"What you see around you is the beautiful scenery of Haleakala, the House of the Sun," says TJ, my grinning guide. He's standing at the front of the van and stretching his massive arms as if to reveal the entirety of Maui's 10,023-foot volcano in a single gesture. "And unless you want to become part of that scenery, you'll listen very carefully to my safety instructions."
Crammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the red and yellow Mountain Riders van as it climbs slowly to the summit of Haleakala, my group of about a dozen would-be downhill cyclers lets out a collective laugh, then proceeds to study the road a little more closely. Behind us are 38 miles of hairpin turns, abrupt switchbacks, and absolutely no guard rails to speak of. The morning clouds are settling in—below us. At that moment, at least a few people jokingly suggest that biking down the side of a volcano suddenly doesn't seem as reasonable as the brochure made it sound.
But at least, I console myself, I'm not breaking the bank for this chance to break my neck. The guided Haleakala downhill bike ride, offered by Mountain Riders and three other companies, lists for as little as $84 a person—a surprisingly affordable adventure on an island not known for bargains.
From the summit to the ocean
"The brake on the left handlebar controls your front tire," continues TJ. "We call it the ejection lever, because if you use it for a quick stop, you'll end up flying like E.T." Again the laughter and the glances, this time a little more closely at the road behind us. Warnings aside, though, Maui's famous summit-to-sea level cycling route is actually one of the least strenuous—if not the safest—rides in the world. At 38 miles downhill, there's almost no peddling involved, and just about anyone can do it.
The ride itself offers everything you'd expect from a 10,000-foot drop through five distinct climate zones—a white-knuckle descent from the Mars-like crater, enormous red boulders jutting out at seemingly impossible angles, a vibrant patchwork of flora, and an easy beachside finish at the ocean's edge.
Mountain Riders is one of several local cycling companies that offers guided rides of the 38-mile route from the summit, in addition to guided and unguided trips starting from the edge of the Haleakala National Park, about 4,000 feet below the summit. Everyone who visits Maui soon hears about the famous sunrise tours, which begin with a pickup at your hotel around 2:00 a.m. and end mid-morning, after watching the sun rise above the clouds. What most of the brochures and guidebooks don't mention is that there's only about a 50 percent chance of actually seeing the sun.
There's a debate about whether the sunrise tour is worth the extra cost (as much as $25 more depending on the operator), not to mention the inconvenience of interrupting a good night's sleep and following it with a two-hour drive in a van full of similarly sleep-deprived strangers. I opted for the mid-morning tour, which meant a more reasonable 7:30 a.m. pickup at my hotel in Lahaina and a finish just after lunch. While the later tour misses the sunrise, it offers its own unique experiences—such as cruising down the mountain at 20 miles an hour as the road before you slowly disappears in a white cloud.
Riders descend single file from the summit, about 15 feet apart, with a guide in front and another guide trailing the group with the van. Anyone who gets nervous, light-headed, or just plain tired has the option to pull aside and ride in the van.
Planning your trip
Four companies offer guided sunrise and afternoon tours from the volcano's summit: Mountain Riders, Maui Downhill, Mountain Cruisers, and Cruiser Phil's. You can also rent a bike and ride independently, but you'll have to start at the edge of the national park entrance—about 4,000 feet below the crater—and miss the best part of the ride, because no unsupervised riders are allowed inside the park.
It's important to book ahead, not only because space is limited on most tours, but also because you may end up paying significantly more for the same tour once you're on the island. There are also at least two reputable discounters (Barefoot Hawaii Discount Tours and Adventure Maui) that provide additional savings without the drawback of Maui's number one tourist trap: the infamous timeshare tour.
Of course, if you're willing to spend an afternoon of your vacation listening to a sales pitch, you can do the Haleakala ride for about half price. Just stroll down the main street of Lahaina and you'll find no shortage of activity booths luring tourists to timeshare properties with the promise of steep discounts on the activity of your choice.
Hikes, horses, and helicopters
Avid hikers shouldn't miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to scramble inside the volcano's crater, an experience as memorable as the downhill ride. The aptly named Sliding Sands trail starts at the park headquarters and makes for a unique day hike. Start early in the day and walk to the Ka Lua O Ka O'o crater, about six miles from the summit. Give yourself a good five to six hours round-trip to complete the hike, and remember that it will take about twice as long to climb back up as it does to descend.
If you're going to hike in the crater, plan ahead: Wear proper footwear, bring plenty of water, and cover yourself with sunscreen. I saw too many overheated and unprepared tourists struggling through the crater in sandals and desperate for water. Park fees are $5 per individual (or $10 per vehicle), and are good for seven days. Camping and horseback riding inside the crater are also permitted.
For the less active, simply driving to the summit provides its share of adventure. The park headquarters is open daily and offers numerous visitor programs, such as star watching, ranger guided walks, sunset views, and the opportunity to gaze into a volcanic crater roughly the size of Manhattan. Be sure of your driving ability before you set out, however. The ride is steep, and the road isn't protected by guard rails.
Finally, for the most luxurious of views, consider soaring above Haleakala in a helicopter. Like the downhill bike ride, there's no shortage of helicopter companies on Maui. Three of the best are Blue Hawaiian, Sunshine Helicopters, and AlexAir. I chose the latter because of its 30 years of flying experience and two-way communication between the pilot and the passengers (the only company on the island to offer this at the time). You can get discounts by booking online or searching through local discounters, but I found the best price by mentioning my AAA membership.
Of all the Hawaiian islands, Maui is perhaps the best suited for active travelers of all skill levels. Whether it's as simple as driving to the summit of Haleakala, or as daring as cycling downhill from the top, the island has something for the adventurer in each of us.
Author's note: The most useful guidebook I encountered in my travels around Maui was Maui Revealed: The Ultimate Guidebook, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. If Maui figures into your travel plans, I recommend starting there for an authoritative and in-depth look at all that the island offers.