Riding in a Forest of House Plants on Maui’s Road to Hāna
Photos and words by Morgan Taylor
If you’ve spent any time in tropical places, this may not come as a surprise to you – but to Stephanie and I, content and comfortable in the damp temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, riding Maui’s Road to Hāna was completely mind blowing. We didn’t go to Hawai’i for the beaches (in fact, we didn’t even swim), and we weren’t really doing it to escape the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions at home. We didn’t have expectations, just a few recommendations and an open mind – our usual way of traveling.
The fact that we ended up in Hawai’i at all is a bit of a surprise. We’re not really fly-to-vacation people, preferring to put our money into good gear rather than flights. Quite honestly, we never would have sought out Maui as a destination, but the opportunity arose for us to do it basically for the costs of flights and food – there were cruiser bikes and road bikes and a truck at our friend’s house (thanks, Dan!) – and that was the catalyst that got us there. We packed our saddles and pedals, shoes and helmets, and jumped on a six-hour flight from Vancouver in mid-November.
Biking on Maui
We didn’t see a lot of people on bikes in our week on Maui. There are a couple of state-managed trail riding areas on the west slopes of Haleakalā and a route called Skyline off the summit into one of the trail zones. We did see a handful of mountain bikes hanging off tailgates, but the majority of cyclists we saw were riding traditional road bikes. The three classic road rides on Maui are the West Maui loop, the 10,000 foot climb to the summit in Haleakalā National Park, and the out-and-back to Hāna detailed in this story. Another ride that should, in my opinion, be added to that list of classics for smooth surface riding is an out-and-back to Kaupo from Kula, a beautiful section on the south side of Haleakalā, less traveled by tourists.
Of the three popular road routes, the West Maui loop is arguably the most accessible with a lot of time spent on flat highway shoulders between Wailuku and Lāhainā on the south side and incredible oceanside cliffs on the north. It wasn’t our first choice because of all that time on the side of busy, straight roads. The north section is much more interesting, with a fair bit of climbing and some really narrow rural and cliffside roads.
We had prepped to ride the west loop on our second-last day on the island, but woke up to the only morning of blustery winds in our week there, and skipped the ride. Instead we drove the full loop around the south side of Haleakalā through Hāna, and by the end of the long day in the truck, the sentiment was reinforced that if we did ever return, we’d do so with our mountain bikes to enjoy the roads of Maui at a bikepacking pace.
Haleakalā National Park
According the the Strava segment, the full climb from sea level to the Haleakalā summit takes anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, with most people doing it in 5-6. Wind and rain were anywhere from intermittent to persistent, and the temps up top when we were there didn’t get much above 50. With our borrowed road bikes and their corn cob cassettes, it wasn’t going to be the kind of ride we’re into. But, the Skyline route off the west side of the mountain down into the singletrack? Hell yeah. Again, our rigid mountain bikes would have been the choice here, packed with spare layers for the full climb, dirt alternate descent, and lots and lots of snacks.
Like most national parks, Haleakalā proper does not cater to bicyclists – but it is a truly special place that should be experienced on foot. Instead of riding up the hill, we opted to drive up and hike in the Haleakalā crater. We barely scratched the surface of the crater zone with a six-hour excursion from the summit. If you find yourself heading to Maui, see about scoring one of the backcountry camping spots and get ready to spend a lot of time on your feet in thin air.
The Road to Hāna
Skipping the west loop ride meant our Hāna day was the only big road ride we did in a week on Maui, but it certainly did not disappoint. The Road to Hāna is infamous with tourists because it’s so twisty, diving into lush creek drainages and then climbing back out to a headland, only to repeat this cycle dozens of times. Roads that are so tight that cars can’t really drive them with any speed.
Read as a cyclist, it sounds like perfection. And it pretty much was. The only people driving more than 20 mph were the locals; knowing every curve and possibly being a bit impatient about the popularity of their commute route, most were chill but not everyone was all Aloha and Mahalo about us being out there. Starting early was key here and, getting out into the valleys before the big wave of rented Mustangs and Jeeps, we had the eastbound flow much to ourselves all morning.
The gallery tells you so much of this story. Walls of green, everywhere. Plants that we only ever see indoors lining the sides of the road, climbing every tree, clinging to cliff faces. Plants on plants on plants. The sound of rushing water in the valleys and surges of new fragrance around every corner. Views across the valleys to endless stands of fluffy bamboo, bisected by the road, magically cut into pleasant grades along the hillsides. The guide books say to rent a convertible for the true experience, but we all know it’s best on a bike.
There are a few options for starting the out-and-back to Hāna, but things really get interesting once you hit Mile 0 on the Hāna Highway. We parked just after Mile 2 at Twin Falls, where there’s a parking lot and lots of people coming and going all day to check out the falls. Since we were on the bike shortly after sunrise, the best part about starting this far into the route was the lack of tourist traffic for the majority of the ride. Even with what some might consider a truncated version of the popular route, we still rode 65 miles with 5,500 feet of climbing. Either way, I’d highly recommend starting as early as you can muster (which isn’t so bad if your internal clock is on North America time).
If you’re looking for a longer ride that includes this route, you’ve got two options: extend the out-and-back, or loop the east side of the island. The shortest version of the full loop is about 110 miles with at least 10,000 feet of climbing, and be warned: the south section from Hāna to Kaupo is pretty nasty, with some dirt, lots of unimproved pavement with patches upon patches of asphalt, and some steep pitches. With fewer people and more open spaces, we saw this as a perfect place to be riding our camping bikes, but a drop bar bike with big tires would do you well if you wanted to smash it in a single day.
Where’s My Camera?
For almost two years now, my go-to for almost everything I shoot has been my Canon 70D with an 18-135mm lens. It’s heavy, it’s big, and it consistently produces the results I want without having to swap lenses. And since the lens is a relatively inexpensive kit lens, I don’t worry too much about it. On my drop bar bikes, this camera usually lives in my Swift Ozette, less often in my Monkey Wrench Cycles 137 basket bag, more recently in the new Outer Shell basket bag, and in a Porcelain Rocket DSLR slinger on my bikepacking bike. None of those would be an option on our borrowed bikes, so I was stoked when prepping at home to find that my 70D with that big lens fits into the Outer Shell Drawcord Bar Bag that John raves about.
Kyle will ship this bag out with some foam padding if you’re using a smaller camera system, but with the foam blocks between it and the head tube, and its secure rackless handlebar mount and stem loop, my nearly-three-pound DSLR was super solid and easy to access. It’s not quite as convenient as the PR slinger (which requires a lot more room behind the bars), but is hands down the best solution for carrying my big camera on a rackless drop bar bike. Interestingly, riding to Hāna was one of the few times in recent memory that I was wishing I’d brought a lens wider than the 18-135.
Would We Go Back?
Our usual preference is to travel by bike, and now having been to Maui, we know that we’d bring our plus-tire bikepacking bikes to take full advantage of the range of riding there. Bikes not unlike the trucks locals drive, as we’d find out. Sure, we might spend more time on roads than trails, but you can go almost anywhere with a rigid mountain bike, and that can’t be said even for the big tire road bikes we favor for everyday use at home. 2.8”+ tires for riding on beaches and comfort on some of the lesser traveled roads, low gears for the long and sometimes steep climbs, good brakes for the off-road excursions.
Still, having been there, I’m not sure that paying to fly a bike to this particular tropical destination would be worth the effort. Compared to other destinations like Central America or Southeast Asia, the day-to-day costs are higher. And there’s a finite amount of riding to be done – it is an island, after all. But, if you’re more inclined than we are to fly places with your bike, or you happen to be going there for a family event (as seems to be common), it’s a safe and beautiful place to visit. With somewhere to home base, a couple weeks to meander, and the right kind of bikes, there’s definitely potential on Maui.
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