House of the Sun’s Forever Glide


Photo: Belindah

As kids on bicycles we dream of downhill glides that go on forever. These fantasies become particularly intense as we struggle later to bike up a steep incline.

Haleakalā, the massive volcano that dominates the Hawaiian Island of Maui, forming more than 75 per cent of its landmass, may be the closest you can come to realizing this downhill dream. The tallest peak of Haleakalā, Pu‘u ‘Ula‘ula (Red Hill), rises 10,023 feet (3, 055 meters) above sea level, looking down into a massive crater seven miles (11.25 km) across by two miles (3.2 km) wide and 2,600 feet (800 meters) deep.

In Hawaiian folklore, this crater is home to the grandmother of the demigod Maui. She helped her powerful grandson to capture the sun to slow its progress across the sky and lengthen the day. In fact, Haleakalā  means House of the Sun.

Long days have come in handy since, with many visitors coming to the peak to enjoy one of the world’s most stunning sunrises and then taking the breathtaking 27 mile (43 km) downhill bike ride to the Pacific Ocean, ending at Paia beach park. All kinds of tour companies cater to visitors who want to explore Haleakalā and its 30,000 acre National Park, home to rare plant species and a variety of  terrains. There are options to hike, explore on horseback and even bike down at different times of the day.

Though the must-do experience is the guided sunrise descent on bicycle.

It should be noted, however, that since 2007 the National Park Service has suspended all commercial bike activity within the park, following several fatal accidents. Of course, you have the option of renting a bike yourself and coming down from the highest peak without guidance, but unless you know what you are doing, we wouldn’t recommend it.

While gliding downhill might seem like a restful activity, high speeds, steep drops and a famous series of hairpin switchbacks require some facility in the bike seat. One tour company not only has age and weight restrictions, and doesn’t allow pregnant women (due to the high elevation), it says that its mountain descents are for people who have “average bike riding abilities” and then warns: “If you haven’t been on a bike in 20 years, the top of a volcano is not the place to remember how to ride a bike.”

But if you opt for the thrills of the House of the Sun’s downhill forever glide, then some tour companies will pick you up from  your cruise ship, hotel or luxury Maui villa, in the wee hours of the morning and then take you to the summit of Haleakalā, where you will be escorted to the crater rim for a spectacular sunrise views. The guides will also explain the history of the mountain and talk about some of the rare plants and animals that may be found here, such as a Nene (Hawaiian goose) and a blooming ahinahina plant (silversword).

The actual guided ride would begin outside the park, at the 6,700-foot level. Riders are  specially outfitted with windbreakers, gloves, helmets and special bikes, whose “heavy-duty brakes” are a must. Layers of warm clothes are also a must. The thin air on top of Haleakalā can be a chill 40°F to 60°F, which can give way to the balmy temperatures by the ocean, where you will want some of your layers to disappear.

Next point your bike downhill and let gravity take over, taking you through your childhood fantasy of non-stop downhill motion through dramatic switchbacks, upcountry Kula, then sugar cane and pineapple fields and finally to the ocean. Or course, you are welcome to stop along the way, for a breakfast break or to admire the view.

Gabriel Amadeus describes his experience biking from the peak of Haleakalā in his Flickr photostream: “After we watched the sunrise we had some . . . coffee. Then we prepped for the 10,000-foot descent to the ocean, 40 miles long! Of the 40 miles we only had to pedal for a about a quarter mile.

Photo: Gabriel Amadeus

“If you can imagine 20 miles of smooth switchbacks with banked corners. Pure heaven! Then the next 20 miles was through a few towns and the countryside. Ended at the ocean completely exhausted. The temperature went from 40° at the top to 80° on the beach.”

On a tour, you would be delivered back to your villa by lunch, ready to recount your adventures and then have a sleep poolside. If you wish, you can contemplate doing what some brave bicyclists attempt: ride from the bottom of the volcano up to the top. We suspect that this might be a little more time-consuming and difficult than coasting downhill.


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