Sunrise Bikeride on Maui: Mt Hakeakala

Bike riding down Mt. Haleakala, Maui
Bike riding down Mt. Haleakala, Maui

While the islands of Hawaii may be best known as the 50th State of the United States of America, they also belongs to the group of islands known as Polynesia. Stretching from New Zealand in the Southwest to Easter Island in the Southeast, this triangle formation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is bordered to the north by the islands of Hawaii.

Approximately 2,400 miles (3,860 km) from the U.S. mainland, this series of 120 islands attracts millions of visitors annually to the three of the largest islands, Oahu, Hawaii (The Big Island) and Maui.

Maui, the second largest behind The Big Island, is dominated by Mt. Haleakala, at an imposing 10,023 feet (3,040 m).

When I discussed my planned trip to Maui with my “friend” Michael, he was quick to suggest that the bicycle tour down Mt. Haleakala would be in keeping with my adventurous nature.

Being a total sucker for this type of compliment, I enthusiastically signed up for this activity, which would take me to the top of this dormant volcano at sunrise and then cycle 38 miles (61km) from summit to sea.

What my dear friend failed to point out, were the realities of the adventure: A 2:30 a.m. wake-up call, a windy, hour-long bus ride up one of the world’s fastest climbing roads, to a 10,000 feet elevation, and a bitterly cold wait at the summit for the sun to appear.

While I stomped my feet and lamented my decision to leave my winter coat and gloves back home in Japan, my Aussie friend was being mentally crossed off my Christmas card list.

But I should have known; those things that require the greatest effort usually produce the greatest rewards.

As I waited with the steadily growing crowd at the summit for the sun to appear, I marveled at the way the moon glistened off the surface of the sea below and the majesty of the Mt. Pu’u Kukui in the distance.

Standing at the crater’s edge was a study in rewarded patience as we watched the sky slowly change from orange to pink and finally blue. The grand finale began with a simple fiery dot on the horizon that spread to a line and finally turned into ball of gold that made complete strangers turn to each other and go, “Whoa!”

As the sun lightened the sky, the black hole that we had been standing beside was majestically revealed as an extraordinarily textured landscape, dotted with cinder cones, lava flows and mini craters.

It was clear why this 3,000-foot-deep (91 m) crater was chosen as a practice ground for our early astronauts; it truly has a moon-like appearance. After willing my numbed fingers to capture this spectacle on film, it was time for the adventure part of the day to begin.

With half a dozen companies offering a sunrise bike ride down Mt. Haleakala, the car park soon filled with helmeted riders, pulling on their wet weather gear and testing out their wheels.

My guide, from the tour company Maui Downhill, wisely took our group of 12 to a higher lookout, five minutes by minibus, to enjoy a 360-degree uninterrupted view of Maui, while the other groups prepared for the descent. It was also our chance to view the rare and exotic Silverword plant that can only be seen on the islands of Hawaii and Maui. These squat, spindle-like plants yield a flower only once in their lifetime (on average 28 years) and then die.

The actual bike ride was a cautious, single-file ride, with our tour leader in front and a support vehicle in the rear. My group ranged in age from mid-teens to mid-60s; a convivial combination of vacationing retirees, honeymooning couples and family groups from the U.S. mainland, Korea and Japan.

Our youngest group member opted to go “co-pilot” in our support van as at 12, his legs would not stretch far enough for the adult size bikes provided. Rather than use conventional lightweight mountain bikes, we were provided with heavier framed models; more suited to the highway road that we would traverse.

Our legs didn’t get much of a work out on our ride, but my right hand seemed to be getting plenty of strength work as it was firmly and permanently squeezed around the rear wheel brake.

Our guide had instructed us before we set out to maintain a 15-mile (24 km) per hour minimum on our journey. As this was also the posted speed limit, I wondered if we were in danger of being ticketed!

With endless hairpins, switch back backs, and signs indicating a series of turns in the shape of “3’s” “C’s” and “Z’s,” concentration on the road rather than the view before us was mandatory. However, our journey down the mountain included plenty of stops to savor the views, enjoy interesting commentary from our knowledgeable guide and capture plenty of photos.

Our group experienced one spill during the 38-mile (61 km) ride, a soft fall on the roads’ shoulder, when we had to leave the comfort of the middle of the road to share with the traffic in the final quarter of our ride. But with serious motorbike-style helmets, full-face covers, and sturdy wet weather jackets and pants provided by the company, our rider was left momentarily shaken but not injured.

The terrain over our 38 miles was varied and absorbing. Once we had navigated the “U” turns and hairpins on the mountainous first 12 miles (19 km), we rode through fields of sugar cane, pineapples and grazing farm animals.

At the 6800-foot (2073 m) mark, we drove through Hosmer’s Grove, where the air was so rich with the scent of eucalyptus from the gum trees, for a few minutes, I was gloriously transported to my native Australia.

Our brake hands and rears were giving a well-timed rest at the 28-mile mark for breakfast. Our group retired to a comfortable golf club restaurant for a buffet of eggs, bacon, French toast, potatoes, juice and coffee.

For our final 10 miles (16 km), restored by our hearty breakfast, we actually got the chance to pedal, but out of the entire 38 miles, we probably only pedaled for a total of 400 yards (366 m).

During this stretch, we passed through funky, arty towns, old sugar cane factories, quaint stone churches and caught views of our final destination, the beach.

From the early wake up call to the cold wait for sunrise — they were all well worth it. There is a good reason that the sunrise bike ride down Mt. Haleakala is one of Maui’s most popular tourist attractions; it is truly one of the best travel experiences to enjoy in Hawaii.

If You Go

Tour Cost: $120.00 per person

Includes: Hotel pickup and drop off — All equipment including bikes, helmets, wet weather gear — Knowledgeable guide and support vehicle — Muffins and Coffee before the tour and coffee “on tap” during the predawn wait for sunrise — Buffet breakfast — Certificate of achievement.

Maui Downhill

Fitness Required: While not a strenuous activity, you will be covering 38 miles by bike and need to be strong enough to control your bicycle over this 3-hour+ descent.

*Hint: Bookings strongly suggested, even during the quiet pre-Christmas

week, these tours were busy and full.

Getting there

Both islands of Oahu and Hawaii are serviced by International Airports.

Flight times from Sydney, Australia – 11 hours, Los Angeles, California – 5.5 hours,

Tokyo, Japan – 6 hours.

Hawaiian Airlines and Aloha Airlines provide inter-island flights from Oahu, Hawaii to

Maui daily, travel time: 30-45 minutes.

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Janna Graber

Janna Graber is an award-winning American travel journalist and current editor of Go World Travel Magazine. Since moving to Austria at age 19 for college, she's been in love with world travel, and has covered destinations around the globe for more than 55 newspapers, magazines and websites. She's the author of three travel anthology books, including "A Pink Suitecase: 22 Tales of Women's Travel".
Janna Graber
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