The Road to Hana ★★★
Top down, sunscreen on, Hawaiian music playing on a breezy morning—it’s time to head out along the Hana Highway (Hwy. 36), a wiggle of a road that runs along Maui’s northeastern shore. The drive takes at least 3 hours from Lahaina or Kihei, but don’t shortchange yourself—take all day. Going to Hana is about the journey, not the destination.
There are wilder, steeper, and more dangerous roads, but in all of Hawaii, no road is more celebrated than this one. It winds 50 miles past taro patches, magnificent seascapes, waterfall pools, botanical gardens, and verdant rainforests, and ends at one of Hawaii’s most beautiful tropical places.
The outside world discovered the little village of Hana in 1926, when pickax-wielding convicts carved a narrow road out of the cliff’s edge. Often subject to landslides and washouts, the mud-and-gravel track was paved in 1962, when tourist traffic began to increase; it now sees around 1,000 cars and dozens of vans a day. That translates into half a million people a year, which is way too many. Go at the wrong time, and you’ll be stuck in a bumper-to-bumper rental-car parade—peak traffic hours are midmorning and midafternoon year-round, especially on weekends.
In the rush to “do” Hana in a day, most visitors spin around town in 10 minutes and wonder what all the fuss is about. It takes time to soak up the serene magic of Hana, play in the waterfalls, sniff the rain-misted gingers, hike through clattering bamboo forests, and merge with the tension-dissolving scenery. Stay overnight if you can, and meander back in a day or two. If you really must do the Hana Highway in a day, go just before sunrise and return after sunset.
Tips: Practice aloha. Yield at one-lane bridges, wave at oncoming motorists, let the big guys in 4x4s have the right of way—you’re not in a hurry, after all! If the guy behind you blinks his lights, let him pass. Unless you’re rounding a blind curve, don’t honk your horn—in Hawaii, it’s considered rude. Safety note: Be aware of the weather when hiking in streams. Flash floods happen frequently in this area. Do not attempt to cross rising stream waters. In the words of the Emergency Weather Forecast System: “Turn around. Don’t drown.”
The Journey Begins in Paia—Before you start out, fill up on fuel. Paia is the last place for gas until you get to Hana, some 50-plus bridges and 600-plus hairpin turns down the road. (It’s fun to make a game out of counting the bridges.)Paia ★★ was once a thriving sugar-mill town. The skeletal mill is still here, but in the 1950s the bulk of the population (10,000 in its heyday) shifted to Kahului. Like so many former plantation towns, Paia nearly foundered, but its beachfront charm lured hippies, followed by adrenaline-seeking windsurfers and, most recently, young families. The town has proven its adaptability. Now trendy boutiques and eateries occupy the old ma-and-pa establishments. Plan to get here early, around 7am, when Charley’s ★, 142 Hana Hwy. (www.charleysmaui.com; 808/579-8085),opens. Enjoy a big, hearty breakfast for a reasonable price or continue down the road to the little town of Kuau. A rainbow fence made of surfboards announces Kuau Store (www.kuaustore.com 808/579-8844), a great stop for smoothies and snacks.
Windsurfing Mecca—Just before mile marker 9 is Hookipa Beach Park ★★★, where top-ranked windsurfers come to test themselves against thunderous surf and forceful wind. On nearly every windy day after noon (the board surfers have the waves in the morning), you can watch dozens of windsurfers twirling and dancing in the wind like colored butterflies. To watch them, do not stop on the highway, but go past the park and turn left at the entrance on the far side of the beach. Park on the high grassy bluff or drive down to the sandy beach and park alongside the pavilion. Green sea turtles haul out to rest on the east end of the beach. Go spy on them, but stay a respectful distance (15 ft.) away. Facilities include restrooms, a shower, picnic tables, and a barbecue area.
Into the Country—Past Hookipa Beach, the road winds down into Maliko Gulch. Big-wave surfers use the boat ramp here to launch jet skis and head out to Jaws, one of the world’s biggest surf breaks a few coves over. Back on the Hana Highway, for the next few miles you’ll pass through the rural area of Haiku, where banana patches and guava trees litter their sweet fruit onto the street.
At mile marker 16, the curves begin, one right after another. Slow down and enjoy the view of fern-covered hills and plunging valleys punctuated by mango and kukui trees. After mile marker 16, the road is still called the Hana Highway, but the number changes from Highway 36 to Highway 360, and the mile markers go back to 0.
Twin Falls—Not far beyond mile marker 2, you’ll see a large fruit stand on the mauka (mountain) side of the road—most likely surrounded by lots of cars. This is Twin Falls (www.twinfallsmaui.net; 808/463-1275), a privately owned piece of paradise with more waterfalls than anyone can count. A gravel footpath leads to the first waterfall pool. Continue up the mountain path to find many more. Swimming is safe as long as it’s not raining and you don’t have open wounds. (Bacterial infections aren’t uncommon.) Be respectful of the residents and pack out your trash.
From here on out, there’s a waterfall (and one-lane bridge) around nearly every turn in the road, so drive slowly and be prepared to stop and yield to oncoming cars.
Wild Curves—About a half-mile after mile marker 6, there’s a sharp U-curve in the road, going uphill. The road is super narrow here, with a brick wall on one side and virtually no maneuvering room. Sound your horn at the start of the U-curve to let approaching cars know you’re coming. Take the curve slowly.
Just before mile marker 7, a forest of waving bamboo takes over the right-hand side of the road. To the left, you’ll see a stand of rainbow eucalyptus trees, recognizable by their multicolored trunks. Drivers are often tempted to pull over here, but there isn’t any shoulder. Continue on; you’ll find many more beautiful trees to gawk at down the road.
An Easy Family Hike—At mile marker 9, a small state wayside area has restrooms, picnic tables, and a barbecue area. The sign says KOOLAU FOREST RESERVE, but the real attraction here is the Waikamoi Nature Trail, an easy 3/4-mile loop. The start of the trail is just behind the QUIET: TREES AT WORK sign. The well-marked trail meanders through eucalyptus, ferns, and hala trees.
Can’t-Miss Photo Ops—Just past mile marker 12 is the Kaumahina State Wayside Park ★. This is a good pit stop and a great vista point. You can see all the way down the rugged coastline to the jutting Keanae Peninsula.
Another mile and a couple of bends in the road, and you’ll enter the Honomanu Valley, with its beautiful bay. To get to the Honomanu Bay, look for the turnoff on your left, just after mile marker 14, as you begin your ascent up the other side of the valley. The rutted dirt-and-cinder road takes you down to the rocky black-sand beach. There are no facilities here. Because of the strong rip currents offshore, swimming is best in the stream inland from the ocean. You’ll consider the detour worthwhile as you stand on the beach, well away from the ocean, and turn to look back on the steep cliffs covered with vegetation.
Keanae Peninsula & Arboretum—At mile marker 17, the vintage Hawaiian village of Keanae ★★ stands out against the Pacific like a place that time forgot. Here, on an old lava flow graced by an 1860 stone church and swaying palms, is one of the last coastal enclaves of native Hawaiians. They still grow taro in patches and pound it into poi, the staple of the old Hawaiian diet, and they still pluck opihi (limpets) from tide pools along the jagged coast and cast thrownets for fish. Pick up a loaf of still-warm banana bread from Aunty Sandy’s (10 Keanae Rd.).
At nearby Keanae Arboretum, Hawaii’s botanical world is divided into three parts: native forest, introduced forest, and traditional Hawaiian plants, food, and medicine. You can swim in the pools of Piinaau Stream or press on along a mile-long trail into Keanae Valley, where a lovely tropical rainforest waits at the end. Had enough foliage for one day? This is the prime spot to turn around.
Puaa Kaa State Wayside—Tourists and locals alike often overlook this convenient stop, a half-mile past mile marker 22. Park by the restrooms; then cross the street to explore a jade green waterfall pool. Break out your picnic lunch here at the shaded tables. Practice saying the park’s name, pronounced pooh-ahh-ahh kahh-ahh, which means “rolling pig.”
For the world’s best dessert (only a slight exaggeration), continue on to Nahiku, near mile marker 27.5 (yes, half-mile markers come into play in this wild territory). You’ll see the rainbow-splashed sign for Coconut Glen’s ★★ (www.coconutglens.com; 808/248-4876). Pull over and indulge in some truly splendid ice cream—dairy-free and made with coconut milk. Scoops of chocolate chili, lilikoi (passion fruit), and honey macadamia nut ice cream are served in coconut bowls, with coconut chips as spoons. This whimsical stand oozes with aloha. From here, you’re only 20 minutes from Hana.
Kahanu Gardens & Piilanihale Heiau ★★★—To see one of Hawaii’s most impressive archaeological sites, take a detour off of Hana Highway down Ulaino Road. The National Tropical Botanical Garden maintains the world’s largest breadfruit collection here—including novel varieties collected from every tropical corner of the globe. Ancient Hawaiian history comes alive when you walk through the manicured canoe garden and first glimpse the monumental 3-acre Piilanihale heaiu (temple). Built 800 years ago from stacked rocks hand-carried from miles away, it is a testament to the great chiefdoms of the past. Gaze in wonder at the 50-foot retaining wall and thatched canoe hale (house). Imagine steering a war canoe onto the wave-swept shore. Take time to soak in the site’s mana (spiritual power). Admission is $10; 2-hour guided tours are $25 (650 Ulaino Rd., Hana; www.ntbg.org; 808/248-8912).
Waianapanapa State Park ★★★—On the outskirts of Hana, the shiny black-sand beach appears like a vivid dream, with bright-green foliage on three sides and cobalt-blue water lapping at its shore. The 120-acre state park on an ancient lava flow includes sea cliffs, lava tubes, arches, and the beach—plus a dozen rustic cabins. See “Beaches” and “Camping”.
Green, tropical Hana, which some call heavenly, is a destination all its own, a small coastal village in a rainforest inhabited by 2,500 people, many with Native Hawaiian ancestry. Beautiful Hana enjoys more than 90 inches of rain a year—more than enough to keep the scenery lush. Banyans, bamboo, breadfruit trees—everything seems larger than life, especially the flowers, like wild ginger and plumeria. Several roadside stands offer exotic blooms for $5 a bunch. As the signs say, just PUT MONEY IN BOX. It’s the Hana honor system. The best farm stand of the bunch is Hana Farms ★★, 2910 Hana Hwy. (808/248-7371).
The last unspoiled Hawaiian town on Maui is, oddly enough, the home of Maui’s first resort, which opened in 1946. Paul Fagan, then owner of the San Francisco Seals baseball team, bought an old inn and turned it into Hana’s first and only resort, now called Travaasa Hana. Others have tried to open hotels and golf courses, but the Hana community always politely refuses. Several great inns are scattered around town, though; see "Best Hotels".
A wood-frame 1871 building that served as the old Hana District Police Station now holds the Hana Cultural Center & Museum, 4974 Uakea Rd. (www.hanaculturalcenter.org; 808/248-8622). The center tells the history of the area, with some excellent artifacts, memorabilia, and photographs. Also stop in at Hasegawa General Store, a Maui institution. Buy a T-shirt or bumper sticker and check out the machete display above the office window.
On the green hills above Hana stands a 30-foot-high white cross made of lava rock. Citizens erected the cross in memory of Paul Fagan, who helped keep the town alive. The 3-mile hike up to Fagan’s Cross provides a gorgeous view of the Hana coast, especially at sunset, when Fagan himself liked to climb this hill.
Tropical Haleakala: Oheo Gulch at Kipahulu
If you’re thinking about heading out to the so-called Seven Sacred Pools, past Hana in Kipahulu, let’s clear this up right now: There are more than seven pools—and all water in Hawaii is considered sacred. Oheo Gulch ★★★ (the rightful name of the pools) is in the Kipahulu district of Haleakala National Park (though you can’t drive here from the summit). It’s about 30 minutes beyond Hana town, along Highway 31. Expect rain showers on the Kipahulu coast.
The Kipahulu Ranger Station (808/248-7375) is staffed from 8:30am to 5pm daily. Here you’ll find park-safety information, exhibits, and books. Rangers offer a variety of walks and hikes year-round; check at the station for current activities. The fee to enter is $25 per car or $20 per motorcycle. The Highway 31 bridge passes over some of the pools near the ocean; the others, plus magnificent 400-foot Waimoku Falls, are uphill, via an often muddy but always rewarding hour-long hike. Restrooms are available, but there’s no drinking water. Tent camping is permitted in the park; see “Camping” for details.
Check with park rangers before hiking up to or swimming in the pools, and always keep an eye on the water in the streams. The sky can be sunny near the coast, but floodwaters travel 6 miles down from the Kipahulu Valley, and the water level can rise 4 feet in less than 10 minutes. It’s not a good idea to swim in the pools in winter.
From the ranger station, it’s just a short hike above the famous Oheo Gulch to two spectacular waterfalls. The Pipiwai Trail begins across the street from the central parking area. Follow the trail a half mile to the Makahiku Falls overlook. This 200-foot-tall beauty is just the beginning. Continue another 1[bf]1/2 miles, across two bridges and through a magical bamboo forest, to reach the dazzling 400-foot-tall Waimoku Falls. It’s an uphill slog across slippery planks, but worth every step. Beware of falling rocks and never stand beneath the falls.
Beyond Oheo Gulch
A mile past Oheo Gulch on the ocean side of the road is Lindbergh’s Grave. First to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, Charles A. Lindbergh found peace in the Pacific; he settled in Hana, where he died of cancer in 1974. The famous aviator is buried under river stones in a seaside graveyard behind the 1857 Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church.
Adventurers can continue on around Haleakala, back toward civilization in Kula. Be warned that the route, Old Piilani Highway (Hwy. 31), is full of potholes and unpaved in parts. But it threads through ruggedly beautiful territory. Most rental-car companies warn you against traveling down this road, but it’s really not so bad—just make sure a rockslide hasn’t closed it before you go. If it’s open, stop in for ice cream at Kaupo General Store, 34793 Piilani Hwy. (808/248-8054). This remote outpost has a wonderful antique camera collection and many tempting souvenirs.