Hawaii: Surf to Summit

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

For a lesson in atmospheric physics, riding a motorcycle up a volcano is tough to beat. And Maui provides the perfect lab: the 40-mile, helter-skelter Haleakala Highway. Rising 10,000 feet in 40 miles, it's the longest continuous climb in North America. And they say it's just as long coming down.

Riding the volcano
Atmospheric physics? The temperature falls by 36 degrees from sea level to the viewpoint on the rim of Haleakala's crater. It was a balmy 70 when we hit the Highway at 4:00 am. You do the math. The air at the top was so thin, the oxygen atoms were joining singles' clubs.

Retreating from the summit in the early morning sun, I didn't begin to feel warm again until the tiny horse-ranching town of Makawao. Even so, I let my gloves linger on the Sportster's engine to force some heat to my fingertips while we idled at the town's only traffic signal. Sunday morning and awake since 3:00 am: I had an urgent appointment at Charley's Diner with a large mug of Kona coffee and a plate of huevos rancheros.

This was going to be a long day. They call it the Iron Butt - Island Style. OK, so it's only some 300 miles by road around Maui's coast (even if you add the assault of Haleakala), but you spend a lot of time in second gear. Thirteen hours would be a fast time.

Like variety? The route takes in coastal desert, tropical rainforest, alpine meadows, temperate pasture, and the volcano's barren moonscape. The roads include: four-lane highway; mountain paths fraught with hairpins; serpentine cliff-hugging coastal byways; swooping, marble-smooth two-lane blacktop; seven miles of washboard dirt; and about 20 miles of teeth-rattling broken tarmac. Though a KLR or GS Beemer would probably be ideal, just about the only rental bikes on Maui are Harleys or chainsaw-engined scooters. The 1200 Sportster I found at Hula Hogs seemed the best compromise.

Up, up and away
Before a long ride, I'm like a kid at Christmas - sleep doesn't come easily. So when the alarm chirped at 3:00 am, my eyes were already on ceiling patrol.

It was a steamy night, and I'd been sleeping with the air conditioning on. But I layered up as much as I could, including a full-face helmet. Hawaii has no helmet law, but eye protection is mandatory, and sunglasses at night don't cut it. I joined Kendall and Paula Parker at Hula Hogs, and we hit the road.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2003 back issue.