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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Haleakala on horseback

 •  Spring a good time to visit Maui's Upcountry gardens

By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor

A chill wind that sends bare-legged tourists scurrying for shelter inside the visitor center atop Haleakala is of little concern to Dayton Paishon as he lowers the tailgate of a large panel truck loaded with nine horses.

Horseback riders on a guided tour pass patches of rare silversword plants on the trail into Haleakala Crater.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

Paishon, a trail guide for Pony Express Tours, dismisses the suggestion that a planned ride down to the crater floor could be in jeopardy because of strong gusts and a thick blanket of mist creeping over the southwest rim.

"For me when it's raining, it's a lot more alive," he says as he ties one of the horses to a hitching post at the Sliding Sands Trailhead.

Paishon, 52, leads horseback tours into Haleakala Crater four days a week, and says he never tires of the scenery.

"It's magic. It livens my spirit," he says. "There's always something new to look at. If you look for something different, you'll find it."

It could be the subtle color changes in the cinder cones, depending on the cloud cover or the time of day; a covey of plump quail darting among the sparse shrubs; or spikey balls of young silversword that appear to have landed from another planet.

If you go

• Pony Express Tours rides in Haleakala crater

• Ka Moa O Pele ride, 3.8-mile ride down Sliding Sands Trail to Ka Moa O Pele Junction, with lunch, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.: $155 plus $10 entrance fee to Haleakala National Park

• Kapalaoa tour, 12-mile round-trip ride for experienced riders, with lunch, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., spring to fall: $190

Prospective riders must factor in drive time to meeting place and make an early-morning phone check to assure that weather conditions have not forced cancellation. Reservations are required.

Shorter rides

For those who feel more comfortable at lower elevations or on shorter rides, Pony Express has guided trail rides on Haleakala Ranch land with sweeping views of the Central Valley, the southern coastline, Lana'i and Kaho'olawe.

• Two-hour rides: $85 or $105, depending on whether lunch is included

• One-hour introductory ride: $60

• Information and reservations: 667-2200

With 30-plus miles of trails in Haleakala National Park's wilderness area, hiking is still the best way to experience the crater's stark beauty. But it's not an option for everyone, since the high altitude leaves many visitors gasping for air just from the short walk from their car to the visitor center at the 9,740-foot level, never mind a stroll on a sloping cinder trail.

Pony Express Tours, which operates under a permit issued by the National Park Service, has been taking horseback riders into the crater for the past 18 years. Doug Smith, who runs the company with his wife, Kathryn, said the guided tours for riders of all levels provide access to those who otherwise wouldn't be able to make the lung-busting trek.

With Upcountry Maui's proud paniolo history, horses certainly are not a novelty on Haleakala. In years past, other companies have conducted horse or mule rides, and individual horse owners are welcome to use the park's trails. Corrals are provided at the Paliku and Holua cabin sites for overnight visits.

The Park Service has its own stable of horses and mules that maintenance staff use to haul supplies to the backcountry cabins.

On this bone-chilling day, Paishon is leading a group of eight on a 3.8-mile descent down the Sliding Sands Trail to the Ka Moa O Pele Junction, where riders will dismount for a picnic lunch. The trail drops 2,500 feet in elevation and winds through lunar-like lava formations, patches of rare silversword — 'ahinahina — and sheer slopes of gray-black cinders that make you want to grab a piece of cardboard and shove off on the thrill ride of your life.

After a 7 a.m. weather check by phone and a stop at the Pony Express office at the 4,000-foot level to sign a waiver, riders meet at 9:30 a.m. in the visitor center parking lot.

In his friendly but business-like cowboy manner, Paishon eyes each rider and carefully matches them with a mount. He introduces the horses, with names like G.W., Dreamer, Roach and Handsome, and demonstrates how to take pictures while never letting go of the reins.

A few of the riders gratefully accept insulated gloves and windbreakers that Paishon pulls from a canvas bag.

All visitors to the summit — by foot or on horseback — should be prepared for intense sun and wet, windy weather. The summit generally is about 30 degrees cooler than coastal areas, with temperatures ranging from 30 to 50 degrees. But winds of 10-40 mph can make it seem downright frigid.

Having made countless journeys down the Sliding Sands Trail, the well-conditioned horses expertly pick their way through rocky portions of the path without any input from their riders. Even on the two-hour climb back up the trail, the horses seemed unaffected by the exertion.

Doug Smith, who also leads trail rides, said the horses like working in the cool, dry conditions atop Haleakala.

"Their lung power is incredible. They do real well. It's a dry, cool place for them to work. They don't even break a sweat," he says. "Like anything else, if you do it enough, it becomes routine, and horses are very adaptable animals."

Horseback riders on the Sliding Sands Trail stop at the Ka Moa O Pele Junction to enjoy a picnic lunch on the crater floor.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

On the way down, Paishon brings the group to a halt at several spots to take in the sprawling view. Riders are not allowed to dismount until they reach the picnic area, but it's no trouble at all to snap photos from the saddle.

At each stop, Paishon offers some information on the geology and ecology of the crater, which he points out isn't a true caldera at all, since it was formed by erosion rather than volcanic activity. Haleakala is still classified as an active volcano. The most recent activity occurred about 1790, when lava erupted near the coast of Makena.

In Hawaiian mythology, Haleakala — "House of the Sun" — is where the demigod Maui lassoed the sun to lengthen the day so his mother, Hina, could dry her kapa.

Although the leisurely pace of the trail ride gives riders plenty of opportunity to talk story, most are silent as they descend into the crater, overwhelmed by its immensity and unique landscape.

Paishon says that watching their reaction is one of the pleasures of his job and it keeps fresh his own appreciation of the natural wonder.

"Riders are in awe of the scenery," he says. "I like the interaction with the people and to see it through their eyes and to hear from them what they think."

After an hour and 45 minutes in the saddle, the riders are wobbly as they dismount at the Ka Moa O Pele Junction, where a separate trail veers left toward the center of the crater.

"Pull up a rock," Paishon says as he busts out plastic containers holding lunch: a small bowl of fresh sliced pineapple, papaya and banana, Maui potato chips, a croissant sandwich, Maui Cook-Kwees cookies, juice or water.

It's a brief affair; rubbish is soon rounded up and everyone makes a quick trip to the lua behind a bush. The nearest toilet is two miles away at Kapalaoa Cabin.

The guide makes another offer of gloves or windbreakers before the riders set off back up the trail. The weather worsens as fog envelopes the group and blurs the mountainside. A cold rain blows uphill, yet the beauty of the crater is not diminished.

But a little bit of bad weather at 9,000 feet goes a long way, and horses and riders alike are relieved when at around 2:30 p.m., Pa Ka'oao, also known as White Hill, emerges from the mist, signaling that the parking lot is not much farther.

Doug Smith says unp\redictable weather is the biggest challenge for Pony Express Tours. A bright, warm day can turn nasty in a matter of minutes, and many riders are unprepared for the abrupt change.

Altitude sickness, which can cause headache, nausea and dizziness, also can be a problem, but Smith says most people handle the trip well.

For riders more accustomed to the saddle, Pony Express Tours runs a 12-mile round-trip trail ride that circles the cinder cones. Among the sights are Kawilinau, also called Bottomless Pit, where the volcano goddess Pele and her older sister Namakaokaha'i were said to have battled each other, and Pele's Paint Pot, where an array of colors are on display at the Halali'i cinder cone. Lunch is served at a picnic table at Kapalaoa Cabin, where wild nene are certain to be spotted.