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Great Rides; Crater Run Maui, Hawaii

Crater Run Maui, Hawaii (select to view enlarged photo)
Crater Run Maui, Hawaii


Crater Run
By John Heilig
Senior Editor
The Auto Channel

It’s known simply as “The Crater Run” in Maui, Hawaii. As a Great Drive it competes with the better-known and more highly publicized “Heavenly Hana Road,” which in itself is a heck of a drive on Maui – if you have all day.

But if you have time constraints, and most trips to the 50th state involve some time constraints, then you might want to try the Crater Run instead of the HHR. It’s just as scenic, just as winding, and the finish is a National Park, while all you get at the end of the HHR is Hana.

The Crater Run is a drive up to the rim of the Haleakalā Crater, Haleakalā (Hawaiian for “House of the Sun”) last erupted 200 years ago and isn0t likely to blow on your ride. Also, Hawaiian volcanoes are not so much the erupting kind as they are the “spew lava out a vent” kind.

The Crater Run is so popular that an exotic sports car club in Maui annually conducts a run. Exotic car owners from all over the Hawaiian Islands ship their cars to Maui for the run to the crater. Then they get together for lunch and a couple of beers before heading home.

The Crater Run begins in the town of Kahului, Maui’s only deep-water port. It’s also the home of Kahului Airport, where you can get a helicopter ride to survey your destination. Kahului is as central a location as any on Maui, and is less than an hour from most of the hotels and condominiums,

Head southeast out of town and look for Route 37, also known as the Haleakalā Highway. The first part of the drive is boring as hell as you traverse sugar fields. You’ll pass the town of Pukalani, where you make a left turn onto Route 377. It was at this turn that I was driving my rental Toyota Solara convertible and I said to my wife, “That yellow car in front of us is a Lamborghini! And the red car in front of it is a Ferrari!”

I had run into the tail end of the Exotic SCC’s annual run. That was almost literal, because I had to cut off the Lambo to make the left turn – with apologies.

Our Toyota was stuck in the middle of this entourage and they didn’t seem to want to pass us. Eventually they all stopped for a photo shoot and we passed the more than 25 exoticars – and one Mini.

There’s another left turn in Kula, just past the Kula Lodge and Kula Sandalwoods Restaurant, onto Route 378. You don’t have to worry about the numbers, the road to the Crater is clearly marked.

Here’s where the road gets interesting. Route 378 is an incredible road, with seven horseshoe curves its whole length. There are rarely more than a couple of hundred yards between turns. No wonder it’s a lure for Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

The Park entrance (a $10 fee) is just past one of the longer straight stretches and turn 10. Just past the entrance are the Park Headquarters and Visitor Center. Here’s a chance to stretch your legs after the first part of the climb. It’s also a chance to accustom yourself to the rarified air. After all, you’ll eventually be driving from sea level to more than 10,000 feet.

It was at the Visitor Center that we met the driver of a yellow Lotus, who was left behind by his friends.”My lungs can’t handle the altitude,” he explained.”So I’ll wait here for the ride back.”

Lotus explained the Crater Run to us. We also witnessed a trio of motorcyclists on crotch rockets who were dressed for the run in full leathers and took advantage of every single horsepower their bikes could muster. While their riding skills were excellent, they took too many chances for my blood, even passing the hot cars on the way up.

You can also see an example of the rare silversword plant at the Visitor Center. These rare plants thrive in the harsh climate and lava of the volcano. They may take as long as 50 years to mature and blossom.

Back in the car and you’re back to long stretches with tight turns. Turn 15 is the parking lot for the Halemau Trail and a great photo op above the clouds. Turn 17 puts you at the Leleiwi Overlook, with a great view of most of the Island of Maui. The Kalahaku Overlook is at turn 19, and the crater rim parking lot is a short distance past this.

At the crate r you’ll see some observatories, including one belonging to NASA that’s way off limits. “Science City” is at the maximum elevation of 10,023 feet. You can grab a horseback ride or hike in the rarified air. Or you can walk to the higher of the two Visitor Centers and literally stand at the edge of the crater.

Heading back down may be the more dangerous of the two directions. For one, you may encounter the crotch rockets again either heading down with you or going back up for another run. Also, since one of the big attractions at Haleakalā is the bike ride down (no pedaling required), you’ll have to pay attention for the other kind of two-wheelers.

My wife and I recommend a small sandwich shop on the left side near the 378/377 intersection. It’s called the Sunrise Market, and the women who run it are as hospitable as you’d want. They’re all transplants and happy to be in Hawaii.

The exoticars stopped at the Kula Sandalwoods Restaurant on the left. This is a more traditional restaurant with standard sit-down lunches and dinners.

On a good day this rode to the crater will take about 80 minutes. Compare that with the minimum two-hour drive to Hana, with stops along the way, and you have a nice half-day trip from most parts of Maui, while still saving time for some snorkeling. © 2009 The Auto Channel Inc.