On the Road Again
The Road to Hana is famous for its twists and turns. And with more than 600 curves along the way, this spectacular coastal drive lives up to its reputation. Heading east from Kahului Airport, the busy highway soon narrows into a two-lane road threading through former sugarcane fields. Stock up on snacks, water, and gas while you can: once you leave town, supplies will be scarce until you reach Hana.
Today, Paia is a mecca for windsurfers, kiteboarders, and other ocean sports enthusiasts. But this popular surf destination was once a factory town supported by one of the island’s main sugar mills. Even though they now contain boutiques, juice bars, and bikini shops, Paia’s quaint, plantation-era storefronts still evoke the Hawaii of old. Stop for coffee and a stroll through town. A few miles up the road, Hookipa Beach Park is worth a stop to watch some of the world’s best windsurfers take on the challenging waves of Maui’s north shore.
Before the Hana Highway was completed in 1926, locals and visitors made the journey to East Maui by steam ship, or on foot or horseback on a perilous mountain trail. Today, the road to Hana is fully paved on the north side of the island, hugging chiseled cliffs as it winds in and out of verdant windward valleys. But pass the rural communities of Haiku and Huelo, and there’s a palpable sense that you’ve left civilization behind. Roll down your windows to breathe in the heady rainforest air. This drive is more about the journey than the destination, so take time to stop and explore along the way. The state-managed Waikamoi Ridge Trail or private Garden of Eden Arboretum offer a chance to stroll through Maui’s lush tropical rainforest.
Just past the Keanae Arboretum (itself a fascinating walk through a collection of native and introduced tropical plants), a turnoff to the left takes you to down to Keanae village. Little seems to have changed here over the past century, as residents still celebrate and practice a traditional way of life: fishing, farming, and growing taro, the traditional Hawaiian staple, in flooded lo’i, or paddies. Take in the picturesque Keanae Congregational Church built of lava rock and dating to the 1860s, then make the short hike across a lava flow to the mouth of a small stream for a cool dip. Back on the highway, a scenic overlook provides views of the entire peninsula.
Built to Last
There are 56 bridges between Haiku and Hana, spanning the many streams and tributaries flowing down from this abundant watershed. As you’re passing through, take a moment to admire these masterpieces of engineering, some more than a century old. Workers trekked through deep jungle and descended steep cliffs to construct these bridges without the help of modern machinery or power tools. Today, more than half the bridges on the road to Hana are still only one lane across. Pulling over to allow oncoming traffic to pass before taking your turn across is both a safety precaution and good etiquette.
Take the Plunge
Driving Hana Highway offers many opportunities to take in East Maui’s spectacular waterfalls. Find a safe place to pull over and stop to admire the view, or even dip your toes in the water. A popular photo-op is Upper Waikani Falls. Also known as the Three Bears for its triplicate cascades, this fall is clearly visible from the road, while more adventurous travelers can access its pools via a short hike under the bridge. As always, use caution and avoid swimming when water levels are elevated after a heavy rain.
Thanks to its warm climate and abundant rainfall, East Maui is lush with tropical plants. Native flora like ulu (breadfruit), ohia, and koa trees are interspersed with imports like yellow ginger, heleconia, and bamboo. One of the wettest spots on Maui, it’s not uncommon to see trees padded with thick moss or draped with clinging jungle vines.
As you approach Hana, look for Waianapanapa State Park on your left. This 122-acre preserve includes a stunning black sand beach and an ancient coastal trail that leads to Hana and offers views of a natural sea arch and blow holes. A family-friendly walking path takes you on a short hike through tropical forest and a under tunnel of tangled hau tree branches to the still waters of a cave pool. Near the parking lot, picnic tables and a restroom make Wainapanapa an attractive place to stop for lunch. The park also has tent camping and cabins that can be rented in advance.
After your long drive, it won’t take long to explore the remote town of Hana. Stop at Hasegawa General Store and cruise down to Hana Bay to check out the scene, then head out of town to Hamoa Beach. Consistently making the lists of the best beaches in America, Hamoa is a stunning crescent of white sand embracing a bay of clear, cerulean blue. Locals surf the outer break, while close to shore the waves are a playground for kids and families. Whether you’ll turn back to make the drive home, pressing on to explore the “back side” of Maui, or stopping in Hana for a few days, Hamoa is the perfect place to cool off.
The Kipahulu District (Pipiwai Trail and Pools of Oheo)
Towards the end of the Road to Hana and about 12 miles past Hana town is an idyllic 1.8 mile trail that boasts a string of pools and waterfalls amidst a lush tropical rainforest. The trail ends at the base of a spectacular waterfall. Plan to take a few hours to enjoy this scenic hike, more if you plan to make frequent stops or are not an avid walker or hiker.
Note: Although the hiking trails remain open, the Pools of Oheo (also known as Seven Sacred Pools) are closed indefinitely due to safety concerns with landslides. Click here for any updates on the closure.
Although driving the road to Hana is often considered a “must-do” on Maui, it may not be for everyone. It can be a long, tiring trip if you are unprepared. But it can also be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure if you take the time to prepare and find the best way for you and your traveling party to experience it.
Here are some frequently-asked questions about driving the road to Hana:
Is it safe to drive the road to Hana?
As with traveling anywhere, be prepared and use common sense and courtesy.
- Pay attention to the road and don’t get distracted by the sights while you are driving. Stop frequently, get out of the car to enjoy the beauty around you
- Don’t drive the road to Hana in the dark. It’s a good idea to spend at least one night in Hana and get a good night’s sleep before driving back
- Always pull over in an area that does not block traffic
- Take it slow – no speeding!
- Allow faster traffic to pass by pulling over (there are folks who live in Hana and drive the road to Hana everyday)
- Always yield at signs near bridges
- Abide by blow horn signs
- Make sure you are well rested and alert
Do I need a 4-wheel drive vehicle on the road to Hana?
No. Expect a bumpy road, but you’ll be fine with a regular rental car.
Is driving the road to Hana worth it?
It all depends on the type of traveler you are and it’s good to remember that it’s all about the journey and not the drive itself. Do your research in advance. Experiencing the Road to Hana is a bucket list item for many, but you should ask yourself these questions:
- Are you and those traveling with you OK with frequent twists and turns without getting motion sickness? Often those sitting in the backseat will feel it. Motion sickness medicine may be helpful for those prone to it.
- Are you OK with taking your time at a slow pace on a long and winding road? There are 600 turns and 56 bridges!
- Do you have time to enjoy the drive and spend the night in Hana for a more relaxing experience?
- Do you like getting out of car and enjoying the magnificent sites? To fully enjoy the journey, it’s best to stop frequently, get out of your vehicle and hike or walk a bit to see things.