Maui's upcountry scenery greets riders in the sky

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HALEAKALA -- Rain did not dampen our enthusiasm on a recent horseback-riding trek through upcountry Maui, one of the most scenic and unspoiled areas in Hawaii.

Pony Express Tours, a company that has led riders through Haleakala Crater for the past 20 years, was well prepared with waterproof pants and jackets for us to wear.

We climbed aboard wet but enthusiastic horses and set out on the open range, where we were not expected to ride nose to tail but to amble in no particular order past cattle dotting the hillsides -- often within a few feet of us -- on a marvelous tour of the 35,000-acre working ranch.

"Most people don't realize that there's elevation involved here, and on most days, those views downcountry can be very impressive," said Doug Smith, owner of Pony Express Tours. "You can see the whole central valley of Maui from up there."

My friend and I followed our guide through the countryside at 4,000 feet. Cool breezes and damp clouds settling around us gave us an eerie feeling of exploring the unknown. When a trail existed, it was hard to find. And we didn't see another person during the entire tour.

Groups are no larger than eight, and on this day there were only two of us with a guide, who talked about the man-made rock walls we saw along the way and the part they played in the agricultural history of Maui.

"Pony Express is the only outfit on Maui that offers two locations," said Smith, referring to rides at the ranch and inside Haleakala Crater several miles away.

The Paniolo Ranch ride leaves at 9 a.m. and is two hours long ($85 per person). The Picnic Ride covers similar ground but includes lunch (11:30 a.m. departure; $105).

There's also a shorter, introductory ride that lasts only an hour and takes visitors to the nearby Protea Farm (3 p.m.; $60). These rides, said Smith, "are pretty accessible to most people" because of the low elevation and the relatively brief duration. They are perfect for visitors who want beautiful views in a historical setting but prefer not to spend the entire day riding.

The short excursions enable people to take a helicopter tour in the morning before joining Pony Express for a picnic ride. And they can still make it to a luau that night.

Rides inside Haleakala Crater are more difficult. The elevation can make some people uncomfortable, a problem that can be solved with a little hydration, said Smith.

Those who are "a little more outgoing, adventurous" will feel confident with the four-hour Ka Moa O Pele Junction Ride (9:30 a.m. departure; $155) that treks down Sliding Sands Trail to the crater floor at 7,500 feet and back up again on a 7.6-mile roundtrip journey.

There's also a five-and-a-half- to six-hour Kapaloa Cabin Ride that takes visitors to one of the rustic cabins (with an outhouse) in the crater for lunch on a 12-mile outing (9:30 a.m.; $190).

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

Tips for the trail

isitors should wear long pants, a hat, socks and shoes or boots, and they should leave a change of clothes in the car. The Pony Express cabin (portable rest rooms are available) is located 45 minutes from Kahului Airport. Agents earn 10% commission, and guests can get a 10% discount by booking online. For information, call (808) 667-2200 or visit www.ponyexpresstours.com.

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