“Is it always this crowded?” The question was a fair one. My husband and I had just started our road trip along Maui’s famed Road to Hana and had already driven past the first group of scenic pullovers — gushing waterfalls, jaw-dropping coastal overlooks — unable to stop. Not one had a single parking spot available. They were packed with travelers and tour buses.
Time and again, we slowed down dutifully, tried to pull over, and had no choice but to drive on — and we were starting to get antsy. Not ones to be easily defeated, we decided to get creative in our self-made road trip and unearth Hana Highway’s “side roads” less traveled — and it paid off in spades.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Drive
The Road to Hana is deservedly ranked among the world’s most stunning road trips. Drivers are treated to a twisting, turning drive around Maui’s dramatic east coast, where rocky cliffs dotted with lush greenery tumble into deep blue Pacific Ocean waves. Built in 1926, the Hana Highway (Highway 360) twists and turns — some 620-plus times, to be exact — and crosses over more than 50 one-lane bridges showcasing at least as many thundering waterfalls.
The route winds past sleepy communities that locals say offer some of the last vestiges of the “real” Hawaii, where a laid-back atmosphere and the farming of fertile grounds prevail. Technically, the ultimate goal of the trip is arriving in the tiny town of Hana; but like any trip worth its while, the beauty lies in the journey as much as in the destination.
Still, the draw of this stunning drive means that throughout much of the year, the road’s two lanes are jammed with travelers. Crossing one-lane bridges can take as long as 10 minutes or more as traffic backs up in both directions, and the sense of peace that should permeate the lush environs is, at best, obscured.
If you can, stop as often as possible at however many pullovers float your boat. But if you’d like to steer as clear as possible from the madding (and, at times, maddening) crowds, the highlights of your journey might reveal themselves as you turn off the well-trodden Road to Hana and traverse its many side roads, which lead to ample wonders — where yours is likely to be one of the only cars as far as the eye can see.
Side Roads Galore
One of the more popular stops toward the beginning of the journey is the Ke’anae Arboretum, which allows a chance to get up close and personal with the colorful flora that grows in spades throughout the area.
However, just past the 16-mile marker and a smattering of parking spots for the arboretum, Ke’anae Road stretches off toward the left and winds down to the Ke’anae Peninsula. Jutting into the sea, the peninsula houses a quiet community which for generations tended to nearby taro patches. Hop out of your car and squint into the water for a glimpse of Mokuhala and Mokumana, two rocky islets that are now seabird sanctuaries.
Hopefully you’ve saved your appetite and are ready for a snack. Because on the peninsula you’ll also find Aunty Sandy’s Banana Bread being proffered at a roadside stand. The sign proclaims it to be “Da Best” on Maui, and yup, it’s certainly a contender.
By this point in the drive, you’ll have seen a whole lot of scenic coastline, but none of it quite compares to the views that await if you turn again off the Road to Hana and drive to the lookout point in Nahiku, which you’ll reach by turning right onto Nahiku Road just after mile marker 25.
The 2.5-mile drive to the point is down a long and winding road, and coincidentally (perhaps), George Harrison of Beatles fame once bought property in Nahiku to escape his very passionate fan base.
Nahiku Road dead ends before a tiny church. Park here and then walk the rest of the way to the Nahiku Lookout. Here you’ll see something incredible: the very point where river meets ocean and waves roar against the jagged coast — creating a great cacophony of sights, colors and sound. You will likely have this space entirely to yourself, and it is, in a word, unforgettable.
At this point, make time for lunch because you’re about to drive past the Nahiku Marketplace, a collection of ramshackle food stands that includes Island Chef’s coconut shrimp, My Thai Food and barbecue.
With a full belly, pop back into your vehicle and head toward your next stop, Pi’ilanihale Heiau & Kahanu Garden — one of the road’s least visited, and incredibly, the most culturally significant, sight on the entire journey.
To reach Pi’ilanihale, turn down ‘Ula’ino Road past the 31-mile marker. Wind your way toward the 294-acre gardens, which house the 13th-century Pi’ilanihale Heiau, an extraordinary, 450-foot-long lava stone temple, which is the largest heiau in all of Polynesia — and that’s no small feat.
You’ll also stroll past the enormous thatch-roofed Hale Wa’a, one of the largest and best-preserved traditional Hawaiian buildings in the islands. The gardens also house 150 species of breadfruit, the largest collection in the world.
As you get closer to Hana, you’ll see a sign for Wai’anapanapa State Park. Turn off the Hana Highway and head into the park, where you can cool off dipping your toes in the water at Pa’iloa Beach, arguably Maui’s most beautiful black sand beach.
Take a walk along a coastal trail or find the path north of the beach parking lot that heads toward the chilly waters of two lava-tube caves.
Hana and Beyond
Before you pull into teeny Hana, continue along the highway before pulling off onto Haneo’o Road just before the 50-mile marker. You’ll want to make a few pit stops along this 1.5-mile loop road, first at Koki Beach, which is flanked by a looming cliff and faces ‘Alau Island — a speck in the sea noted for a single palm tree sprouting from its peak.
From Koki, carry on the Hamoa Beach, popular with local surfers and believed by many to be Maui’s prettiest stretch of white sand (and really, in an island this perfect, that says a lot). Park along the road and walk the staircase down to the shore — if you can sit a spell and relax from your drive, all the better.
Plan Your Trip
Above all else, before your road trip to Hana, download GyPSy Guide’s Road to Hana driving tour app. The guide is GPS-driven, plays automatically and while offline, and offers in-depth information, stories, pointers and local knowledge about dozens of sights along the Road to Hana.
Legends abound regarding the difficulties driving the winding road to Hana, and so many travelers spring for a pricey Jeep Wrangler rental. In reality, the road is well-paved and safe to drive if you go slow, use caution, yield to oncoming traffic and pull over to allow any encroaching cars behind you to pass.
Before leaving, fill up your tank with gas — you won’t find a gas station until you reach Hana. Pack snacks and water, though you’ll have plenty of roadside stands to stop at along the way if you get peckish or thirsty.
If you’re the type that likes unplanned activities, wear a bathing suit under your clothes (though waters can be rough — use extreme caution if swimming), and bring or wear sturdy shoes for any impromptu hikes.