Hawaii Part I: The Road to Hana… and Beyond

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*Note while this article is my first article not linked to my views on child rearing, there will be more to come as I pick up writing again after a long summer break.

On our first full day in Maui, we ventured on the Road to Hana (RtH).  For those not familiar, the RtH is a 42-mile journey that extends along the east coast of Maui from the northeast town of Paia [pah-EE-ah] to the picturesque Hana [HAH-nuh] in the southeast corner of the island.  The RtH is known for the most breathtaking, panoramic ocean views in the world.  Along the route are waterfalls (lots of them), beautiful lookouts, tropical plants, and several swimming holes.

Sound like a journey you would like to take?  Surprisingly, many pass it up.  For good reason.  I was shocked by the number of locals who have never taken the trip and frequent Maui tourists (mainly from California) that refuse to take the journey.   The RtH is not for the faint of heart.  Those with the slightest bit of motion sickness or altitude sickness should apply caution.  It consists of more than 600 hair-raising curves (every publication comes up with a different number above 600, but I’m not sure how they count when there are no straightaways).  To add to the constant turning and multiple elevation changes, there are 56 one-lane bridges that make stops frequent.  Finally, there are sporadic rain showers to keep you on your toes (the RtH goes through the lower section of a rain forest that receives upwards of 360 inches of rain a year).

For those willing to take the trek, it is an adventure worth having.  Everyone will have a vastly different experience on the journey.  First, two quick tips.  Then onto our experience.

Tip #1: Be Prepared

You don’t have to tell me to prepare, but even I could have done more.  As an Eagle Scout, the motto, “Be Prepared” reigns supreme.  This is not a place you just want to wander through.  To get the most of the trip, you need to meticulously plan every component.  This is an all-day adventure and you will want to squeeze the most out of the time the sun allots you.  On our journey, the sun rose at 6:30a and set at 6:00p.  11.5 hours.  To give you an idea, our total time on the road was over 14 hours (I just made sure I was not in the roughest terrain @ dark).  Including planning all of the stops and starts, you will want to pack food for lunch/ supper, and several changes of clothes as the trails can be very muddy.

Our trip was semi-doomed from the beginning as we tried to squeeze everything into one day.  The correct way to plan this trip would be to allocate 3 full days.  Certainly a minimum of 2.  I would recommend a 9 day trip to Maui — 3 days at the beach, 3 days on the RtH, and finish with 3 more days at the beautiful Maui beaches.

The main problem with 1 day on the RtH is that it is just too much to consume.  Think of it is as the most magnificent Thanksgiving feast you have ever laid eyes on.  You’re going to want to pace yourself.  If you want to consume this entire feast for your eyes properly, it is going to take some time.  We allocated a max of 30 minutes per stop (most were closer to 10 minutes).  That short time was necessary to see all of the sights in a day, but not long enough to truly consume everything they offer.  While trying to relax, I consistently felt rushed to keep moving.

Tip #2: Ride with the top down

Renting a convertible was absolutely the best decision we made in our entire 9-day vacation in Hawaii.  The open top allowed us to both take in the sights with little obstruction and a large percentage of the journey includes foliage overhead.  The average driver is going to spend 90% of the drive focused on staying on the winding road.  The 10% of the time I was not focusing all of my attention on the road, it was great to be able to see the panoramic views with no obstruction.  For the minimal price increase over a standard car, this is an absolute no brainer.  I’m glad we followed this recommendation from a Maui guidebook that I read before the journey.

There were two slight drawbacks that I need to mention.  First, the “open air” was very cold with the wind blowing on our 1.5 hour drive to Paia before the sun came up.  Our remedy — with no sweaters or long pants, we turned the heat on full bore.  Problem solved.  Second, the sporadic rain.  When you’re in a rain forest, it is going to rain.  The problem lies in the fact that the vehicle needed to be going less than 5 mph to activate the top going up.  And when you stop on a road where passing is somewhere between very dangerous and impossible; cars are not thrilled to stop.  Our remedy — drive faster when it rained so that less rain fell in the car.  We put the top up on two separate occasions early in the venture.  Then just forget about it.   Overall, we loved our new Mustang!

 

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The Journey

To beat most of the traffic, we planned on arriving at the first destination at 6:00a before sunrise and staying until it fully rose at 6:30a.  That didn’t quite happen, but we were close.  We woke up at 4:30 am (note this is 10:30 EST, so it is not as bad as it sounds).  We ate a small breakfast in our room, packed our final belongings for the trip, and hit the road at 5:30 sharp.  The temperature was a chilly 62 degrees with strong trade winds coming off the ocean.  Our drive from the northwest side of Maui to Paia was expected to be about 1.5 hours per Google Maps, but I made it in a little over an hour with minimal traffic on the road.  The first 20 minutes of the drive was along the west coast and the remainder through north-central Maui until we reached the northeast corner.

Once we passed through the small town of Paia that was still largely asleep, we were immediately granted sweeping ocean views.  The drive out of Paia starts at sea-level and climbs very quickly into the mountains.  It is only a couple of miles before Hwy 36 changes names to Hwy 360.  It is important to reset your odometer here as every stop along the way is based on the mile marker (MM).  Many stops are very hard to find and your odometer is your only guide.  Our entire journey consisted of subtracting .5 miles from the odometer reading because we shot past our first stop and had to turn around.

Twin Falls

Just past MM 2 and around a sharp curve is a fairly large parking lot that leads to Twin Falls.  We missed it the first time simply because we were shocked that the lot was empty.  Surely we were not the first ones.  After we got out and read a couple of the “we are not liable if you get hurt. Proceed at your own risk” signs that are frequent along the journey, we made our way to the falls.

There are several parts that make the journey unique.  First, we were blatantly trespassing onto private land (albeit the landowner knew and openly allowed people to do this).  Secondly, there are virtually no signs pointing you in the right directions.  There is nothing that says, “Twin Falls this way.”  So, here we were 4,400 miles from home all by ourselves on a journey for the ages.  The rugged dirt path split after about 20 yards and I chose to go left.  Assuming that would lead us further away from the source of the rain and a better shot of landing at the bottom of the falls.

Shortly after the trail split, we could hear the gushing water, and it became natural instinct from there.  The hike was only about 5 minutes and fairly safe, with the exception of a ~15 foot drop over boulders right before your first vision of the falls.  My understanding is that these falls vary greatly based on the amount of rain received just to the west.  It must’ve rained a significant amount in the previous week because both falls were furiously flowing .  I considered swimming, but quickly thought better of it with no one around to save me if I fell on the slippery rocks.

A quick note on the pictures below– it is very difficult to photograph both falls in one shot because the bottom of the falls are in heavy forest.  Secondly, I brought a cheap Amazon tripod along for the journey to take pics.  Without this, we would of had very few photos with both of us in them.  As a beginner, I shot most photos in the 50 millimeter range through the stock lens of my Canon T6.  All told, we took over 800 pics on the road to Hana.

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The Drive

There is nothing of significance between MM 2 and MM 10, but this is a great place to take in the sheer beauty of your surroundings.  The goal is not being the fastest to arrive in Hana, rather the journey is the reward.  As they say, “you don’t go to Hana, Hana comes to you.”

After twin falls, the plants start to get very dense to your right, and some of the best ocean views are in this section (albeit not a lot of turnouts that allow stopping and taking photos).  Here is a picture of one of the 56 one-lane bridges on the path (around MM 4).  Most bridges look very similar to this.  The second picture shows just how dense the rainforest becomes.  The third (taken from the driver’s seat) gives you an idea of the drop you are looking at if you miss a curve.  Finally, the fourth shows one of the many pictures we took looking straight above us on the road.

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Haipua’ena Falls

At about the 11.5 MM, these falls are probably the most difficult of all to locate.  There is an extremely narrow path on the south side of the bridge that leads you on a rough 50 yard hike to these falls.  With the sporadic rains, I’m assuming we just hit these falls at a dryer time as they were barely flowing.

We had a rare encounter with a fellow tourist on the trail.  A young mom of a 14-month old was on the trail alone because her child was sleeping in the back of their SUV with her husband (he helped me locate the small trail).

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Ke’anae Peninsula

The most defined peninsula on the RtH, Ke’ane [KEH-ah-ny] jets out far from the coast line.  There is a good spot to view them from the Kaumahina State Wayside just past MM12, but we skipped this spot hoping to get a better view at MM 13.  Unfortunately, they were paving 1 side of the road at this MM and we were not allowed to utilize the well-defined turnout to stop for pics.  These pictures I took from our car are the only ones we managed to take.

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Honomanu Bay

At mile 14.5, there is a well-defined turnout that overlooks Honomanu Bay.  This a nice place to stop and relax with a bench to sit and take in the view.  The first two pics are to the left if you are facing the ocean.  The third is straight-out and the final one shows the view straight-down.  This view is very telling as it is the first time you start to jet out from the coast and the edge of the east-side of the road is less-steep than the first 10 miles.  Finally, the tripod in action.

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Upper Waikani Falls

Between MM 19 and 20, these falls are easy to spot right at the one-lane bridge.  There is no parking here, but there is a turnout just up the road 800 feet.  It is a little scary walking around the two blind curves on the way back down to the bridge, but be cautious and you will be fine.  These falls are absolutely beautiful.

This is one of our favorite pictures from the trip.  As we were scrolling through, we found it comical that I was magically inserted into picture #2.  Note that pic #3 is of the water pouring down on the north side of the bridge (look on the far side of the fifth picture).  The last 3 pics show the blind curves and our journey down to the falls.  That “one-lane bridge” sign was all too common on the journey.  I do not recount any two lane bridges between Paia and Hana.  Fortunately, very few cars were venturing north, so we only had to yield to oncoming traffic a few times.

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More Waterfalls

Did I mention that there are a lot of waterfalls on the RtH?  Up to 360 inches of annual rainfall in the elevated areas above the RtH will tend to make that happen.  These photos are all just off the road.  Note how close all of these are in proximity to each other.

The first two photos are Wailua Falls close to MM 21.  The third pic is Hanawi Falls around MM 24.

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Nahiku

Just past the 25 MM, there is a very small road that leads to the ocean, Nahiku[nah-HEE-koo] Road.  It is very easy to miss and there is a sign upon entry to the road “bridge out 2 1/2 miles ahead.”

This was one of the most mysterious places I have ever visited in my life.  It is a “town” buried in the midst of some of the most dense rainforest you will find.  This quote from author Andrew Doughty summarizes Nahiku, “when plants go to heaven, Nahiku must be their destination.”  The 2.5 mile road leading to the closed bridge is filled with potholes and blind turns.  Not to mention that this entire road is one lane (the one being generous).  The ~10 minute drive is very, very eerie.  After turning off the RtH, there is nothing around.  A couple of abandoned cars on the side of the road, dense forest, and you.  When we finally arrived at an opening, we saw the school, the church, and some mailboxes.  No people.  No commotion.  No nothing.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dog comes running and jumps up on my car.  “Oh crap, I hope they don’t charge me for that scratch.”  We were suddenly very confused.  Again, a school, a church, and a row of mailboxes.  We could see nothing else.  After what seemed like a couple of minutes, we finally got our bearings and found a small dirt road.  We looked down in our guidebook and it said to park under “the” Banyan tree.  You would think that “a tree” would be hard to spot in this place.  But not this one:

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The second picture above is just to the left of the tree and shows some of the tropical plants in Nahiku.  More to come on the Banyan tree in a future post.

After we got out of the car, we were confronted by two other stray dogs.  The original dog sort of chased them away and then proceeded down a path in the opposite direction.  Not knowing where we should go, I told Cari that we should follow the dog.  He must know what he is doing.  She reluctantly agreed.

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Just look at how thick everything is on the side of the road.  It was us and a stray dog in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  We named him “Jake.”  After a solid 10 minute hike that led us across the “closed” bridge that appeared to be closed for the last 50 years, we eventually found the ocean.  The pictures here do not do this place justice.  It was stunning.  Very peaceful and relaxing.

The first two pictures below are in a little cove with a small waterfall to the right as you are looking at the picture.  Mr. Doughty puts this location into words better than I ever could — “What a spot!  As you stand there in your own private heaven, you can’t help but wonder if there’s a more beautiful place in the world.”

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Pic #3 above was about 50 yards south of pics 1 and 2.  This is where the ocean really opens up to panoramic views if you stand out on the boulders of lava.  This was probably Jake’s favorite spot.  He was in 75% of the pics we took in this area, so we had to crop him out.

After our mini photo shoot, Jake grabbed us a coconut and led us back to our car.  He was one of the cutest stray dogs I have ever seen.  Along the trail, he was weaving in and out of the trees.  Even finding some streams of water to play in.  We were a little slow for his liking.  After we got back in our car, he probably followed us for a 1/2 mile.  Suddenly, another car passed us headed for the ocean and Jake was onto his next journey to the ocean.  What a life for a dog.

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Wai’anapanapa Beach

Shortly past MM 32 is the entrance to Wai’anapanapa [why-NAH-pah-NAH-pah] park.  Of all the Hawaiian words I attempted to pronounce on the voyage, this one stood out.  I have to believe the native Hawaiian’s could have found a way to remove at least one of the a’s.  For what it’s worth, it means “glistening fresh water.”  Regardless of the pronunciation, this place is a must stop!  The black sand on Wai’anapanapa is one of the most unique places you will find on the journey.

We arrived a little after 11 am and were both starving.  Let me be clear — we were “snacking” on everything from granola bars to nuts to fruit snacks.  However, this journey will take a lot out of you and 11 am HST is the equivalent of 5 pm EST.  That meant it was time to take a break.  Our main entree?  PB&J.

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This was a great place to take a quick break and enjoy the ocean views from an elevated position.  Not surprisingly, a lot of tourist had the same idea to eat lunch on the picnic tables here.  Luckily, we beat most of them here as they were swarming in when we left an hour later.

After lunch, we walked down to the beach and went through a cave created by lava.  Pretty neat to see a “lava tube” as they call it.

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After the cave, we both went swimming in the beach.  The black sand beach was formed entirely of lava rock which seemed to rush out quickly when the tide went out and rush back up just as fast when it came in.  If you think a lot of sand moves on a regular beach due to the tide, this is 10x that amount of movement.  It feels like the entire floor underneath you is being swept away as the tide comes and goes.  Very difficult to swim here.

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Finally, we got as much lava out of our water shoes & other orifices as possible (easier said than done).  Then we headed back to our convertible to continue the journey.  Before reaching the summit, we snapped a couple of final pictures of this amazing beach and it’s surroundings.

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Hana

After the black sand beach, the town of Hana starts just past MM 34.  As I stated earlier, the reward is the journey.  This is one of the rare instances where you are driving and the goal is not to reach the destination.  As such, Hana is not a “must-stop.”  We never considered stopping to explore in this small, quaint town (largely due to time constraints).  If I were to come back, however, I would definitely plan to spend a night here and explore as this is the perfect stop 1/2 way through the entire journey.

Even if you were to make no more stops, the average tourist is 3 hours from their hotel at this point.  Hardly a short drive in either direction.  Option 1 is turning around and going back north on the road just traveled.  Option 2 is continuing the loop heading southwest around the vaunted “backside” (more to come).

Because of the very remote nature of the town and small number of hotels, the prices here are high even for Maui.  The average base room starts @ $450/ night versus the $350- $400 that I found on the average beachfront hotel in Maui.  While there are several very small towns along the RtH, Hana itself is the only one large enough for hotels.

Red Sand Beach

While we did not stop in the middle of the town of Hana, I suppose you could call this beach a part of the town of Hana.  To reach it, you turn off the main highway and park on a small street aside of “Hana Community College.”  This beach is by far the hardest to find.  I wish we had a detailed map showing us where to go.

After you park, there is no indication where the water is or how to find the red sand beach.  Fortunately, another couple had just pulled up in their Mustang at roughly the same time we did.  They led us through an open field and then a small trail that basically hit a dead-end at an old rickety shed.  I tried to find something through some very dense forest to avail.  We turned around and start over.

On the second attempt, we veered more to the right in the middle of the pasture and eventually found our way.  The trail was not very good and the actual path to get to the beach was steep.  It was well past 1:00 by this point and I knew we had several more stops to make and a long drive before the 6 pm sunset.

In frustration, we decided to turn back instead of follow a long trail along the coastline.  I later found out that the true “red” sand beach is about a 10 minute hike from where we were standing.  If we were ever to come back, I would make this stop a priority.  The two pics below show where we made it.  The third pic is what we were seeking.

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Wailua Falls

After passing through Hana, the road immediately starts to get worse and the mile markers randomly jump to 51 (it’s actually about 3 miles between MM 34 and MM 51).  From 51, they count down the rest of the journey.  The road continues as two lanes, but there are suddenly more potholes and the pavement is awful.  I will also note that we planned on stopping at Hamoa Beach close to MM49, but ran out of time and could not stop.

Just after MM45 is Wailua falls just north of a one-lane bridge.  These falls are very pretty and likely the tallest on the RtH.  The best part is that there is no hike to see the falls.  You can view them on the drive through.  There are two downsides.  First, this is a popular spot for the tour buses to stop as there is a large parking lot just past the bridge on the left.  That creates a swarm of people all in one spot. Second, the only real viewing angle is from that one lane bridge.  This creates a constant juggling act of dodging traffic coming from both directions.  Finally, there is a large tree overhanging the bridge that obstructs a good portion of the view.

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Seven Sacred Pools

The final stop for most folks comes at MM 42.  ‘Ohe’o Gulch (AKA “The Seven Sacred Pools”) is a state park with a reasonable $20 entrance fee.  After parking in the large lot, there is about a 10 minute hike to the “seven pools.”  They are difficult to describe because I have never seen anything like it.

To the south, there is a “valley” formed through the mountain that leads out to the ocean.  This is one of the few areas where you do not get a panoramic view of the ocean.  This deep valley creates a strong wind tunnel coming from the ocean.  So strong that on the day we were there it was difficult to walk on the jagged rocks while being pushed by the wind.

As you look to the north, there are numerous pools of standing water formed by the lava rock.  And then as you look up, there are several cliffs and several flowing falls that gently stroll down from hundreds of feet above.  This is a very popular spot for cliff jumpers as there are countless spots you can jump from and the water is relatively deep in the largest “pool” to the north.

Once you enter the water, all of the rocks are very slippery as one would expect.  Care and I both swam for a short bit, but I was a bit more adventurous and climbed up to the actual falls themselves.

The first two pics show the opening to the ocean on the south side of the falls.  The last two show my encounter with the falls, and give you an idea of how high the falls climb.  As you can see in the 5th pic, there are multiple falls that enter a stream and all flow into the pool below.  A picture from a higher elevation would show several more of these falls not shown here.

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The “Backside”

After reaching the most popular tourists attraction (the 7 Sacred Pools), the majority of travelers turn around and repeat the entire drive in reverse.  For those that are a little more adventurous, there is the option to continue the loop along the southern coast of Maui.  However, there are good reasons that most people skip this and turn back.

First, the road becomes one lane shortly after MM40 and the road is largely unpaved.  With blind turns, large elevation changes, cliffs aside of the road, and only one lane to share for traffic in going in both directions; it is understandable why tourist pass this up.

Secondly, the standard Maui rental car agreement strictly forbids you from traveling on this road.  It stands to reason why rental car agencies do not want their vehicles beaten up on this rough terrain  What exactly does this restriction mean?  My best understanding from extensive research on this topic is that the rental car company was not going to come tow us if you broke down.  And if you broke down here, it would be one of the most expensive tow truck rides in the world.  This area is very, very remote.  Hence, why I chose to rent a newly minted Mustang versus saving ~$100 by going with a 10 year old Mustang that may not be as reliable.  If it were not for my desire to “risk” continuing onto this rough terrain, I would have gone with the cheaper option.

The map below outlines the entire RtH and shows the restricted areas in red.  The “backside” essentially starts in the very Southeastern corner of this map.

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While there were several parts of this trip that were scary, I largely enjoyed the scenery and watching the sun slowly set right before our eyes.  There was never a time when I had “white knuckles” or sweaty palms. To stay safe, I frequently honked my horn going around blind turns, as the few locals on the road were much less cautious than me.

We did not make any “planned” stops from here on as it was a race to get out of the sweeping mountains before sundown.  However, we did make a couple of quick stops at the turnouts or stopped in the middle of the road as traffic was sparse.

A couple of quick notes about the pictures below — there were frequent “beware of cow” signs along the journey and many people reference the danger in hitting cows on the middle of the road.  In our journey, we only saw this small herd of cows roaming by the ocean.  Finally, the last four pictures below all show the backside 10,000 foot Mount Haleakala (more to come on this journey in a later post).

 

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Bringing it Home

In summary, I was stunned by the sheer beauty of the RtH.  Definitely an amazing trip for those looking for adventure.  When we planned our trip, I largely billed it as a “once in a lifetime” journey that we would never consider again.  At roughly MM10 that morning, I looked over to Cari and jokingly said, “can we come back tomorrow?”  And the next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t wait to plan our next visit back to Maui to return to the RtH.

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