LAHAINA, Hawaii — The first horses were brought to Maui early in the 19th Century and were ridden by cowboys that the Hawaiians called paniolos . They still herd thousands of head of cattle across Maui's 35,000 ranchland acres to preserve a life style that has become a Hawaiian legend.
Besides the paniolos , vacationers saddle up too, what with six outfitters offering rides into Haleakala Crater, to tropical Hana and the rugged West Maui Mountains along trails that feature panoramic vistas and the silence of a rain forest.
From a coastal perspective the steep-walled West Maui Mountains are carved in jagged edges and clothed in sugar cane, pineapple, dense forest and clouds.
A network of trails winds its way across this lush mosaic, traversing largely agricultural foothills and isolated lowland valleys before reaching the dense West Maui forest preserve.
From more than 1,000 feet above sea level, wide-angle views include West Maui's resort-lined coast, multihued inter-island waters and the neighboring islands of Molokai and Lanai.
Beautiful Panoramic Views
It's a gradual climb to the border of the forest preserve.
Taken at a leisurely pace, an hour's ascent is followed by a lunch break and a chance to appreciate the panoramic beauty and the sunny skies that are part of West Maui's reputation.
From above, the fertility of the land and the juxtaposition of land and sea explain Lahaina's historic importance as supplier to whalers and others on transpacific voyages.
The calm, island-sheltered waters of Lahaina Roads provide a glassy surface that reflects cloud-capped Lanai and the pleasure craft that anchor in Lahaina Harbor.
Those same waters 125 years ago also would have mirrored the masts of hundreds of sail-powered ships that made Lahaina a port of call each year.
Cane fields and pineapple still sweep toward the sea from these up-country heights, just as they have since plantations made their mid-19th Century appearance on Maui.
Today's century-old fields are neighbors to Kaanapali and West Maui's resort-lined coast with its patchwork of golf courses and landscaped grounds that add a distinctive green geometry to an already inspired flow of texture and color.
It's a lovely vision of Maui, especially when the landscape glows in the afternoon sun and a breeze cuts a cooling path through the tropical Maui air.
A wide range of trail options, all escorted, open the lower reaches of the West Maui Mountains to novice and experienced riders.
Hana's Rain Forest
Around heavenly Hana are horseback trails that make their way through a tropical landscape of towering mountains, plummeting waterfalls and dense green forests of kukui (candlenut) and mango, bamboo and fern.
It can get warm in the Hawaiian forest and hungry mosquitoes can be annoying, so paradise comes at some cost.
But a movie-perfect setting more than compensates for any discomfort, particularly on a picnic trail ride with a stop at the deep, cooling waters of a pool fed by a 40-foot waterfall.
There's soothing intimacy to the Hana rain forest. The air is rich with fragrances from sweet to pungent and outside noise is softened by surrounding mossy surfaces and elegant vines softening the impact.
The most immediate sounds are horseshoe metal against rock, the passing song of colorful birds and the echo of water from rock-lined streams and of waves crashing on a distant shore.
Along the Hana coast, lava rock cliffs and peninsulas confront an often active sea, turning waves into torrents of white water and spray. By the time you reach Hana Town the scene also includes several beaches, with trail rides by the hour opening up the magnificent lands of Hana Ranch.
The soft cinder and ash that form the western wall of Haleakala's caldera crunched rhythmically underfoot as we doubled back to the crater floor 3,000 feet below.
Against the blacks, reds and browns of Sliding Sands Trail, distant hikers moved like so many ants, tiny figures that provided this awesome geology with a sense of scale.
Like a sponge, the cinder absorbed noise. Only the wind and the crisp sound of horseshoed hoofs on volcanic debris intruded on a silence as immense and encompassing as Haleakala's other-worldly interior.
The air was still cool, just beginning to warm from the night's high altitude chill as the morning sun filled the crater with brilliant color.
By 10 a.m., if the crater stays clear of clouds, the air will have warmed appreciably. By noon it may be hot, despite the fact that it's 7,000 feet above sea level.
On days when clouds invade the crater, usually entering through the breaches in crater walls called the Kaupo and Koolau gaps, the breeze carries with it misty gray clouds and affords a mere pocket of vision that makes magic of a landscape of eroded craters and towering cinder cones.