We woke up on day three of our Hana Highway Road Trip totally melted into island time. Hawaii’s most famous drive traverses over 600 curves and 54 bridges, yet most travelers only set aside a day for it.
Honestly, now that I’ve done this leisurely four-day ramble, camping in remote ocean-view parks in our Aloha Outdoors camper along the way, I don’t know if I could ever go back to tearing through it again.
After a final goodbye to the black sand beach of Wainapanapa State Park, and a failed attempt to find the underground caves I’d swum through in terror on my first trip to Hawaii, we were off.
I would be remiss to write a blog series about the road to Hana without mentioning the controversy around many of the highlights. Many of Maui’s most beautiful natural treasures are technically on privately-owned land, and while some land owners generously open access to the public, in other cases, people just go anyway, encouraged by certain unscrupulous guidebooks.
(Speaking of guidebooks, if you’re looking for one written by a Maui local who focuses on respect, sustainable and ethical tourism and hidden gems, look no further than my friend Kyle’s Moon Maui guidebook — you’ll spot some of my photos inside!)
Anyway, I don’t know what it is about Hawaii in particular — well, I have a hunch — but lots of people make bad choices or have bad luck while trying to access these hotly contested destinations, and the result can be friction between tourists and locals when emergency services are unnecessarily strained. One such source of controversy is Hana’s Kaihalulu Bay, the most stunning Red Sand beach I’ve ever dug my toes into.
Despite being more or less smack dab in the center of Hana town, the access point was a long-guarded secret by locals (Google Maps has loose lips, though). Getting there does technically involve traversing private land, but there’s no sign explicitly banning access. The issue is more with tourists who get in over their head on the short hike in, requiring, in all-too-frequent cases, emergency air evacuation.
I’ve read reviews online of this path that make it seem like you are taking your life into your hands by walking it. Literally, I read one that said “you shouldn’t go to this beach if you have someone at home who needs you.” Whoa! So, granted, I’ve always been pretty unfazed when it comes to scrambling over rocks to something I really want to do or see, but Ian and I agreed that compared to some of the adventures we’ve found ourselves in around the world, this was literally kind of a walk in the park — er, to the beach. We had a casual, stress-free stroll down and pretty much did cartwheels of happiness upon arrival. It was just us and one little family and a few old hippies when we spent the morning here, and it was bliss.
Still, based on the lack of emergency services and the general consensus of the internet that the path to Kaihalulu Beach is akin to planning your own funeral, I feel the need to point out that if you aren’t comfortable on steep, narrow, slippery trails, you should probably skip this one. There are several significant injuries and rescues from this location every year. Oh, also skip if you’re offended by nudity. Kaihalulu Beach is clothing optional!
My theory here is that because Hawaii is technically part of the United States, it attracts some people who are lulled into a false sense of security and take risks that they would never take if they were road tripping around a remote corner of the Philippines, or scrambling around a cliff in El Salvador. (Probably, many of them wouldn’t even consider those destinations.) Hawaii makes people come alive and want to experience adventure and that is what is beautiful about it!
But I think it can also somehow make people’s “risk radars” go screwy, and kind of blind them to what their actual abilities are and what their limits should be. My advice is to be incredibly honest with yourself about what you can enjoy without posing risk to yourselves or others. Maui has so many accessible wonders to enjoy — know yourself and you’ll figure out which ones are for you.
And as always, be polite and respectful and leave nothing but footprints. As we were parked and applying sunscreen to head down into Kaihalulu, a police car approached us and peered curiously into our van. The officer politely suggested we move the camper back about a foot to avoid edging into a no-parking zone. “I won’t ticket you, but I can’t promise what my fellow officers will do,” he said with a shrug and a smile. “Mahalo!” we called back, relieved and reassured.
Next, we headed back into the heart of teeny Hana Town to try a hike of far less controversial proportions — a simple walk up the hill to Fagan’s Cross. We found it closed and were assured by the guide that the trail was closed. We were bummed but figured it must have been a recent change.
Later, I read that you need to be a guest of the Travassa Hana resort or request access — after a few nights sleeping in the wild we must not have looked like fancy resort guests because that guard took one look at us and basically told us to hit the road. Ha! I’m putting this one on the “try again next time” list. Still, it was scenic even from afar.
For day-trippers, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hana Town is just somewhere you drive through on your way to somewhere else. For us, it was a place to explore. I’ve always been fascinated by remote communities and Hana is considered one of the United State’s most isolated. These are less than 1500 residents in Hana, and they live more than three hours away from the closest big box stores, major airport, movie theater… you get the drill.
We took our time checking out Hana Bay Beach Park, a muddy strip of sand where locals hang, stopped at a Farmer’s Market, looked at posters for community events and roommate requests while we topped up on ice and other supplies at Hasegawa General Store, mailed post cards from the tiny Post Office, filled up at the museum-like Hana Gas, and treated ourselves to locally-produced Shaka Pops.
Hana Ranch Farm Stand
We scoped out several lunch options and settled on Hana Ranch’s Burger Truck, set in a field of grazing cattle. Talk about farm to food truck! It was an incredible burger, and a fabulous unsweetened iced tea.
We briefly discussed stopping for Second Lunch — a much under-appreciated meal — at Braddah Hutts BBQ, but we contained ourselves. This time.
Back to beaching! Our next stop was the famous Hamoa Beach, widely considered to be East Maui’s most beautiful. We’d already taken in a black sand beach at Wainapanapa, reveled in the red sand beach at Kaihalulu, and now were hitting the beach aficionado’s trifecta with the salt-and-pepper sand of Hamoa.
Unfortunately, our timing was less than ideal. The weather turned grey and drizzly when we arrived, and there was little resemblance to the postcard-like images we’d seen when researching the trip. (Okay, I’d seen them. Ian pretty much shows up and drives.)
But we were unfazed. We laid out on the beach, dug into the fresh banana bread we’d become addicted to, and I read my book, Hotel Honolulu, taking occasional breaks to brave the enormous waves crashing the shore.
And then, we were three! My blog-reader-turned-friend Caitlin, a flight attendant who I have a kind of crazy friendship story with, had hopped over to Maui for a few days off, and I begged her to come camp with us for her last night. Well, I planned to beg, anyway — she pretty much said yes before I got the question out. My kind of girl!
She rented a car and met us at Hamoa Beach, and we caravaned the rest of the route together.
Our final destination for the evening was Kipahulu Campground in Haleakala National Park. Haleakala has two entrances — the famous one is the summit of the volcano, where I once watched one of the most stunning sunsets of my life after a punishing, twelve mile trek through the crater. This time, we were visiting the coastal Kipahulu Side, home to the ‘Ohe‘O Gulch, or Seven Sacred Pools, which many consider the “last stop” on a Hana day trip before turning around for the long drive home.
The cool thing here is that the $25 per car entrance fee buys you access to both sides of the park for three days, so if you time your visits right you can access two of Maui’s major natural wonders for one very reasonable price. Even better? There’s no extra charge for camping! Yup, you can sleep oceanfront on Maui for just $12.50 a night — or about $4 a night, if you stayed all three nights.
Since Caitlin was in a standard sedan, we converted the downstairs of the camper into a second bed for a camper van sleepover party. We were pulled up right to the edge of the ocean, and I just about cried over how much I loved the views as we made dinner, chatted with the other handful of other campers in the area, and plotted out our plan for the next day. Our third day route had consisted of just sixteen miles and one hour of total driving, our shortest yet, which meant we’d had plenty of time for beaching.
The next morning, we rose again with the sun, and set off before the park opened for Waimoku Falls. First, we took a quick peek at ‘Ohe‘O Gulch, which was closed to swimming, as it often is, by the National Parks Service due to a flash flood warning. It was beautiful, but I was excited to keep moving.
We were headed to The Pipiwai Trail, a 3.7 mile round trip trail through guava and bamboo forests leading to the ultimate reward, standing under the thunderous power of four hundred foot Waimoku Falls. This is one of those hikes where the journey really is the destination. And since we’d set off so early, we had it all to ourselves.
We were gutted when we reached a certain point in the bamboo forest and found a sign warning the last half mile of the trail leading to Waimoku Falls was closed due to heavy rains. Now, I know this will be a somewhat controversial confession, but we decided to continue onward. Caitlin had worked as a tour guide on Maui for over two years and led this hike once a week — she could do the trail with her eyes closed. We were confident that we’d be able to complete the trail safely and without becoming a burden to others.
I know some will argue we were wrong and that we should have turned around, and, well, I won’t deny I have some guilt about admitting it here based on how sensitive an issue this is in Maui. But it felt like the right thing to do in the moment.
And dang, was that waterfall beautiful. We sat and just marveled at it for quite some time, and as we turned to leave we noted another hiker approaching. And then another. I guess we weren’t the only rule-breakers on the trail that day. (And I know — that’s kind of the problem.)
While we still had a fair bit of driving ahead, this was essentially the last stop on the road for us, and we tried to pause and reflect on what an incredible adventure it all had been.
Back at Kipahulu, we split up. Ian drove the camper back the way we’d come as promised in our rental agreement, while I hopped in with Caitlin to tackle the Piilani Highway, sometimes known as the “back road” to Hana. Like many of the places I’ve highlighted in this post, this is another hotly contested one. The general consensus from rental car companies, guidebooks, and locals is the same — you must turn around at Kipahulu and drive the way you came.
I was kind of suspicious of whether or not this was true — many deep dives into internet land dredged up little more than rumors and vague warnings on official sites — but it is a fact that you’re unlikely to have service for most of this drive, so if you do get into trouble, you’re on your own.
Caitlin was indeed in a rental, but she estimated she’d driven the road over fifty times before and wasn’t phased. As long as it isn’t dark or raining, it’s no big deal, she assured me. We’ll honk as we go around the blind corners.
Now, I am not normally a nervous passenger, but there were a few moments when the road was steep and narrow and along a cliff, and there were no guard rails, and I just had no choice but to close my eyes and wait for it to be over. It’s worth noting that while I was in the passenger seat having minor heart attacks a few times, Caitlin was in the driver’s seat laughing. Luckily there were really only ten or twenty miles of high-blood-pressure-inducing roads before it eased out to a peaceful, desolate back road.
Should you drive the Piilani Highway? That’s up to you and your comfort level, but keep in mind your rental car company will probably do everything possible to dissuade and scare you out of it, and it’s very unclear what will actually happen if you were to run into trouble out here (No, it’s not illegal, but there’s a good chance your insurance would be voided.)
There are plenty of reasons to. Even driving at a very slow and conservative speed, we beat Ian by ages, and there’s plenty to see, too — Alele Falls and Charles’ Lindberg’s grave and a massive sea arch were among the attractions we passed.
Our fourth day route took in sixty miles and about two and a half hours of driving — and we weren’t ready for it to be over when that last sunset hit.
Ready to plan a Hana Highway Road Trip of your own? You’re in luck! My next post will be a detailed guide — including a cost breakdown, packing list and insider tips — to how to do it all yourself. Stay tuned!
Next stop? Posting up in Paia, Maui’s beloved bohemian heart.
Mahalo to Aloha Outdoors for hosting us!
Confused on where we are? I’m catching up on the black hole of content from August of 2016 to April of 2017 — when I jumped forward to blog the summer of 2017 as it was happening. Right now, we’re in October of 2016 in Hawaii, and I can’t wait to turn my detailed notes and journals into blog posts from Jamaica, Thailand and Bali next! My apologies for any confusion with the timeline, and thanks for sticking with me.