When one thinks of a vacation to Maui probably the first thing that leaps to mind is relaxing on the beach under a swaying palm tree, listening to the crashing surf and watching the humpback whales frolic in the distance. Other activities like snorkeling the Molikini crater, taking a helicopter tour of the island, shopping in Lahaina, or dining at Maui’s many fabulous restaurants are no doubt also high up on the list. What probably isn’t on the radar for many visitors is taking a 40+ mile drive along a narrow, twisting, treacherous highway. However, if you want to experience all the beauty Maui has to offer then driving the Hana Highway is an absolute must.
Ideally, this journey should be undertaken over two (or more) days. An overnight stay in the town of Hana will afford visitors a chance to relax a little and visit the many attractions along the way without feeling like they are rushing. Watching some fellow tourists hurry to cram everything in reminded me of Chevy Chase’s two second head bob in appreciation of the Grand Canyon before he and the rest of the Griswold clan rushed off to their next adventure in the movie Vacation. Such amazing sights shouldn’t merely be “checked off”. Either book accommodation in Hana, or be prepared to get up very early in the morning in order to give yourself the time you need to fully appreciate the journey.
If you do choose the single day option make sure you time it so you have daylight at both the beginning and the end of the journey. The highway itself features more than 600 hairpin turns and more than 50 single lane bridges. It produces many white-knuckle moments in broad daylight, and is not a drive any sane tourist should contemplate doing in the dark. I cannot stress this enough. You may scoff now, but you’ll know what I’m talking about when you make the journey.
Sights and attractions along the Hana Highway
The drive itself is magnificent, affording spectacular views of Maui’s coastline, viewed atop a canopy of lush rainforest. Take advantage of the many pull-outs along the way to stop and snap some pictures, but just make sure to give the motorists behind you plenty of notice as to your intentions. Remember they will likely be gawking just as much as you are, so if you suddenly slam on the brakes for a photo-op you risk getting rear-ended.
As spectacular as the drive is, the trip is made worthwhile by the plethora of beautiful, interesting stops along the way. Here are a few of the must-see attractions you should make time for:
One of the first attractions you’ll come across after departing the town of Paia will be Twin Falls. This is the first of several waterfalls you’ll encounter along the way. On the right hand side of the road there will be a pull-out, and those with sharp eyes will notice an old school bus (not yellow) converted to a food stand. This is the entrance to the Twin Falls hike.
The main trail to Twin Falls is actually pretty short, but those who reach the falls and turn back are doing themselves a disservice. The spot is very picturesque, but those more adventurous souls (or those who’ve budgeted their time wisely) will be rewarded by continuing along the trail. There are several more falls and pools to discover, and the further you go the more likely you will have the opportunity to enjoy these spots to yourself. If you do decide to proceed you will very likely encounter some mud along the way, so be sure to wear sandals that can easily be washed off.
Once you’ve got your fill of waterfalls and hiking you can return to the parking lot and enjoy some coconut milk (served in the coconut) from the school bus food stand before proceeding on your journey down the highway.
Wai’anapanapa State Park
At approximately the 32 mile mark of the drive, just before you reach Hana, you’ll see a turn-off on the left hand side for Wai’anapanapa State Park. Definitely do not miss this place. It offers a multitude of gorgeous scenery and some very cool sites to explore.
Once you’ve parked your car it is just a short jaunt down the trail to the right to reach the blowhole. Waves crash against the cliffs here with spectacular force, and at one spot water rushes in through a cave and then geysers out though a spout in the ceiling of the cave. When we were there the surf was pounding and the water was continually erupting 20+ feet in the air. The sound it makes is quite reminiscent of the sound a humpback makes when it clears its blowhole. If you have a video camera, or even a phone/ipod with video capability, it will come in handy at this spot. Timing still shots is quite a challenge, and even if you manage to get one of the blowhole in mid-spout it probably won’t do justice to the spectacle.
If you continue along the trail to the right you are treated to a breathtaking view of the crystal blue waters crashing into the rocky bay. It is a mesmerizing sight and I could have happily spent an hour sitting and enjoying the view.
Turn around back the way you came and you are swiftly presented with a multitude of options. Back up near the parking lot you can look out over the railing at the sea arch, where numerous sea birds nest. It is pretty cool to watch them dive into the water, come out with a small fish and return to their nest with their prize.
Proceeding further down the trail will bring you to the black sand beach. Though most of Maui’s beaches feature powdery golden sand, this beach is comprised of tiny black pebbles made up of fragmented volcanic rock. If you haven’t seen a black “sand” beach before it is a pretty remarkable sight and a sharp contrast to a traditional beach made up of powdered shells.
Though the water will certainly look inviting here, particularly on a hot day, swimming is not recommended. Not only are the rips strong here, but signs in the area warn of jellyfish and Portuguese Man-o-War. I read somewhere that just the empty bladders of dead Man-o-Wars wash up here, but even those can cause a painful stinging sensation that can linger for hours. In any event it is best to play it safe and stay dry on the beach.
Right beside the black sand beach is a lava tube. Here you can walk into the opening in the cliffside and come out right at the water’s edge. Be careful traversing the tube as the ceiling is quite low in places (I bumped my head twice), and also the water can sometimes fill a portion of the tube, drenching any spelunkers who are not nimble enough to back up in time.
On the other side of the beach you can find the head of a trail that winds its way up and follows along the ridge of the sea cliffs. Here you can find some very cool volcanic rock formations, enjoy more seascape views and, if you follow it far enough, come across another small, more private, black sand beach.
Heading back up to the parking lot you can find another trail loop that takes you to a series of inland sea caves. This is a neat viewing spot, but you might not want to linger too long as it is a favorite place for mosquitoes to gather. If you haven’t doused yourself with bug spray you’ll probably suffer a few bites while snapping photos.
For those who want to enjoy an entire day here there are camp spots available. However, they need to be booked online in advance of your arrival, so a spontaneous decision to stay at Wai’anapanapa just isn’t a possibility.
O’heo Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools)
Past Hana, though it might not seem possible, the road narrows further, and travelers will be forced to drive even more cautiously than before to navigate the twisty one-and-a-half lane roads. However, if you are brave enough to drive this section the rewards are well worth the risk involved. At roughly mile marker 42 you will enter Haleakala Park. Here you will need to pay $10 (for a single family vehicle) and that will give you a three day pass into the park. Note, this pass is also valid at the park entrance to the Haleakala Volcano, so be sure to hang on to it if you plan to do the volcano hike within the next 72 hours.
There is a visitor center and a large parking lot here. Though there appears to be plenty of parking this is a very popular spot, and the lot can fill up quickly. Plan to arrive before noon to ensure you nab a spot. Arrive even earlier if you plan to drive all the way back to Paia the same day, as you can easily spend several hours here exploring O’heo Gulch and hiking the Pipiwai Trail (see below). It is a good 3 hour+ drive back to Paia from this spot and the sun sets at roughly 6:15, so keep that in mind when planning your itinerary.
Reaching the “Seven Sacred Pools” is an easy quarter mile jaunt down to the water. Here there are a series of waterfalls spilling into tranquil pools, with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean afforded wherever you decide to stop. The water is a nice temperature for swimming, though signs warn of bacteria, so you might want to avoid dipping your head here. Most tourists (including myself) ignored the warning, and were plunging into the pools with abandon. The more adventurous were taking to the rocks and jumping from the heights into the pools below. This is certainly not the safest activity around. The rocks are slippery and the pools are littered with large rocks that offer a painful, even deadly, surprise for those leaping from above. If your inner daredevil refuses to be denied at least make a thorough exploration of your intended landing area to ensure there are no boulders lurking there.
Even if you stay out of the water this is a picturesque spot to enjoy a picnic lunch and to watch the crazy cliff jumpers from a safe vantage point.
Though many visitors to this area head immediately to the lower portion of O’heo Gulch and spend the day splashing in the pools you are definitely missing out if you don’t head across the road and into the hills to hike the Pipiwai Trail. For me, the trail was the highlight of the many beautiful spots we saw along the Hana Highway.
Though the hike is described as moderate in other guides I’ve seen, I myself would describe it as easy. Yes, it is a 4 mile round trip, gaining approximately 650 feet in elevation along the way, but at no time is the terrain particularly steep or treacherous, and only the most sedentary travelers would find themselves challenged in any way providing they stick to the main path.
There are several small waterfalls and pools, including an “infinity pool” where the water gives the illusion of stretching right out into the Pacific as it spills over a 200 foot waterfall.
After passing an enormous banyan tree and crossing a pair of suspension bridges you will enter the bamboo forest. This is a particularly neat section of the hike as you traverse a narrow boardwalk through a dark, cool forest. Bamboo surrounds you on all sides and the clacking sound made when the wind kicks up is a relaxing, almost hypnotic, experience. After close to a mile of bamboo you emerge into daylight once more, with just a small stream to cross before reaching your final destination.
That destination is the breathtaking spectacle of Waimoku Falls. Spilling over cliffs standing roughly 400 feet above, the waterfall is a sight to behold. As you approach the falls there is a sign warning not to proceed any further do to danger of falling rocks. This sign, like many in the area, is ignored and you will find other hikers chilling out on the rocks ahead, twisting and turning their cameras in an attempt to take in the full majesty of the 400 foot falls. Still others are splashing about in the pool below the falls, dunking their heads under the veil of the falling water. Again, this is a dangerous activity, particularly when one takes note of the multitude of rocks clinging precariously to the cliffs above. Even a small rock falling from that height could do some serious damage. Of course, I couldn’t resist getting in and cooling off, earning myself a stern reprimand from my wife.
This is another good spot to enjoy a picnic lunch, and with all the hikers coming and going, it is also a great place to meet fellow travelers and to get recommendations of other must-see stops along the highway, or while visiting Maui in general.
The hike out is a gradual descent and if you saw all you wanted to see on the way up you can easily be back at the parking lot within 30-45 minutes to begin your journey back to Hana and beyond.
Note: The Hana Highway does continue beyond O’heo Gulch, but the road deteriorates even further, including an unpaved section that will void your rental car insurance if you break down along it. Others we spoke to who drove that section of the highway stated it really wasn’t worth the time or the risk as there were no other stops of interest and the view was a far cry from the spectacular sights between Paia and O’heo Gulch.
If you’ve budgeted your daylight properly you should have time to make a quick stop in Hana to grab a quick bite or head down to Hamoa Beach. However, if time is tight, don’t push it. Even if you feel confident driving fast on the narrow, twisting highway, odds are the driver in front of you isn’t going to be, so you will find yourself crawling along on the way back with very few, if any, opportunities to pass.
Ho’okipa Beach Park
If you do get back with daylight to spare be sure to pull in at Ho’okipa Beach Park on the north coast. Here you will see some of the biggest surf on Maui and it is a great spot to get some video footage of the daredevil surfers who brave the massive waves.
Dinner in Paia
A meal in Paia is a perfect way to cap off a long day of driving and sight-seeing. This quaint town offers some of the best seafood available on the island. If you want to go high end then Mama’s Fish House is apparently the place to go. We didn’t stop there, but talked to several people who had and though it is a budget-buster, word is the food is worth every penny.
If you still want a good fish meal without paying exorbitant prices then the Paia Fish Market is a fantastic option. Crowded, and with bench seating it might not have the cozy atmosphere of Mama’s, but the food is delicious and affordable. Other spots we tried in Paia include Milagro’s and the Mambo Café. Both served delicious ahi tuna burgers and ice cold beer to wash it down with.
All in all a drive down the Hana Highway makes for a magnificent couple of days, and if you want to do something more adventurous than just lying on the beach, boogie boarding or snorkeling then I highly recommend it. One final word of caution though: If you, or any of your passengers, tend to experience even mild motion sickness make sure to take some gravol or wear a wristband. Words cannot express how twisty this road is, and trust me when I say your stomach will be doing loops before you’ve gone far. You’ll enjoy the view and the experience a whole lot more if you aren’t feeling sick the whole time.