Leave your worries behind and take the slow road on Maui’s Hana Highway.
The road to Hana is more about the journey than the destination—but in this case, the destination is also quite lovely.
There are urban legends—or should that be jungle legends?—about the famous Hana Highway, the narrow, winding 52-mile stretch of road from Pa’ia to Hana that takes more than three hours to drive. And some of these “legends” are true: For example, it really does have more than 600 turns along the way, just one of many reasons you have to drive slowly.
Most visitors to Maui, even the ones with rental cars, choose to do Hana as a day trip and book a guided tour. While it’s a popular option, you’ll experience much more of what the island has to offer if you stay over at least one night in Hana; but even if you make it a day trip, you should drive so that you can go at your own pace. There’s a potentially worthy stop every two or three miles—this is a rainforest, after all—so you have to be quite selective. If you’re traveling with kids, the highlights include waterfalls, swimming holes and a black sand beach.
Most of the Hana Highway is two lanes, but there are many one-lane bridges (dating back to 1910), and the rule of thumb is to allow the car that arrives at the yield sign first to have the right of way. When in doubt, always wait! You can never be in a hurry on the road to Hana. (Well, you can, but it won’t get you there any faster.) You should leave as early as possible, preferably by 8:30 a.m., to avoid the heaviest traffic.
The drive starts on Highway 36, just past Pa’ia. Soon the highway number changes to 360, and the mile markers begin again at 0. This is a good way to track your whereabouts.
About 1.5 miles past the 5-mile marker, there’s a dirt path on the right. Create your own parking spot and head for the Four Falls of Na’ili’ili-Haele. This trail is suitable only for agile adults and kids over 10, as there’s a small amount of rock climbing involved, and it can be slippery. A short walk gets you into the first fall; it’s another 20 minutes to the second. The third and fourth falls are 30 minutes farther in, but they involve swimming and more climbing, so are only possible for the super-fit. The falls get bigger as you hike in, but the first two require the least effort and are quite spectacular. Remember to take some reliable form of bug spray—you will need it in the jungle!
One waterfall you can see from the road is just past mile marker 13. There’s a place to pull over and take photos if you like. One word of caution: The East Maui Irrigation Company (EMI) controls the water that flows through this part of the island. As one perceptive 10-year-old in our party put it, “They can turn the waterfalls on and off as they please.” So, don’t be disappointed if the particular waterfall you’re looking for isn’t running. There will invariably be something unexpected up ahead.
Between mile markers 15 and 16, look to your right. There’s a hill in the clearing on which Maui’s most prized warrior was killed by Kamehameha in a fierce battle in the late 1700s.
One of the best swimming holes is Ching’s Pond, just before the 17-mile marker. A short path leads down to the accessible pool. You will see locals diving off of one particular cliff, but it is highly recommended that you don’t attempt this. The pool has varying depths, and only some locals know the precise spot that’s deep enough for diving.
Another gorgeous photo opportunity comes between mile markers 19 and 20. You can’t miss this series of falls, as there will be cars stacked up around the area. There is also sometimes a stand here with fresh coconuts for sale.
A perfect spot to stop for a snack is Pu’a Ku’a State Park, just past the 22-mile marker. There are picnic tables and short walking trails that lead into tiny hidden falls. This is also one of the few opportunities on the drive to go to the restroom, so take advantage!
Near the 31-mile marker is the turnoff to Kahanu Garden, a well-tended botanical garden specializing in native and Polynesian plants. $10 gets you a 30-minute self-guided tour. It’s fun to try to pronounce the Hawaiian words on the plant identifiers. Kids are often better at this than adults as they know to sound out every syllable, which is the way of the Hawaiian language.
Another mile ahead, just past marker 32, is one of the most spectacular stops along the way: Wai’anapapa State Park, famous for its black sand beach. Parking is free, and it’s a short walk down to the beach strewn with volcanic rock.
The town of Hana isn’t far now. The winding road will eventually deposit you in the one real town along this entire journey. It’s a great place to spend a few slow days meandering around the hills and beaches, if you are so inclined. The Hotel Hana-Maui is a luxurious overnight option, but there are also lots of B&Bs, most of which have not been affected by the new laws (see our main feature on Maui for more on the B&B laws).
If you’re just there for lunch or dinner, you can’t do better than the hotel’s restaurant, which looks out onto the manicured grounds punctuated with plumeria trees. Hasegawa General Store is a fun place to check out. It’s a one-stop shopping destination for locals. They sell everything from spam musubi to auto parts to CDs of local music. If you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist.
If you’re able to spend the night, check out the Hana Cultural Center the next day. There’s a small museum that displays Hawaiian quilts and other crafts, as well as traditional tools. If you’re not able to spend the night, then you’d better head back!
You have two options for returning. Most rental car companies ask you not to drive on the remote east side of the island, but the truth is that people do it every day, and it’s not that difficult if you have a four-wheel drive. If not, turn around and backtrack along the Hana Highway, stopping to see whatever you might have missed on the drive out.