An epic ride on the longest continuous paved climb in the world. Taking in a shade over 3,000m of climbing with ~56km on the way up, and another 56km coming back.
Location & Terrain
The Hawai’ian island of Maui has three interesting rides: the West Maui loop, a 75 mile ride including the wonderous scenery of North West Maui (and some highly trafficked highways with good shoulders); the Road to Hana, a scenic, undulating bike around the North East to the town of Hana; and the climb to the summit of Haleakala, at 3,000m, starting by the sea.
Having found ourselves needing to go to Hawai’i on business (at the start of the 2018 cycling season, no less), it was only fitting that we should tackle the Haleakala climb; according to the travel guides, the longest paved climb in the world. This ride takes us as high as any alpine mountain pass, but rather than starting from a railway station half way up, one must climb… and climb … the whole thing. No picking up momentum on the way down one hill to help you climb the next. The only way is up.
The ride itself has a mostly consistent grade throughout, aside from some short steep sections near the beginning and at the very end. Neither of these approach Alpine levels of grade or length. This is a ride of endurance, not pure climbing strength.
If you’ve been sitting around on the beach at sea level for a week, you will start to notice the thin air as you climb higher. At 3,000m we found it posed no great challenges, just a reduction in power and occasionally feeling a bit slow (both when climbing, and when thinking). Altitude impacts people differently, so be aware that you are climbing very high, very quickly. The important thing is to carry enough food, water and – most importantly – clothing. It’s at least 15C colder at the top than the bottom, and climbing or descending through the cloud layer can easily drop that temperature further, and make you wet. We had a gloriously sunny day but were wearing long gloves and hats for most of the descent.
Starting at the Sea – Paia
Starting in the town of Paia on Maui’s northern shore, the Pacific Ocean sits mere metres away. A reasonably sized public parking lot is available directly off Highway 36. Start at sunrise and you’ll find this empty, and you can leave your car there all day for free. It does start to fill later in the day as the tourists hit the town, and was full in the evening when we returned (in case someone is coming to pick you up…).
From the parking lot, turn right, then right again onto Baldwin Ave. This road takes you straight out of town towards Haleakala.
Navigation is fairly easy with a couple of important turns you should take, and one turn you should not.
Keep following Baldwin – it turns into a two-lane (one in each direction) highway with a variable-width shoulder. If you’ve followed our advice and started at sunrise you’ll see the sun come up in front of you, bathing you in the orange morning glow. Savour the feeling. Draw energy from the beautiful green around you as you wind your way gently upwards. Don’t be put off by the large lump of Haleakala in the distance. It actually looks deceptively small due to the steady, shallow gradient of its sides. It is not small.
You will encounter a signpost for Haleakala turning right off this road, onto Haliimaile Rd. DO NOT TAKE THIS TURN. It will put you on a major highway which will be no fun for you or the drivers on it. Continue on Baldwin Ave.
Rest Stop 1 – Makawao
At 488m elevation and 11.5km in, Makawao provides the first stop for water and food, in the form of Rodeo General Store. There are toilets available across the road from the store, of the portable variety. Once you’ve completed your business in the town, continue in the same direction as before up the big hill you see in front of you. This is the first of the two steeper sections, but it doesn’t last very long. Refreshed after your rest stop, just plough up it and you’ll be on ‘flat’ ground in no time and can admire the view of your destination.
1.5km after this steep section (around the 13.5km mark in the ride), the main navigation begins.
Make sure you turn right onto Hanamu Road, which has a tiny signpost for Haleakala – according to West Maui Cycles, these are left over from a professional race. It’s pretty obvious if you’re watching out for it, so stay alert after the steep section. This gives you a brief respite from the climbing, as you descend slightly – you can carry the speed with you to climb again, but take care on the speed bumps. At the end of this road take a left (following signs for the ‘elite’ rides), onto a poorly-surfaced road in a forest. A brief stint on this winding section brings you to Highway 377, where you should turn left (uphill) again.
Climbing on this section, views open out to Haleakala, where you can once again consider your life choices. It is closer now. And bigger. In good weather you’ll be able to see the observatories on the summit. That’s where you’re going…!
Rest Stop 2 – Kula
Continue following Highway 377 to the next rest stop, at Kula (~22km and 955m), where you can buy over-priced water from the store at Kula Lodge. There are toilets here which require a code, which the staff at the lodge will give you after purchasing said over-priced water. You’ll also encounter large groups of fake cyclists here, who have been dropped at the top of Haleakala by a bus and are now cruising back down. Your next rest stop is another 1,000m and 22km away.
Haleakala National Park
Less than 2km from Kula, past a few fruit stalls, the left turn into Haleakala National Park appears. It is a glorious feeling. However … you then look at your Garmin and realise you’ve only climbed 1km. One third of the way.
What follows is 1000m of climbing over 20km on a set of broad switchbacks, the island opening out in front of you as you climb. This section is the most likely place to encounter clouds on the way up or down.
At the end of these long switchbacks, you arrive at the booth where you get to part with $12 per bike for a ticket. You can take a car full of people for $25, but this is the USA so I guess an extortionate price for an environmentally friendly mode of transport is what you’d expect.
Rest Stop 3 – Visitors Center
There aren’t any services at the entrance to the park: for that you must climb a bit further. Shortly after passing 7,000ft, the Visitors Center appears. This is the last stop, and at this point there are around 850m still to climb, over 15km. By the restrooms you’ll find a filtered water supply where you can refill bottles. We’d normally mock our American cousins for using ‘restrooms’, but in this case you might just want to rest.
For most of the climb within the park itself, we’d had the ‘cheating’ cyclists – dropped up the top by bus – applauding us on our superior willpower, or questioning our mental health. Those who like to revel in glory will enjoy the Visitors Center experience, as the car drivers and passengers who passed you (while you were wheezing up the hill earlier) compliment your fortitude and fitness. “Thanks, but we’re not there yet”. No sir.
At this point in the climb we’re above the tree line, and vegetation continues to become more sparse. Things do start to feel harder in the thinner air up here, but it wasn’t too bad. Long switchbacks continue to climb up the mountainside, far above the clouds by this point. The road here typically has long sections with a tailwind, followed by a short switchback with a head wind, a magnificent triumph of planning for cyclists. This also helps to slow you down a bit on the descent, do you don’t need hands on the brakes all the time.
The sign reading “Summit 2mi” is glorious. The end is, metaphorically if not literally, in sight.
The road from here is mostly straight (with one short switchback) until rounding a final corner. The switchback provides a final view down into the base of the volcano below, with the diminutive sight of the West Maui mountains in the distance.
Rounding a final corner, looking back, the height gain is clear. At times it feels as if you’re hanging off the top of the world.
In front of you, the final hurdle reveals itself. The summit area is visible. Tucked around this corner are two things – a final Visitors Center (which we recommend you bypass and visit on the way back down if you need to), and an increase in gradient for the final climb to the summit.
Motivated by the summit buildings revealing themselves, push on to the top. Around the corner, the now-familiar black lava landscape explodes into shades of red, brown and grey as the full beauty of Haleakala is revealed.
Expect to answer some questions at the summit: “how long did it take you?” “where did you start?” “are you CRAZY?”
Enjoy the views, before starting the next part. Put on your gloves, and maybe a hat, and certainly a windproof jacket.
Every year more people descend Haleakala than ascend it by bike, due to the ‘cheaters buses’. The descent is nearly 60km of gently winding roads, at a reasonable 7% grade. People with little to no experience do it every day and survive – don’t be frightened by the motorcycle helmets the tour buses provide. There are three things to remember: a) make sure you have the layers to keep warm, even if you pass through the cloud layer (you will); b) the wind and the gentle gradient mean you don’t pick up speed too quickly, so save those brakes (and your hands) for when you need them, don’t drag them all the way down; c) you will be tired, and the thin air makes you more stupid than normal – give yourself more time in the corners and don’t push it all the way down.
We didn’t stop much on the way down so there are no pictures, until the end, as the sun set, on the beach at Paia. Enjoy the ride back down. It took us 90 minutes including a couple of stops for mechanicals and restrooms.
If this hasn’t encouraged you to go and try it out, here’s a video summary (from a Garmin Virb 360) of the ride: