I have heard stories about “the Road to Hana” for years. They ranged from dire warnings to gushing enthusiasm. The road had too many dangerous curves, some said. It was narrow, with frequent “one-lane” stretches, ill-maintained and rough. The road trip took an entire day. Did you really want to sacrifice beach time sitting in a car? Yet, it was one of the “musts” on most “to-do” lists when visiting Maui.
Those with different opinions claimed that the scenery was spectacular. Plunging coastlines appeared from the heights of cliffside routes. Waterfalls roared beside the scenic highway, and rainbow eucalyptus and bamboo forests created a quilted pattern to an already lush landscape. As a first-time visitor to Maui, I had to see this attraction that caused such contradictory views.
After talking with friends and acquaintances, I gleaned the best advice of all, download the Shaka app that provides a self-guided tour on the 42-mile excursion to Hana and back. When turned on, the app links in to your phone’s GPS. The narrator knows your location at which point he starts discussing the sites as you approach them. With close to 100 suggested points-of-interest to visit, I had to decide which sights to see and which to pass up during the ten to twelve hour tour.
My family loves activities, so hikes to waterfalls were appealing, along with exploring a lava cave and enjoying some beach time on Maui’s only black sand beach. I wasn’t interested in making the road trip a marathon, cramming in as many sites as possible. The day was going to be enjoyable, not exhausting. After the trip was over, I was left with five experiences that helped create the best day on the Road to Hana.
Number 1, pick a hike to a waterfall. We chose Na’ili’ili haele Falls. It is located further along Hana Highway, past the more popular Twin Falls. There is no “formal” parking lot other than the roadside, and signage is elusive. A bamboo forest creates a natural wall to the trailhead’s entrance, which made finding the start of the trail a little challenging. We found a small opening in the brush, believing it was the trailhead. It wasn’t, but with only two tracks splitting in different directions, we eventually got onto the main path.
The trail is shaded, and depending on the weather, it can be very muddy. There is a stream to cross. A wooden board has been set down to walk over the water. The trail descends until it ends into a river. We were hesitant in crossing it since it was fairly swift (it had just rained the night before), but several boulders were close enough to each other to gain dry footing. Once we made it across the river, we climbed through more bamboo forests, following the trail again. We walked for about ten minutes and heard running water. The trail turned and paralleled the river. Following it, we came up to a Falls.
There are four falls on this trail. We hiked to two of them. The Shaka app noted that most injuries on the Road to Hana happen at the last two falls, which have more challenging access. Crossing the river was challenging. Eventually, we had to wade in above our knees to reach the other side. Wet rocks made for slippery footing, and if you weren’t paying attention, a foot could easily get jammed between the rocks.
Once we arrived at the falls, we took a break, swimming the in the pools, and enjoyed some alone time. This hike allows for flexibility, diversity and adventure. It is not a good trail for small children.
Note: The Shaka Guide no longer recommends this falls as of December 2020. Hikers enter at their own risk.
Number 2, treat yourself to a Hawaiian Barbecue. Along the slow road to Hana, a few industrious locals have set up shop, cooking along the roadside. We passed a few, but one stood out. Cars were packed side by side in a muddy, makeshift lot. People were lined up like a “soup kitchen” scenario, waiting to be served the shack’s specialty. Stacks of wood and propane canisters laid haphazardly on the ground beside the crooked, wooden lean-to that was named Kahaku’s Smoke Shack. It looked sketchy, but, hey, there’s gotta be something good going on.
Once we tasted our food, we got what all the hype was about. The Shack grilled only two things, ribs and chicken. We tried both and found the meat flavorful and tender. Served with rice and corn, it was the perfect combo on the Road to Hana.
Number 3, explore a lava tube. I wouldn’t have known about this little gem, but the Shaka app suggested it, and we needed to stretch our legs. There wasn’t much room for parking, and we had to dodge cars to cross the road to get to the cave entrance, but once inside, it was worth it. Crouching down, we slipped into a small opening, navigating past tree roots hanging from the ceiling. A large chamber immediately opened before us. Using our lights on our cell phones, we lit up the darkest spots and found our footing. The cave is short and has a massive opening on the opposite end.
Number 4, visit the only black sand beach on Maui. Getting to the beach parking lot was more of a challenge than any hike we had taken on the trip. With deep ruts and muddy holes, it was like an obstacle course. There was a real possibility that I could “bottom-out” the car. Once parked, however, an expansive picnic area with paved and wooden walkways down to the beach made the rest of the journey enjoyable. Turquoise water rushes up to the black sand, making for a visually stunning scene. Lava arches and caves surround the beach, adding for more exploring opportunities. We absolutely loved this area!
Number 5, wander the grounds of a 150 year old stone and coral church on the Ke’anae Peninsula and then stop by Aunty Sandy’s for her famous banana bread. Ke’anae Peninsula is a short detour off the Hana Highway, but it’s worth it. Another opportunity to get out and stretch your legs, the church stands beside the stark, rugged beauty of an old lava flow frozen against the ocean. Jagged, dark pinnacles break through the water and sea spray fills the air.
The church grounds offer a more peaceful reprieve. Expansive green lawns with palm trees obscure the fact that this sturdy church withstood a devastating tsunami in 1946 with reported 30 foot high waves. We took a moment to reflect inside the sanctuary, acknowledging our many blessing, and then headed over to Aunty Sandy’s just down the street.
Folks were lined up for Sandy’s banana bread, and we had to wait while bread was just coming out of the oven. The small loaf was wrapped in a brown paper bag. It was delicious.
The Road to Hana had a variety of activities that kept everyone in my family happy. With the Shaka app and its wide range of suggested things to do along the way, we ended up enjoying every minute of our day. When I wanted to spend more time in Hana, the app noted our time and warned that if we wanted to avoid driving the road in the dark, we should start heading back. Bummer! I’m certainly going back.
A few things to consider:
- Bring sandwiches and drinks. This is a long tour and there are great places along the way to have a picnic.
- If you are bringing children on this road trip, consider finding the best stop to have the kids run and play for a while. Kaumahina State Park, Wai’anapanapa State Park(Maui’s only black sand beach) and Auntie Sandy’s are great stops.
- Bring towels, sunscreen, and insect repellant.
- Bring swimwear and a change of cloths.
- Bring a second pair of shoes if you are planning on hiking. The trails are muddy.
- Don’t expect to see everything and be O.K. with that. It is a Slow Road to Hana.