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The Slopes of Haleakala

Updated: Jun 28, 2018

At the most isolated archipelago in the world, Mt. Haleakala rises to a towering height of 10,023 feet above the sea. This ancient volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui constitutes over 75% of the island. It’s truly a giant. And when you consider its additional 19,680 feet that lies below the surface of the water, its total size is more than the height of Mt. Everest! Unlike Kilauea, its sister volcano on the big island of Hawaii, Haleakala has not erupted in about four to five hundred years. Here, the real interest is in the slopes, a place where nature and human recreation come together.

I came to Maui to vacation and do things that ordinary tourists do, but I went to the great Haleakala to mountain bike. I was here to put tires on its dirt and ride its slopes. I wanted to discover what secrets this mountain would reveal to me. What kind of terrain I would find?

To understand the opportunities that Mt. Haleakala can provide, you have to look at its differing climate zones. Although it has a multitude of microclimates, it’s best to look at it in a general sense. The windward side, which runs from north to east, gets most of the rainfall on the island. Here’s where you’ll find plenty of lush rainforests, waterfalls, and at certain elevations, rain falling 365 days a year. The leeward side is protected from the wind and clouds by the mountain. It runs from south to west and is mostly dry with large areas of lava-rock fields.

That brings us to an in-between area on the northwest slope that faces the West Maui Mountains. This middle ground lets some of the wind and clouds to funnel through, creating a moderate climate. At its lower elevations, called the “upcountry”, crops such as lavender and grapes are flourishing. Travel a little higher up the mountain and you’ll find forests reserves with an abundance of Redwood, Eucalyptus, and the native Koa trees. This is where prime conditions exist for hiking and mountain biking.

On all of of Maui, there are only two sanctioned areas to mountain bike, and both are on this northwest slope of Mt. Haleakala. One is called Makawao Park, and the other, located at the Kula Forest Reserve, is Polipoli Park. These parks have networks of challenging trails that are being regularly enjoyed by mountain bikers. Here you’ll find a mix of local riders and those visiting Maui, all ripping the trails in the comfortable temperatures that this area consistently provides.

These trails didn’t happen by accident; it took some dedicated and determined mountain bikers doing some hard trail work to bring them to life; work that continues today. One of the key contributors to Maui’s mountain biking scene is Aaron “Moose” Reichert. In addition to his involvement with trail development, Moose is also the owner of Krank Cycles, a bike shop located in the sleepy upcountry town of Makawao. This is strategically close to the trails, but it also has the distinction of being the only bike shop on Maui to rent mountain bikes. When I met him in his shop, he had some interesting stories to tell. That’s when I decided to sit down with him, interview style, to find out more about where Maui’s mountain biking scene has been and where it’s going.

Paul: Moose, thank you for the interview. First off, I would like to ask you about your nickname. How did you end up with it?

Moose: Well, I came from Wyoming where I did a lot of hunting. When I moved out here, I met a group of chefs, and when they saw the coolers that I had brought with me they jokingly asked if I had any moose meat. Then I started riding with these guys. At six foot three and 240 pounds, I’m a big guy. So when I’m heading downhill, they said I sounded like a moose coming through the woods. So the name stuck. But it works well for me. I do a lot of community work, so the kids really remember me by Moose, and it’s also what people in the cycling community know me as.

Paul: When did you first become involved with mountain biking on Maui?

Moose: I started riding here in 2000, but it became more serious in 2005. That’s when I became involved in a mountain biking movie called “The Collective”. We did the Hawaii segment. That movie actually changed how mountain bike films are filmed. Instead of dirt bike one-hit-wonders, it became artistic. It’s a classic film man; people always refer to it. And it was really cool working with the top guys. Since then I’ve worked with about six mountain biking films.

Paul: I see that you have a local IMBA chapter, the Maui Mountain Bike Coalition. How did it come to be?

Moose: At one time there was a bunch of illegal trail building here. Various structures were put up without permission, which the state had then torn down. It was at that time that a friend and I had started a mountain bike club called the Maui Mountain Bike Coalition (MMBC). Through that, with some hard work, we became a non-profit, formed a board, and became an IMBA chapter.

Paul: How did the Makawao Park become such a renowned place for great mountain biking?

Moose: As soon as we became an IMBA chapter we started working on the trails there. One of the first things we did was some fund raising. We raised close to ten grand and got a matching grant. We then used that money to build a really cool two mile long flow trail. The state was so impressed with it that they wanted to revamp the whole area. They got about $460,000 allocated for the park, which brought in a bunch of structures such as wooden jumps and close to another three miles of flow trail.

Paul: That’s interesting. Tell me more about this park. What’s it like to ride there?

Moose: Sure. Makawao Park is in a rainforest that’s wetter in the winter. From top to bottom it has about 1300 feet of vertical. Most of the trails average about 1000 feet of vertical. Because of this area’s high clay content, the dirt is easy to shape and the trails are smooth. Most of them have been machine built. The pineapple express is a flow trail with 25 foot jumps and dish-wall rides that are close to 30 feet. Makawao actually has three skills areas; two of them have various wooden structures where riders do flips and tricks, and there’s a third one that’s great for two to ten year olds. The kids love it. The only drawback is when this place gets wet, it can be slimy. Aside from that, it’s a beautiful area to ride.

Paul: What’s the story of your other place to ride, the Polipoli Park?

Moose: This area also has some great trails, but without the clay content, it’s quite a bit different from Makawao. The Mamane is one of the more popular trails. A guy named Tom Armstrong is one of the original guys that helped build it. I call him the godfather of mountain biking on Maui. He's done all kinds of trail work here since the late 80’s, and to this day, he continues to be on the forefront of trail building.

Paul: So what trail work is going on there now?

Moose: We’re doing a connector for a trail called the Upper Waikoa. This trail splits off from the Mamane Trail, and when it’s done, it will form a complete loop back to Waipoli Road. So far we’re about halfway through it. Tom Armstrong is leading that charge. Technically it’s a trail that’s already in existence, but it hasn’t been worked on in nearly 30 years. Much of it has disappeared, the trail is gone. We’re just going through it. We’re finding some segments of it, but it’s pretty much busting new trail the whole way. We’re cold chiseling lava rock and hand building to make a path. The terrain is really hard, but we’re hoping to have it done by the early part of next year. To help move things along, we’ll be having a trail building camp out. If we get in a half mile or close to a mile, we’ll be really stoked. It’ll depend on our turnout. Once that loop is completed, you’ll be able to join it up with other trails. You could then make about a 23 mile loop that takes you through almost every type of climate zone and terrain you can imagine on Maui. You’ll go through high desert, pine forest, lava fields, and tropical rain forest. It’s going to be epic, but for someone to ride this, you’d have to be pretty dang fit. It will have a lot of vertical, and a lot of it will be technical.

Paul: How does the trail work being done by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) fit in with the work of the Maui Mountain Bike Coalition?

Moose: We collaborate with them. Any work we do has to be approved by them because they’re the land managers. So they approve the work but we advise on new trails, reroutes, and improvements. They depend on the bikers for bike trails. Na Ala Hele is the name of the DLNR’s program for trails and access. They’re the ones that maintain the trails by weed whacking and clearing trees.

Paul: When and how did you start your bike shop, Krank Cycles?

Moose: I started it back in the fall of 2013. Previously, I was the manager at a bike shop in Lahaina, but things didn’t work out and I had a parting of ways with them. That’s when I pulled my resources together, bought a fleet of bikes, and here I am.

Paul: What makes this shop unique?

Moose: We have about 17 different brands of bikes represented in the shop. Maintenance-wise this is more challenging for us but we feel that having more choices is better. Many of these are high end. You can actually rent and ride a bike that you would otherwise only read about in reviews or just see sitting on the floor for sale. Something that’s super-desirable and hot on the market. It gives people the opportunity to try out a specific high-end bike before making a purchase. This is different than any shop that rents or sells bikes. In addition, all of our bikes can be viewed and reserved online for a seamless experience while visiting the island.

Paul: Given the rainfall here, how much of the year is mountain biking possible?

Moose: Even though the winter is a little wetter, we actually have good riding year-round. Late spring through summer and all of fall are really good. Price-wise, all of fall and late spring have the lowest hotel rates. Polipoli is the drier area, but it can be ridden in any type of weather because much of the surface is volcanic cinder covered with some really nice, loamy soil. Imagine a potted plant…as the rain falls, it just drains right through and the perfect amount of moisture stays on top. It can actually become super tacky and super fun when it rains …just like a good powder day. But the Makawao Reserve is different. It sometimes tends to shut down in the winter when it gets too wet. This is because its high clay content makes it too slimy. We call it Hawaiian Ice.

That wrapped up a great interview. I was now anxious to get out and do some trail riding. I had been to the Polipoli Park once before, but had left some unfinished business…a few trails that I didn’t get to try. Back then I was there for a singular purpose…to climb to the top of the mountain by way of dirt trails. That was my goal. Something I had to do in life. To be clear, this was not a ride that involved 10,000 feet of climbing. The Polipoli parking area and trailhead are situated at 6400 feet. This left another 3600 feet to the top…tough, but within my abilities.

On that previous trip, I rented an Intense Spider 27.5. As I began from the parking lot, thick clouds were surrounding me. At this point the terrain was a plain dirt fire road, but after a while it morphed into pumice gravel. Once I got high enough to break through the haze, it opened up to an incredible view of the pillowy cloud cover hugging the mountain. It almost looked as if you could step right off the island and walk out onto them.

Continuing on, the road at times became a deep, sloshy sand-gravel mix. When this combined with one of the steep incline sections, it became a hike-a-bike affair. To achieve my goal of getting to the top of the mountain, I had to relentlessly press on. But once there, the magnificent view of the volcano's crater made it all worth it. While a paved road makes this spot accessible by car and a popular tourist destination, for me, the additional reward of achieving the off road climb was priceless.

The ride down was fast and furious, and extra care had to be taken on the turns with the sand-gravel slosh. Needless to say, it went by much faster than the ride up. About four/fifths of the way down I was able to access the adjoining singletrack called the Mamane Trail. This trail drops over 800 feet in just under two miles and ends at Waipoli Road. It started out fast and flowy, but as I dropped to the tree line, the roots and some imbedded rocks quickly make it a technical ride. This trail was fun. By the time I was done, I was grinning ear to ear.

That brings me to my recent trip…I was here to ride some of the trails that I missed the last time. On this second go-around, I wanted to go back to Polipoli, and if I had leftover time and energy, I could then make my way to the Makawao Reserve. Although the last winter had brought 30% more rain than any previous winter, on this partly cloudy day in April, both parks were good to go.

I rented a 2018 carbon-framed 27.5 Santa Cruz Hightower; a bike that I’m familiar with and know would do well on all types of terrain. My intention was to hit the completed section of the Upper Waikoa Trail and revisit the Mamane Trail...another solo adventure. After the shop set me up with a trunk rack, I took off for the long and twisty drive up the mountain.

As I pulled up, something caught my eye…the Boundary Trail looked like it had been weed-whacked and trimmed. Not only that, but the DLNR truck was parked there, which meant that this work was fresh. The Boundary Trail descends and skirts the lower area of the park, but was closed the last time I was here. So the decision was made, I’m going for it.

As I pulled up to the Polipoli parking area, something caught my eye…the Boundary Trail looked like it had been weed-whacked and trimmed. Not only that, but the DLNR truck was parked there, which meant that this work was fresh. The Boundary Trail descends and skirts the lower area of the park, but was closed the last time I was here. So the decision was made, I’m going for it.

Soon after heading down the Boundary, I passed up the park workers as they were heading back to their truck, tools in hand. Their handiwork went on for a long distance, so it appeared that they were done. It was a nice undulating trail, sometimes muddy, sometimes rocky, but never too difficult. The foliage was fantastic as it switched from eucalyptus to pines to Koa trees and ferns…it was never boring.

Everything was going well until about the halfway point of my spur-of-the-moment journey. Apparently that was as far as the workers got because the trail beyond was completely congested with fallen branches. Pushing the bike past this, I was able to reconnect with the trail and continue on, but this situation kept repeating itself. It sometimes became so bad that it seemed as if a hurricane had blown through the area. Not so fun. To top off my displeasure, it started to rain…light but relentless. I guess the island was letting me know that I was a stranger in this land.

Trying to make the best of it, I continued on through this soggy rainforest with my now completely soaked clothing, working my way up the hill in the direction of the dirt road that leads back to the car.

A sign indicated that a ranger cabin was close by, so I headed in that direction. It seemed like the shortest path back to civilization. To my surprise, it turned out to be an old abandoned cabin in the middle of the forest, run down and overgrown. Stepping inside, the wood floor creaked as I gazed upon the surroundings. Along the walls of this two room cabin were some old bunkbeds with nothing but springs showing from the now deteriorated mattresses. To one side was an old dilapidated wooden table, and on another side lay some kind of in-ground fire pit with a few pieces of old garbage strewn about. It was quite apparent that nobody had been here in a long time.

This place gave me a temporary reprieve from the rain and a chance to down some gel, but I needed to move on. As I continued up the Redwood Trail, it quickly became a technical ride with an abundance of gnarly roots. Clearly something that would be much better in the other direction. Maybe someday I would return here to try my skills out, but right now I had to press on and get out of the forest.

Finally, I broke through the trees to find a single green cabin with an adjoining dirt driveway. It turns out that this cabin in the Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area is available for rent from the State of Hawaii.,details,1683.html. After getting onto the Waipoli Road from the driveway, I stopped to talk to a pair of DLNR workers that were pulled off to the side in their truck. I told them about my experience with the fallen branches across the trail. They said they’ll be getting to it; it just takes time to get to them all after the rain season.

Perhaps I should have stuck to my original plan; I would have at least stayed dry. But I don’t regret the experience that I did have; only what I missed out on. It would seem that I have to come back to this wonderful island for the trails I have yet to ride. (Twist my arm!)

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