In Search of Hawaii's Gravel Roads

In Search of Hawaii's Gravel Roads

During a recent vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii, I did plenty of snorkeling and hiking, with a bit of surfing, and otherwise enjoyed the beaches. For me, the mountainous island presented the opportunity to explore a new landscape by bike. The Big Island is famous for the Ironman Triathlon, and most cyclists I saw were on the shoulder of the main highway, riding tri or racing bikes with narrow tires.
I had a different type of riding in mind. I wanted to explore the mountain roads of the island. After a few memorable road rides that will feature in an upcoming issue of Bicycle Quarterly, I set out to explore the gravel roads above Captain Cook during our last few days on the island. I had seen the roads on my map, and it looked like several nice loops were possible.
I had brought Alex Wetmore’s travel bike, which was designed to fit a large range of his friends. It packs into a suitcase as large as the front wheel, so it was simple to bring along.
Captain Cook is on the western slopes of Mauna Loa, one of the two big volcanoes on the island. Apart from the highway that circles the island, most roads switchback either up or down. I wasn’t interested in the beach, so that meant going up. Without a handlebar bag adding a little weight to the front of the bike, it was sometimes hard to keep the front wheel on the ground during steep climbs.
And steep they were, these roads. While the Hawaiian shield volcanoes look like a shallow shield from a distance, up close they are made up of individual lava flows, which breaks them up into flat plateaus and very steep ascents. The town of Captain Cook lies at the foot of such an ascent…
The first morning, I tried all kinds of small roads, often merely two tracks of asphalt with grass in the middle. I climbed and climbed, only to find dead ends. It was fun, but I was not successful in my goal to reach the gravel roads on the plateau above the town.
That night, I fired up my travel laptop and checked satellite images on Google maps. I prepared the next day’s ride in great detail, tracing routes on the map and checking the satellite images to make sure the roads really existed. I was excited, as it seemed certain that I’d reach my goal this time.
I climbed yet another vertiginous road that seemed to lead straight up to the sky. It was a fun 30-minute climb. On top, another disappointment awaited. The gravel road was there, but it led through farmland. There were gates and “No Trespassing” signs. The gates did not show up on the satellite images, which is why geographers insist on “ground truth” when they interpret these images.
A man walking his dog said: “You are the first cyclist I’ve seen up here!”  He confirmed that yet another promising side road ended up at “an estate”. I took it anyhow – it was a nice ride.
On top, I met two mules behind yet another gate. The mules came over to see what I was doing as I checked my map. I tried another road, with the same result – gates blocked off the access to the gravel roads.
I finally gave up and just enjoyed the ride. The climbs were so steep that I had to keep working hard all the time. The descents had me brake continuously. Where possible, I let the bike roll to cool the rims. Several times I stopped to check the rims’ temperature. Each time, they were too hot to touch, but not sizzling when I put a wet finger on them. No danger of melting the rubber on the tire bead and suffering a blowout, then.
I enjoyed my ride immensely, even the parts on the highway that connected the various hillclimbs. I passed a beautiful old church…
… and incredible trees. The vegetation on the island never ceased to amaze me. Depending on the slopes’ orientation to the prevailing winds and thus moisture, the landscape can be almost desert-like or the lushed rainforest. Captain Cook was on the lush side, although not as green as the northern side of the island.
I wish I had more time, because after looking at various maps, I now have found a few roads that look like they should connect to the gravel roads. Only “ground truth” can tell whether they really do. I guess I’ll have to come back…
Further reading: The full story of the Hawaiian adventure was published in Bicycle Quarterly No. 50 (Winter 2014).

Share this post

Comments (38)

  • xtiannaitx

    I had a similar experience here in Virginia last fall. All the topo maps showed a promising loop; the “ground truth” revealed gates, private property signs, and the boundary of Shenandoah NP. I rode and rode up one hollow only to find a gate. I turned around and went back the way I came, circled around to where the old road came out on the other side of the mountain and found another gate. None of this was especially surprising as these maps have not been updated to reflect all the changes. But it sure was fun!

    August 12, 2014 at 6:43 am
    • nickskaggs

      I’ve had this experience trying to explore backroads in California and Oregon with some regularity. It’s frustrating, especially when the roads are connectors and not just private driveways. Americans have fetishized private property so much. I just want to ride cool roads!

      August 12, 2014 at 10:06 am
  • Alex Wetmore

    I had a similar experience trying to explore the dirt roads along the west side of Vancouver Island. After the second day of dead ends and camping in the same spot (we turned around after that) I secretly wished for a friend on a small dirt road motorcycle who could scout things out for me.
    I’m glad that you got to use the bike. Seeing you use a saddlebag with it reminds me that I need to make a take-apart small porteur rack for this bike…that was part of the original design. Hopefully it is so equipped next time you borrow it.

    August 12, 2014 at 7:37 am
  • Chris Lowe

    Nice! We went to Kauai this year for our annual “flee the Seattle gloom” trip. It’s by far our favorite island of the three we’ve been to (Kona and Maui being the others). I did quite a bit of running on some of the interior roads on the more lush north and east sides of the island and a couple of times actually thought to myself “Jan would love riding over this!”

    August 12, 2014 at 11:10 am
  • Grego August 12, 2014 at 1:46 pm
    • Bryan Lorber

      Thanks for this link!

      August 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm
  • Fred Blasdel

    Part of my route research involves checking plat maps for unusual rights-of-way. Most local governments now have GIS staff with online resources, King County’s is particularly good:
    There are a lot of private roads on Google Maps, and a lot of public roads with intentionally-confusing signage along the edges asserting private property claims. It doesn’t necessarily help to know the truth when some yahoo in a truck says you’re trespassing, but I have reported them to the forest service before

    August 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I saw plenty of obviously fraudulent “No Trespassing” signs, including one on a road that also had a sign to a coffee plantation that sold direct. I wonder what the coffee growers think of the people who put up the “No Trespassing” sign that deters their customers. However, in these cases it would have meant climbing over fences and hiking through cow pastures…

      August 12, 2014 at 6:52 pm
      • Fred Blasdel

        A lot of signs like that are actually legitimate, they’ll be placed on the property line along the edge of the road, but oriented to encourage city slickers to interpret them as claiming the road itself. It’s not always easy to tell the difference though!

        August 13, 2014 at 11:20 am
  • Bryan Lorber

    My family is planning a Hawaii vacation so this was timely.
    I’m interested in some details about your travel bike. Alex loves Rohloff, as I do, but it looks like your’s has a derailleur. Can you share some specs. on this compact travel companion?

    August 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm
    • alex wetmore

      I built this bike on a budget when given a pair of used S&S couplers. All of the parts either came from my parts collection or were donated by friends who later borrowed the bike. As a result the components are a big mix and not always the nicest parts to use. It has a 3×9 Shimano drivetrain with downtube shifters and V-brakes with the Tektro drop bar V-brake levers. The V-brakes are a compromise to make packing easier while providing good tire clearance.
      The frame and fork are Columbus SL and the frame is fillet brazed. It has 26″ tires (Compass of course) with clearance for tires up to about 60mm. The geometry is identical to my “Gifford” with a little more top tube length and more top tube slope to make it workable for a wider range of my friends. That means 73 degree HTA with 40mm trail, 72ish degree STA, moderate length chainstays (they look long since the wheels are small), moderately low BB, sloping top tube. I’m on the short end for the fit and ride it with an 8cm stem. It’s a little small but workable for friends who are around 6’2″ as well.

      August 12, 2014 at 6:55 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        It was a great bike to have along, and I was able to go on some real adventures. I am grateful that Alex built it, and that he lends it out to friends…

        August 12, 2014 at 7:07 pm
      • Chris

        Just curious why you consider V-Brakes a compromise?

        August 12, 2014 at 7:20 pm
      • Bryan Lorber

        Thanks, Alex. I’ve been toying with the idea of a travel bike for sometime. Circle-A Cycle in Providence built my touring bike which you’ve seen. I just rode it self supported, mostly solo, from RI to WA. While packing it for the return home ( racks, fenders, etc…) I thought there must be a better way ! 🙂 On tour I’ve met more than a few folks very happy on their Bike Fridays but 26″ wheels would suit me better.

        August 13, 2014 at 5:22 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I used to own a Bike Friday, and it’s a decent solution if you travel a lot and ride relatively little. But it’s not a replacement for a full-size bike. Alex’ bike packs smaller than my Bike Friday did… I am also toying with the idea of a Rinko bike, since it allows packing with fenders and a front rack in minimal time – even if the final package is a bit bigger.

          August 13, 2014 at 5:52 am
      • Alex Wetmore

        I have multiple travel bikes: a Bike Friday Tikit, a Brompton, and two S&S bikes (one that Jan borrowed and a Seven Ti MTB that I’ve never decoupled).
        The Brompton is great for quick travel with short rides. It packs in a couple of minutes. The bike is a very good short haul city bike, but not fast or comfortable enough for long day rides.
        I think the key with S&S bikes is cheap powdercoat (so you don’t cry when it gets damaged), components selected for faster and easier packing (hence V-brakes and plastic fenders on this bike…Jan didn’t borrow the fenders) and minimal racks. It is a compromise that gets you 90% of the way towards a nice bike with less hassle or risk. This one will someday get a take apart small porteur rack that is suitable for use with a small handlebar bag or large messenger bag. It would allow camping when paired with a saddlebag.
        My first S&S bike broke all of these rules and took me a lot longer to pack, plus I always worried about paint scratched, damaged high end components, and other airline-related damage.

        August 13, 2014 at 10:55 am
        • Bryan Lorber

          Money aside, would you consider a Rohloff with a belt drive for a S&S bike?

          August 14, 2014 at 5:45 am
      • Alex Wetmore

        I don’t think I’d choose a belt drive. A bent chainring (an easy problem with a travel bike packed into a suitcase) would be a real problem with a belt drive. Chain drive chainrings are available everywhere.
        I’d consider a Rohloff if the budget allowed it and the bike was going to get a lot of use. This travel bike isn’t an every day bike for me, so it got budget-level components. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it is the cheapest spec’d bike that Jan has ridden in years (maybe since the LHT review).

        August 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I actually was glad it didn’t have a Rohloff. The heavy rear hub makes the bike feel distinctly different, and not in a way I like. And on the long climbs, I was glad not to have the gritty feel of the Rohloff in the lower 7 gears. By comparison, this felt like a performance bike that liked spirited riding.

          August 14, 2014 at 2:16 pm
  • Michael

    Hawaii is on my bucket list. Hope to see it one day.
    If love to ride while I am there.
    I hear they have bike registration plates or stickers or something on their seat tubes there. My friend says they register bikes there for recovery purposes.
    Nice wheelie!
    Thanks for the report. Reminds me of when I used to explore my area and find dead ends. I remember that one doesn’t necessarily have to ride an uninterrupted route to have fun anyway, and sometimes you see some really nice things in unexpected places.

    August 12, 2014 at 9:12 pm
  • Michael

    PS- Regarding test riding so any different bikes:
    Do you ever get bad reactions (pain) from riding some of them? I would imagine that with all the differing geometries and components/widths/lengths, one or another model might not agree with you. Though I would hope nothing has bothered you.

    August 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Like most riders, I am pretty adaptable to a few millimeters difference here or there – most of the bikes we test have drop handlebars, which allow you to “adjust” your position on the fly. There are bike that are less joyful to ride, and some rare ones where my legs hurt when I try to go fast…

      August 13, 2014 at 5:50 am
  • Patrick O'Riordan

    This may be a sweeping generalisation but I think in Europe, many rights of way were established before legal ownership of land while in N America (ok, I know Hawaii isn’t geographically part of N America… 🙂 ) it may have been the other way around hence the shortage of through routes.

    August 13, 2014 at 2:19 am
  • Michael

    In my area in Maryland, USA, there is a property dispute going on between the county vs. a private land owner of property where an old train line used to pass through their land. The people want to make it a MUP to join two other existing MUPS so there can be one long MUP. But the land owner is saying it’s their property or something like that. Been going on for a few years now.
    I don’t know if this was ever resolved, but I think about riding down there some time to see if they have finally connected the MUPS.
    See here and read about the property dispute under the “Future” area of the article.

    August 13, 2014 at 9:03 am
  • Michael August 13, 2014 at 9:04 am
  • Tim Bird

    Jan, your post is timely for me! I’m hunkered down reading “From Here To Eternity” (James Jones) in a rather chilly wet Northern England. You’ve helped me escape the drudgery of Schofield Barracks and the Stockade for a hit of the real Hawaii. Hope you find those gravel roads.

    August 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm
  • astris

    After several trips to Hawaii and an encounter or two with let’s say, “unsavory” locals, I would generally recommend heeding the No Trespassing signs, no matter how erroneous they may seem (especially if they mention the Hui). In my experiences the locals, typically the younger generation, do not take kindly to tourists in non-touristy locales.

    August 13, 2014 at 4:14 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I found the opposite – in my quest, I ended up in many people’s yards, and they all were nice and even tried to point me the right way.

      August 13, 2014 at 7:32 pm
      • aztris

        Glad to hear! Of the islands I’ve visited, I’ve found Big Island the friendliest. And athough they take some work finding and getting to, I enjoy the beaches there the most as well.

        August 13, 2014 at 10:52 pm
  • somervillebikes

    Jan, Hawaii as you present it looks wonderful. Just a note about searching for gravel roads. I’ve tried Google satellite view, but it’s tedious and questionable at best, even when in fully zoomed in scale. Recently I discovered that Bing Maps (Microsoft’s competition to Google Maps) distinguish between paved and unpaved roads. I tested the accuracy of their distinction, and it was remarkably reliable! I charted out a completely novel Catskills dirt loop taking in as many dirt roads that Bing Maps indicated, not having ridden any of them so I couldn’t confirm Bing’s accuracy (although, dirt roads that I looked for that I already knew to be dirt were generally indicated as such). Bing was correct at least 90% of the time on the new route, and it turned into a fantastic dirt loop! You can read more about it here:

    August 13, 2014 at 7:38 pm
  • zundel

    Nice. I first learnt to ride off road on then skinny 1 1/4 tires on the backroads of north shore O’ahu. Growing up without pavement had advantages.
    Whenever I lead a ride, I try to include off road sections, despite the whines from skinny tire riders. I like to think this helps teach skills and confidence. But perhaps I just like it.
    On a big old Japanese steel frame designed for 27 by 1 1/4 with the aid of nice new Compass tires on 700c wheels, I now return to the geometry I started with. It rides beautifully.
    For years I have put 700c wheels on frames designed for 27 by 1 1/4 with Tektro long reach brakes. Big supple Compass tires complete the package. I might start putting these bikes together for others.

    August 14, 2014 at 8:36 am
  • Dave

    I’m a cyclist that lives on the Big Island and have been exploring the country roads on the Hilo side, of which there are many. It’s really difficult to use the usual sources of information because most of it is outdated in Hawaii. I discuss that and other problems in more detail here:

    August 15, 2014 at 4:09 pm
  • David Pearce

    Dear Jan & Compass Bicycles,
    I’m not sure I’ll ever get there in person, but thanks for taking me to Hawaii!

    August 15, 2014 at 11:04 pm
  • Christopher Grande

    I like the donkey photo. You’re a good photographer!

    August 16, 2014 at 5:13 pm
  • Bruce Hodson

    Seems a similar outcome to riding across the Reservation after the Oregon Outback race, no?
    Not to put too fine a point on it, those are donkeys, not mules. Mules are a hybrid between a donkey stallion and a mare horse. Larger than a donkey (significantly usually), but better for work as the males are born sterile and the temperament of both sexes seems easier to work with.

    August 17, 2014 at 8:54 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am familiar with the difference between donkeys and mules, but how do you recognize one or the other when you see them? These donkeys seemed much larger than the ones I knew from Latin America, and so I assumed they were mules…

      August 17, 2014 at 10:43 am
  • Doug Wagner

    The black one on the right sure looks like a mule to me…taller and with more of a horsey build. You still see mules and jacks in rural KY but not so many donkeys.

    August 18, 2014 at 8:20 am

Comments are closed.

Are you on our list?

Every week, we bring you stories of great rides, new products, and fascinating tech. Sign up and enjoy the ride!

* indicates required