At this point, I think road trips are my favorite way to see new places. Due to this fact, the Road to Hana is probably my single favorite Maui adventure, and it was something that my family did both times that we were on the island. The first time that we visited, part of the road was closed to rental vehicles, so we took a tour, and the second time we drove ourselves. The guided tour takes away from the self guided aspects of road trips that I really enjoy. I am a fan of being able to stop when and where I’d like to explore and snap a few pictures. On the otherhand, guided tours (if done properly) can provide a lot of great supplementary information for travelers interested in the history and local cultures of an area, and for those that don’t enjoy driving as much, tours offer a more relaxing way to see the sights. Furthermore, the Road to Hana is characterized by curving, cliff-side roads complete with several narrow, one-lane bridges that can make visitors pretty uncomfortable, especially in the seat of a rental car. That all being said, the Road to Hana is a very popular drive for people travelling to Maui, and there are lots of good places to see along the way. I am going to focus on my own personal favorite stops on the drive, but I will link to other resources below that list some other options for this trip.
The first half of the drive (if you start your drive on the north part of the island) showcases the actual Hana Highway, which was built in 1910, is about 68 miles long, and features 620 curves, and 59 bridges (46 of those being the one-lane bridges that I mentioned above). The first section of the Hana Highway, isn’t just a nervous driver’s nightmare, however, as it weaves through the deep green of Maui’s rainforest, and passes by several small but picturesque waterfalls fed by streams and rain further up the mountainside. It also sports some beautiful views of the ocean, and even without seeing many of the sites that wait further down this road, these vistas make the drive down Hana Highway well worth the time and effort.
One of the main stops on the Road to Hana is Wai’anapanapa State Park. Here groups of visitors hike down trails from the bus-filled parking lot to lounge on the distinct, black sands of the beach. A few brave (or foolish?) souls play in the ocean’s water here, despite masses of warning signs for jellyfish, strong currents, and dangerous shorebreaks. For guided tours, there is usually not time to enjoy the beach fully, and explore the trails of the state park at any length, so on my first trip to the park, I spent most of my time nestled in the warm, black sands, taking in the sun and the sounds of adults and children laughing over the crashing of the sea. It should be noted, for those who are tempted by small souvenirs like sand or rocks, that it is prohibited for park visitors to take any of the black sand… for obvious reasons. On my second visit to the island, my cousin and I escaped most of the crowds by trekking down the King’s Trail, which runs to the west of the beach along a cliff-side. The scenery above the beach is amazing, accented by volcanic rock formations and vibrant plants which were continuing to colonize the relatively new patch of island. The bright, blue ocean and the black stone that make up these formations are in stark, and beautiful contrast with eachother. There were also places where the water had eroded the rock right up to the height of the trail, and an occasional strong wave would send the sea through the hole into the air with a misty roar. These particular formations, called blowholes, are also accompanied by natural, black stone arches, and anachialine pools (landlocked bodies of water with subterranean connections to the ocean). However, the same substrate that makes this trail so appealing also makes it somewhat precarious at times, and it should be traveled with care. Respect is also due to this place as the King’s Trail is a remnant of a pre-contact path which may have circumnavigated the island in earlier years, and can serve as a connection to the past for visitors as well as island natives.
Continuing down the road, one passes through the town of Hana, from which the road gets its name. I never spent more than an hour here, grabbing a bite to eat before we hit the road again, but it struck me as a interesting little place nonetheless. Hana is believed to have been initially settled somewhere between 500-800 AD, and it was the historical home of several sugar plantations starting in 1849. Furthermore, until the building of the Hana Highway in 1926, the town lacked any sort of land vehicle connection to larger cities on the island. It is now quite the tourist destination, but its past of isolation still weighs in on Hana’s character and helps define the place which so many people travel to see.
Passing outside the city and beginning the backside of the Hana loop, the curving, forest-lined roads start up again, but this time dotted with the houses and driveways that are so distinctly Hawaiian. Next stop on the road at this point is the Seven Sacred Pools, or Ohe’o Gultch. It is a very popular spot for swimming, and I remember it being a little crowded when we stopped by. There are some suggestions online that coming to the pools before noon will get you a little bit of a quieter experience. Besides splashing around, there are some trails in the area that sound really nice too, and if I were to go back to the island, they are definitely places that I would check out. Pipiwai trail climbs up past the pools through the forest to Waimoko Falls, and seems like it would be a nice alternative to swimming, or a good addition to a trip to the pools. Finally, this area is popular for cliff jumping, but as a river guide, I wouldn’t suggest partaking in this unless you are VERY familiar with the area and the depth of the water… thus, I would advise most to avoid it.
As one continues down the road past the Seven Sacred pools you move out of the thick forests that hugged either side of the Hana Highway for most of the drive and start to pass through a drier, grass dominated landscape. One of my favorite landmarks in Maui is on this end of the trip, Pahihi Gultch. There isn’t much to be found about this place online, but our guide referred to it as the “Grand Canyon of Maui,” and being a native of Arizona, and a person enchanted by the Grand Canyon itself, this place struck a cord with me. Backed by the towering form of Haleakala, the gultch curves its way up the mountainside and has rounded walls of tiered black rock topped by mats of fluffy green grass and small, arid-lands trees. The grasslands stretch off into the distance on either side, and the floor of the gulch is lined with opportunistic trees and rocks rounded by the occasional flow of water. If you don’t have the desire to explore this area, it definitely deserves a short stop to be taken in from the road.
The last location on the Road to Hana that I would like to mention is the Ulapalakua Ranch. The ranch contains Maui’s only winery, and is a nice place to stop for a meal. Furthermore, it is home to the Auwahi Habitat Restoration Project, and is playing a role in preserving the traditional lifestyle of ranching in Hawaii. The final section of the road, runs through some of the more populated areas of the island, and on both of my trips we were all too tired to do much else than head home. That being said, I don’t doubt that there are some wonderful places to check out on the tail end of the loop as Maui is full of great places for exploring.