Downhill All The Way: Bicycling on a Hawaiian Volcano


They stand very still, listening to instructions from a guide. In a moment they’ll be ready to roll. It will be time for takeoff, as this group of young bicyclists in Hawaii coasts down the steep slopes of a volcano.

The bicyclists, ages 12 to 17, all live on Maui (MOW-ee), one of the islands that make up the state of Hawaii. They began their 38-mile cycling adventure above the clouds, at the highest point on Maui: the peak of an inactive volcano named Haleakala (HAH-lee-AH-Kah-lah). In single file, they followed a steep, winding road down the western slope of the volcano. In just three hours, the bicyclists rounded more than 600 turns and wheeled from an elevation of about 10,000 feet to sea level.

Since the adventure is downhill all the way, a rider hardly ever has to pedal, explains trip leader Jon Thuro. He owns MAUI MOUNTAIN CRUISERS, one of three companies that offer this trip. On the ride, says Thuro, “We just pick up our feet, relax, and enjoy the scenery.”

Allison Preston, 17, did just that. “We got up before sunrise and rode to the top of the volcano in a van,” she recalls. “The view was great. We could see the whole island, the ocean around it, and even others islands in the distance.” At the peak, the young bicyclists had a chance to peer into the volcano’s crater, which is more than 3,000 feet deep. “We saw giant cinder cones that looked like sand hills,” says Sy Feliciano, 13. The tallest cones are as high as a 100-story skyscraper.

“It was very barren at the top of the volcano,” Allison notes. “There wasn’t much greenery, just a lot of black lava rock everywhere. And it was cold. We saw ice on rocks along the road.”

To keep warm, the riders put on windbreakers and leather gloves. For safety’s sake, all of them wore helmets. MAUI MOUNTAIN CRUISERSsupplies the gear as well as the bicycles. Strong and sturdy, they have heavy-duty brakes, fat tires, and low seats for stability.

After receiving safety instructions, the bicyclists wheeled away. “First we started to see small bushes mixed in with the rocks,” Allison recalls. “About halfway down, we came to cattle pastures. The weather started getting warmer. Farther on, we rode through a eucalyptus forest; it smelled wonderful! Toward the bottom, we went through pineapple and sugarcane fields, and we ended up in a small town near a beach.” The temperature there was about 30 degrees warmer than it had been at the top.

“I’ve lived on Maui my whole life,” says Allison. “But I’ve usually seen the scenery from a car speeding down a road. This is a much better way to see the island. You go more slowly, and have a chance to look around.” Sy agrees. “A lot of us wanted to take the trip again—the same day!”

One Mountain, Many Climates

Some like it hot; some like it cold. Whichever climate you prefer, you’ll find it on the slopes of Haleakala. Temperatures at the volcano’s summit—10,023 feet above sea level—average 30 degrees colder than at the bottom.

If you travel down the western slope of Haleakala, as these bicyclists did, you’ll notice changes in rainfall, soil, and plant life, as well as temperature. Near the summit, you’ll see only the rare silversword and a few other kinds of plants. Between the summit and an elevation of 7,000 feet, you’ll see native shrubs. They grow more densely farther from the summit. Below 7,000 feet, outside the protected area of Haleakala National Park, people use the land for agriculture, and few native plants remain. Cattle graze on grassy ranchland that has replaced forests of koa and other trees. Pineapple and sugarcane fields cover most of the land between 2,000 feet and sea level.

Copyright © 1989 National Geographic Society