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The Bruise Chronicles: Down the Spine of Mt Haleakala

File under: “Downhill”, Cross-reference: “Volcano”


Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Steve and I are on the vacation end of a business trip to Hawaii. I pick up a brochure at the airport advertising a morning bike ride from the top of Mt Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano, located on Maui. I momentarily forget that I’ve been mountain biking for all of seven months – this is way too cool an opportunity to pass up, so we make plans to rent bikes and do the ride.

We go to the Haleakala Bike Shop to get the details and rent the bikes. When we find out that the guided tour down the mountain is entirely on the road and not on any singletrack, we’re disappointed and wonder if we should even bother. That’s when someone mentions “the spine”. There’s just a moment of quiet stillness in the shop, like the scene in the saloon where the tall cowboy at the far end of the bar who has been silently staring into his whiskey suddenly utters the secret known to all but the greenhorns and a hush falls on the saloon as the piano player stops playing, and with a crash the bartender drops the bottle he’s holding. The local rider tells us if we really want to enjoy a ride down Haleakala, we need to go down the spine. I almost expect to hear someone say, “Bart, you fool, don’t send them poor people down there!” When no one says this, I take the bait. “What’s the spine?” I ask.

Beginning of the Skyline Trail down Mt HaleakalaFrom the top of Mt Haleakala, there is a fire road leading to a trail that winds down the back (the spine) of the volcano. For a cross-country rider with decent descending skills, this is the only way to go down the mountain; the road ride would be very disappointing. The bike shop offers guided rides down the road, but does not advertise nor suggest to tourists the ride down the spine. When I ask why not, I get blank stares from everyone including my husband. “Oh! What, ‘cause it’s dangerous?” More blank stares. That must be it, I figure. Unfazed, I turn to the local with the information, “So, we can do this spine trail, right?”

We’re told that if a rider were to be injured, he would be completely on his own, and we are reminded that tourists are not exactly encouraged to rent bikes and set off on a trail of pumice and volcanic cinder that winds down a mountain for 22 miles. But if we were to rent bikes and just happen to find the trail… no harm in that. The bike shop assistant pretends to know nothing as we proceed with our rental.

We gather up all the gear we think we’ll need: bikes, helmets, rain gear, spare tubes, pump, multi-tool, water bottles, snacks, and camera. We already have our Camelbaks, bike shoes, our pedals, and a wrench to change out the pedals so we can clip in (my husband just shakes his head when he realizes I have come to Hawaii carrying my own 15 mm pedal wrench in my suitcase).  We have everything we need to do the Mt Haleakala Downhill Run.

Monday night we ready the bikes at our cousin Scott’s house in Kihei, and make our plans for the following morning. Steve, Scott and I will load up in two cars and head to the mountain, parking the rental car at the base, then piling into Scott’s van with all the bikes and gear and heading to the top. This way we can ride our bikes from the top, down the trail to the base, get in a car and go back up to the top to fetch the van.

We prepare our gear. The temperature can change rapidly and drastically on the mountain, going from a sunny 70° at the base of the mountain to an overcast 40° at the top. We have to be ready for any condition, so we each have a large bag of gear and clothing. I get into bed knowing I’ll lie awake for an hour trying to wind down and trying not to think about tomorrow’s adventure. Steve is asleep in mere seconds.

Tuesday morning I’m so excited about this ride I’m annoying. I’m wearing my bright orange crash-test dummy bike jersey with the large black and yellow circle on it just to taunt fate. I pride myself on being prepared for any contingency, carrying a pocketknife, mini flashlight, and compass in my purse at all times. Today, in addition to these items I have a bike multi-tool, extra energy gels, first aid kit, and whistle (like it’s going to do us any good on the back side of a volcano). I approach this 4-hour volcano-mountain trail ride with the ardor of an overly-caffeinated adventure racer. The only reason that I’m not an ultra-geek is because my little tools actually come in handy on occasion. So I’m just a nerd.

We arrive at the base of the mountain and park the rental car. Most of my gear is already in Scott’s van with the rest of our things. I hop into the back of the van, throwing my clothing bag at my feet. We set off on the 50-minute trip from the base to the top of Haleakala. On our way up the mountain I go through my Camelbak making sure I have everything I need, and that everything I have is needed. I examine my little multi-tool. We have a bigger one from the bike shop, so I throw mine into my clothing bag. I check my pockets for things that might fall out. I leave my wallet with ID in my purse, and take only $10 with me just in case I find a 7-11 there on the mountain.

Once at the top we unload our bikes from the van and decide what clothing we’ll wear. Although it’s cloudy and cool, we decide to leave the rain gear in the van and take jackets. I’m wearing long bike tights over my shorter ones, a short-sleeved jersey and a wind jacket. It will be just enough. Before we set off on our ride, we walk up the path to the sign at the observation deck that reads: “Elevation 10,023 feet” for a photo.

We’re not sure where the trail begins, so we head down to the ranger station to ask and take a final bathroom break. Steve sees a mountain bike tour group and goes to ask the guide if he knows where the trail down the spine begins. The guide gives Steve a warning look and tells him that he’d better be careful, that there is no proper trail other than the road, and that if you take your bike in unauthorized areas on Haleakala, the park ranger will confiscate your bike and fine you, like, a thousand dollars. (This must be the one missing from the bike shop yesterday who would have said, “Stranger, you go down that spine, you’ll regret it.”)

After hearing this, I tell the guys I’ll ask in the gift shop and get the real story. The park ranger behind the counter is very helpful, and when I ask about the spine, he clarifies, “You mean the Skyline Trail?” and pulls out a map from a little newspaper. I verify that we are permitted to ride down it, and note the directions he gives for finding the trail head. I thank him kindly and meet the guys back in the parking lot. Steve hears the news and glances over at the mountain bike tour guide with the overly-active imagination and sneers quietly, “They confiscate your bike and fine you, like, a thousand dollars… thanks, buddy. What a knucklehead.”

We head for the trail. The ground is all reddish brown cinder and fine volcanic rock that slips away from under your bike tires and makes you work for every foot of ground you cover. I feel unsteady on the bike, like I’m going to fall every second, and then I remember the trick to riding on this kind of terrain: relax. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, relaxing your body so that you’ll have greater control. I relax my arms and my grip on the handlebars, and the going becomes a bit smoother. I remember what I’ve been taught about riding: keep your shoulders square to where you want to go, look as far ahead on the trail as you can, stand on the pedals with the pedals level and your weight over the seat or even further back. Relax. I fall twice in the first 5 minutes of the ride before I get the hang of riding on cinders and cornering on fine loose gravel, and then become more comfortable and have no problem.

Scott is riding behind me. When I take the first fall, I simply begin to wash out on a curve, overcorrect, then decide to bail off the bike and roll. I stand immediately as Scott looks on in horror, “Are you OK?!” he asks. “Oh, sure,” I tell him, brushing rock cinders from my arm and leg. No skin is broken. Scott evidently never falls, while I am rather proficient at it. After all, I practiced all last summer.

When Steve takes a fall about 10 minutes into the ride, he is not so fortunate. He hits a V-dip and is propelled forward landing on the handlebars, leaving him with a severely bruised (if not lightly cracked) rib and road rash on his leg. He takes a couple minutes to recover and catch his breath, then gets back on the bike and continues the journey down the mountain.

The sky is clear in front of us as we stop for a moment to look out over the southwestern Maui coastline. We see the white capped surf crashing on the shore, the green of the island below us, the light sand of the shore, the blue of the ocean complimenting the blue of the sky above. It’s a symphony of color in a moment where you want to linger.

For the first 15 minutes of the ride, we’ll be on reddish-brown volcanic rock that forms the trail, until the cinder gives way to dirt and vegetation. When we get down to the treeline, Scott points out a herd of goats grazing on the hillside in the distance. All is quiet up here; you only hear the wind.

The Skyline Trail winds down in a path that cuts across the mountain diagonally, then returns in switchbacks that snake downward. We come to the end of the singletrack and emerge onto a fire road that continues for another mile or so, stops at a gate, then continues on the other side. We stop at the gate for snacks and photos before continuing along the fire road.

As we descend the vegetation gets denser on either side of the fire road, and we almost miss the first turn at the Marmane trail. Scott was here before several years ago, and thankfully remembers to look for it. The Marmane trail takes us off the fire road and into the forest where our challenge is no longer fine cinder on a wide open downhill, but tight singletrack peppered with roots and rocks winding among evergreens. This ride has a bit of everything.

We ride another couple miles through the forest on singletrack before coming out onto another fire road. We’ve been riding for over an hour and we’re still descending. We’re still at about 6500 feet elevation when we finally reach the paved road that will take us to the base of the mountain.

The three of us coast down the paved road as fast as our nerve and braking skills will allow us, keeping far to the right, watching for the cars we can’t see coming up the hill as we descend, knowing that the cars won’t see us until we’re right upon each other. We finally make it down to the rental car, tired but still feeling the adrenaline rush from a great ride down the mountain. Twenty-two miles of downhill. Pretty cool.

When we take the bikes back to the shop, we give the report of our great adventure down the spine. The shopkeeper is eager to hear about it, and pleased that our morning went so well. I ask her for one of the T-shirts on display: Mt Haleakala, Downhill Survivor. While I am brazen enough to wear my crash-test-dummy bike jersey on the downhill run, I couldn’t bring myself to buy this T-shirt before actually I made it back to sea level.

Clipless pedals and a 15mm pedal wrench. Don’t leave home without them.


Ride report by Laura Drexler.


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