entrance fee, I had to carry on, but I’ll admit I did contemplate asking someone for a lift the remaining 11 miles to the summit. Hours of slow and steady grinding uphill in 95-degree humidity on a rental bike I hadn’t properly fitted to myself made it a challenge to sit down. (Apparently you can do the Haleakala-simulated route on your Peloton at home — one benefit being that you can pause and come back another time if the going gets rough.)

The next few miles on wide switchbacks took me by Leleiwi and Kalahaku overlooks, by the Halemau’u Trailhead, which is the start of a challenging 9.5-mile round-trip hike to the crater floor and is not for those with height issues, and the “Summit 2 mi” sign (fantasies of hitchhiking faded once I realized I was that close). Jagged volcanic rocks and sand blanketed the landscape as far as I could see, occasionally punctuated by silver sword plants, ferns, and rugged little bushes or signs for Hawaii’s native nene birds, a type of goose.

Finally, I passed by the second visitors center just a half mile below the summit. Legs cramping, I paused before the final half-mile push up a short, steep hill with views of the crater now visible off to the left. The cool breeze and views from the summit made all the climbing worth it. From the top, at 10,023 feet, I had 360-degree views of the mountain and of the nearby domes and buildings of the Haleakala Observatory. On a clear day, you can see the Big Island from here.

It had taken five hours to reach the top (not including water and photo stops) and then just under an hour and a half to reach sea level again — a virtually nonstop braking descent that barely required any pedaling and included just 45 feet of ascent on the entire ride down. Ninety high-speed minutes passing by mounds of lava rock, crossing over cattle grates, navigating 15-miles-per-hour turns, descending straight through the clouds, and wending through quiet neighborhoods with fruit stands and those purple-flowering jacaranda trees.

It had been a grueling journey, but well worth the effort. The adventure ended back at the bustling town of Paia with half a map still tucked in my pocket ready for my next unplanned Maui adventure.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.


Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.