September 24, 2023: The Road to Hana
After 2 days in Central and South Maui, it was time for the most hyped day of the trip. One of the most famous drives in the entire US is the Road To Hana (aka the Hana Highway, Hawaii 360) which stretches along the north coast of the Haleakala side of the island. The north side of the island is the rainy side and the jungle here is one of the rainiest places on earth. In fact, the rainiest spot in all of Oceania is up a remote canyon close to the Road to Hana.
The road itself is part of the attraction too. There are 620 turns and 46 one-lane bridges. Without stopping, the drive from Paia (the official start of the road) to the town of Hana takes 2.5 hours. But when stopping for sights and hitting traffic (which luckily won´t be a thing this trip), the drive can take all day. After consulting a few online blogs, we set out on our adventure!
The first stop was the Twin Falls. These privately owned waterfalls can be accessed for a $10 parking fee. There are actually two sets of falls. The lower falls are located 200 meters from the parking lot, but the main attraction is a 30-minute hike. The trail has a few water crossings and enters a narrow canyon before the final stretch of walking up the river. The reward was a picturesque natural swimming pool underneath the 15 ft falls. Idyllic! The pools were full of tiny fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet, so the entry fee also includes a pedicure.
The road is scary. Not only is it narrow and windy, but the locals, typically in huge pickup trucks- speed like crazy. Luckily, the oncoming traffic only seemed to arrive on wide sections of the road.
45 minutes past Twin Falls, we reached the famous Aunty Sandy´s Banana Bread: “The Bread You´ve Been Driving For”. I enjoyed the banana bread, but Maisie was unimpressed saying that its only good because it is fresh and because the drive puts you in the mood. She claims that her banana bread is superior.
Just past Aunty Sandy´s is a beautiful park where you can gawk at the volcanic beach and the thick jungle.
During the next hour of driving, we passed numerous waterfalls. At many, menacing hand-written signs proclaiming the falls “Kapu” or off-limits for tourists by Royal Order of the King. While I doubt the veracity of the signs, we decided it was better to not anger the Hawaiian Gods. While less-so due to the fire, there is an uneasy relationship between tourists/the tourism industry and the Native Hawaiians. 40% of Maui´s economy is tourism, so a large percentage of people who work, work in tourism, and rely on those dollars for their livelihood. However, the tourists have caused a real estate boom that has made it virtually impossible for Native Hawaiians (who generally have less money) to own a home or to afford rent. Typically, the only way Natives can afford to stay is if they inherit land from their parents or build a second home on their parents´ property. Many the homes that burned in the Lahaina fire were these types of situations, thus the problem is going to be even worse now. To me, the situation seems clear: build big on the empty farmland, but Maui (and Hawaii as a whole) is very anti-development. Residents fear that if they build more homes than their small-town island lifestyle will disappear. Something´s gotta give!
We finally reached the outskirts of Hana. While the road didn´t get any wider, we started seeing more buildings, especially tropical fruit stands. Our first stop was a lava tube! Again, highlighting the economic misbalance, the ticket salesperson had a tip jar with a small sign explaining that rent in Hana is insanely expensive.
After receiving our flashlight and paying the steep $15 pp entry fee, we descended into the lava tube. Lava tubes are caves formed of dry…lava. As lava flows downhill from an eruption, the outside hardens into rock while the inside stays molten and continues to flow. Eventually, the lava flow will stop and the only thing left is a tube of lava. This tube was about 25 feet (8 meters) high and over a mile long. It is the largest lava tube on Maui and the 18th largest known lava tube on earth. This bottom of the lava tube was smooth and could be walked on with ease.
We walked through the tube using our flashlights. Informative placards told us about the geology and history of the tube, which formed just 960 years ago. After walking for a half-mile underground we were met by a sign indicating that we had reached the property line and could not continue further.
Our next stop is the legendary black sand beach at Waiʻānapanapa State Park (good luck pronouncing that). While I have been to other black sand beaches, the sand here is the blackest I have ever seen. There is also a sea cave that you can visit. Normally, you need to make an online reservation days in advance to visit the beach due to limited parking, but we were able to make the reservation on the spot due to the lack of tourists due to the Lahaina fire.
For lunch, we stopped at the famous Huli Huli Chicken road stand at the red sand Koki Beach. As we walked up to the tent, the middle-aged woman cashier smiled at us infectiously. We ordered a single order of the chicken for the two of us. Per the recommendation of the staff, put no sauces or toppings on it: the chicken would speak for itself. And it did. The meat was so juicy, the seasoning was perfect, and the scenery was sublime. I washed it down with a lilikoi juice, my favorite. All in all, this was one of my favorite meals ever.
The Hana Highway (Hawaii 360) continues past Hana town and there are a few more attractions to check out. The main landmark is the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park (the big volcano that I visited yesterday). The district was created to protect an ahupua´a, an ancient Hawaiian land division stemming from “summit to sea”. Hawaiians had different concepts of land ownership than Europeans/Westerners: they believed that only the gods could own land and that land use is communal. When the ahupua´a system changed to one of formal ownership in 1850, many Native Hawaiians did not realize that land needed to be/could be claimed and that they would permanently lose access to land claimed by others.
The vast majority of the Kipahulu district is off-limits to visitors as it is part of a biological reserve but there are two trails open to the public. The shorter coastal trail leads to a series of sacred pools and contains ancient ruins.
The longer 4-mile roundtrip Pipiwai trail leads to a 200-ft waterfall and then a 400-ft waterfall. 2/3 of the way in, the trail traversed a bamboo forest. The scenery was stunning and one of my favorite day hikes ever.
Past the National Park and down a questionable road is a 19th century Protestant church. In the churchyard is the grave of none other than Charles Lindbergh. How random?!?! He certainly picked the ideal spot to rest!
Having now reached the end of the Hana Highway it was now time to return to Wailuku. There are two ways to go. The first and highly recommended way is to return on the same road we came on, which would mean retracing the 620 turns and the 46 one-lane bridges.
The second way is to continue south and complete the loop around Haleakala. Guidebooks, the rental car agency, and locals warn that this road is treacherous, but my brother-in-law Alex previously drove on the road and said it was fine and the warnings are mostly an old wives´ tale to keep the road car-free for locals.
Trusting my brother-in-law, I went for it. The road turned to dirt and one-lane as it maneuvered between the sea and a huge cliff face. While easily navigable in my compact car, I could see this road being a nightmare had there been oncoming traffic.
After 7 miles of dirt and solitude, we finally reached a perfectly paved road. We were now back on the dry rain shadow side of the volcano. The south side of Haleakala is a mix of savannah and lava flows without a single soul. While the road is high up, there are rugged jeep trails to reach untouched beaches. The drive here was my favorite part of the entire day.
The road returned us to the Upcountry where we had another dinner with Sidney and her husband Brian. The restaurant, Kula Bistro, only recently reopened after a water shortage in the area and everybody and their mother was there to support. I ordered a locally raised pork shoulder, and it was the best meal of the trip.
The next day, we did a quick morning hike in the Iao Valley before flying back to Los Angeles.
The Hana Highway is Maui´s top experience. The jungle has so many sights including waterfalls, food stands, beaches. To visit everything would take minimum 2 days, so with one day, you must pick and choose. Out of what we saw, my favorite stops were the Twin Falls and the hike in the National Park. The other highlight was the drive down the backside: the “off-limits” section as well as the paved road on the south shore.