Ten Tips for Driving Maui’s Famous “Road to Hana”
Perhaps one of the most beautiful—if not controversial—activities on Maui is driving the world famous road to Hana. Weaving its way for 52 miles, 600 curves, and 56 one-lane bridges, it’s the most loved and loathed stretch of road on the entire island.
As someone who has lived on the island of Maui for 23 years I consider Hana to be the best activity to do on the island. Then again, if a good book and a lounge chair are your idea of the perfect day, it’s probably best you just stay back at home. If you’ve already had enough sun-worshipping, however, and you’re looking to explore the adventurous side of Maui, then devoting a day towards experiencing Hana is an excursion which can’t be beat.
Many visitors you talk to, however, will tell you that driving the road to Hana was the worst part of their trip. It’s too curvy. I got car sick. Someone was on my butt the entire time. And there isn’t even anything to even see!
So, why the discrepancy?
Having worked in the Maui visitor industry for years and having watched tens of thousands of tourists include a Hana daytrip into their itinerary, I can confidently say there are only two reasons why people don’t enjoy their trip to Hana:
They don’t know what Hana is in the first place, and they go about it the wrong way.
Essentially, many of the problems regarding visiting Hana all boil down to a misunderstanding of the excursion, the venue, and how to plan the trip. Given the confusion, here is a list of ten tips for how to go about visiting Hana “the right way.”
1. Understand that Hana is not a destination, but a journey
Too frequently, visitors will race all the way to the sleepy village of Hana and are left saying only one thing: “This is it?”
Hana, with a population of only around 1,800 in the immediate town, is not exactly a very big town. A ballpark, a general store, the Travaasa hotel, and that’s about it. Hana is not a destination you drive to; it’s a place to get away from everywhere else. Turn off the TV, leave the smartphone at home, and forget that the world even exists for a couple of hours. Time ticks by slowly in Hana regardless of the world and all of her ills. Quite frankly, Hana doesn’t care.
2. Know that the “Road to Hana” doesn’t actually end at Hana
Technically the famous “Road to Hana” (at least the part which is registered on the National Register of Historic Places) is only 52-miles long and stretches between Kahului Airport and Hana. Along this scenic byway visitors will encounter highlights such as the north shore hippie hub of Paia, Ho’okipa Beach Park, Keanae Peninsula, bamboo forests, and countless roadside waterfalls and valleys.
But the road to Hana doesn’t end in Hana. In fact, many of Hana’s natural treasures lie in the ten miles beyond actual Hana town. Hamoa Beach, which is consistently voted as one of the top beaches in America, is a couple of miles past the town of Hana. So too is Waioka Pool, a brackish, hidden pool which sits right on the rocky coastline. Finally, 30 minutes beyond Hana town, the Pools of Ohe’o Gulch (also known as the “Seven Sacred Pools”) are arguably the best sight on the entire eastern flank of the island. A series of cascading waterfalls and pools which lead directly into the blue Pacific, a two-mile trail on the mountain side of the highway leads to the towering, 400 ft. Waimoku Falls.
3. Don’t drive back the same way you came in
Yes, your rental car contract tells you the road around the backside of the island is for 4WD vehicles only, but honestly, that’s just not true. Sure, there are parts which are bumpy, and yes, a few miles are dirt, but unless it’s dumping down torrential buckets of rain the road is passable in a regular 2WD vehicle. The benefit of wrapping all the way around the island is that you are graced with new views the entire way, and you get to see how the surroundings change from lush, tropical rainforest to the windswept, arid lava flows.
Granted, although the road isn’t 4WD it is incredibly narrow, and at many places the road is only wide enough for one vehicle. Drive slowly, honk your horn around corners, and be sure to take in the sweeping views which get more dramatic with every turn.
4. Don’t schedule a 4pm luau
Too many people try to squeeze Hana into half a day or end up feeling too rushed. Hana, as mentioned, is a place to escape from the rush, not add to it. If you’re planning a day trip to Hana, the best thing to do is simply block off an entire day, leave early (7am), and just see where the journey takes you.
5. Stop early, stop often
Going along with the notion that Hana is all about the journey, not the destination, be sure you stop early and often instead of just racing through to the “end”. Stop in the town of Paia for a morning stroll down Baldwin Beach or for breakfast at a tucked away café. Pick up a picnic lunch and then watch the waves break at the Ho’okipa Lookout. Stop and swim in waterfalls, hike through bamboo forests, and if you’re ever in need of a snack just pull off at any of the roadside stands for a loaf of banana bread or locally grown fruit.
If the guy behind you is on your tail, pull over and let him pass. Who cares? This is Hana, and there isn’t any rush.
6. Think hard before taking a van tour
There are many people out there who are uncomfortable driving on narrow, mountainous roads. If you question your ability to drive, then yes, you should probably consider taking a guided van tour. The tours are very informative and feature local guides who can provide insights into Hawaiian history, culture, and personal anecdotes which give humor to the lengthy drive.
The problem with taking a van tour, however, is that you are on someone else’s schedule. If you decide you want to go bodysurf at Hamoa Beach, you can’t. If you see a waterfall that you want to go swim under, you can’t. If you want to hike to Red Sand Beach, trek to Waimoku Falls, explore the caves at Wai’anapanapa, or any other Hana adventure, you’re woefully going to be called back to the van.
7. Bring a bathing suit and hiking shoes
Hana is more than just a photographer’s paradise; it’s also a land of adventure. Be sure to pack along the necessary wardrobe/equipment for your outdoor activity of choice.
8. Kapu means keep out
In the past couple of years there have been a handful of Maui guidebooks (one in particular) which have crossed the line of what is acceptable to publish. A number of previously ‘secret’ waterfalls and pools now see so many visitors (and their associated liability issues) that many landowners have simply cut off access to everyone—visitors and locals alike.
If you see a sign which says “kapu”, it’s a Hawaiian word which translates to “No Trespassing” or “Keep Out”. If you encounter a kapu sign, it’s best to simply move along and enjoy and spot which is more accessible to the public.
9. Don’t stay too long
While Hana can be tough to leave, a good day in Hana can be ruined by driving home in the dark—particularly if going out the back way. If you think driving on narrow, one-lane roads with precipitous drop-offs is difficult during the daylight hours, try doing it at night. Leaving by 4pm provides enough daylight to ensure a well-lit journey back home.
10. Consider staying overnight
Despite how enjoyable a day trip to Hana can be, the bottom line is that it’s still a really long day. Most locals opt to stay overnight, either camping at the Pools of Ohe’o, or staying in a bed and breakfast or the hotel back in town. In addition to not feeling rushed, those who opt to stay overnight can wake up and have beaches and swimming holes all to themselves before the throngs of day-tripping tourists arrive again the following day, usually beginning at 11am.
With these simple tips in hand an excursion to Hana can be one of the most enjoyable days of your trip, not one of the biggest nightmares.
Kyle Ellison is a freelance writer based in Maui, Hawaii who frequently finds himself in obscure international destinations. Over the course of traveling through 60 different countries, he has taken part in everything from climbing mountains in Borneo to eating clams while scuba diving in an underwater Vietnamese cave. Despite his penchant for novelty and adventure, the beautiful island of Maui will always be the corner of the world where he calls home. All of Kyle’s writing and adventures can be found by visiting his website, kylethevagabond.com. Kyle is also an ambassador and contributor to VacationRoost.