Hair-raising, jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring are excellent ways to describe the stunningly beautiful drives that you can enjoy (and perhaps dread) on Maui.
But for people using rental cars, there may be risks beyond the hairpin, cliffside curves. Blind bends and one-lane bridges aren’t the exception but the rule on many of Maui’s most beautiful routes. While the roads from Kahului Airport (OGG) to the resort clusters along the island’s western shoreline cut through plenty of greenery, they’re well-maintained inland roads that don’t show off the best of Maui. For that, drivers need to venture onto often-challenging coastal routes.
If you want to get off the beaten track and take in the best of the island’s majestic scenery, these are Lonely Planet’s picks for the best road trips on Maui.
Hana Highway: Maui’s most famous road trip
The most famous Maui road trip, the Hana Highway stretches 52 miles from just east of the airport to the village of Hana (population 782). Known for its ocean views and roadside waterfalls, the road is also notorious for its 59 bridges, most of them single-lane, and a mind-boggling 620 curves. While relatively short in distance, the drive can take uninitiated white-knuckled motorists as long as 4 hours.
This famous itinerary has regrettably become rather overburdened by its popularity, and traffic congestion and illegally parked cars regularly clog local roadways. Tourism officials now recommend experiencing the route on a guided tour.
Haleakalā Highway: the ascent to the volcano’s summit
The Haleakalā Highway, also known as Crater Road, begins at sea level in Kahului. Over the following 37 miles, the road climbs 10,000ft to the summit of the volcano, famed for its stellar vistas, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Though there are plenty of twists and turns along the road, it’s not nearly as intimidating as Maui’s coastal roads.
It’s not uncommon to encounter significant climate changes during the drive, including fog when clouds settle on the slopes. At an elevation of 7000ft, the entrance station to Haleakalā National Park is where rangers collect admission fees. Park passes also allow admission to the Pools of Oheo on the volcano’s southern slope.
The back road to Hana: the alternate route hugging Haleakala
A little-known alternative to the Hana Highway is Paulani Highway (or simply the “back road to Hana”), which connects Hana to Wailea.
This road less traveled hugs the seldom-seen southern side of Haleakalā Volcano and also has its share of one-lane bridges and sharp curves, along with some unpaved stretches. That’s why car rental companies either discourage or ban its use (check with your rental company before departing). Those concerns stated, the views of the blue ocean from this “back road” are boundless and beautiful.
Heading east toward Hana, visitors encounter three seaside churches. First is St Joseph’s, founded in the 1860s by Catholic priests serving as missionaries. Next, there’s Huialoha Church, which is even older: its first services were held in 1847, and the remains of the original coral-and-wood church are still visible. Continuing toward Hana, travelers will see signs for the historic Palapala Hoomau Congregational Church, where Charles Lindbergh is buried. The pioneer aviator lived the last years of his life in relative seclusion on Maui.
Just a short distance outside Hana are the popular Pools of Oheo, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools. On a hot day, relax and refresh with a dip in one of the pools. Pipiwai Trail leads to the 400ft Waimoku Falls.Although on the opposite site of the volcano from the summit road, the trails and pools are part of Haleakalā National Park, so admission fees apply.
Upcountry Maui: serenity on the verdant slopes
From nondescript Kahului, head east on the Hana Highway for a few miles to Paia, a windsurfer’s paradise that’s home to plenty of shopping and dining choices. Right in town, turn away from the ocean on Baldwin Ave, named for the sugar baron whose disused mill still stands on the right side of the road.
Pass through pineapple fields on the way to Makawao, another charming village with a cowboy vibe: Hawaiians have been herding cattle here for roughly 200 years. Check out the boutique shops and art galleries before following Highway 400 upcountry to Kula. At 3000ft, its fertile, volcanic soil makes the region ideal for growing everything from lavender to sugar cane. Hundreds of varieties of plants including tropical flowers can be enjoyed at Kula Botanical Garden. Also plan to visit the Holy Ghost Mission, an octagonal church that once served the Portuguese migrants who toiled on Kula’s plantations. Built in 1894, it was a gift from the king and queen of Portugal.
Highway 37 returns travelers to Kahului.
Kahekili Highway: a beautiful North Shore nail-biter
Delightful visual treats await along Highway 30, the West Maui coastal road linking Wailuku and Kapalua.
Don’t be fooled by the wide, comfortable two-lane highway at both ends of the coastal trek. As you motor up the cliffs, the sights are breathtaking – but faint-of-heart drivers will tightly grip their steering wheels as the road dramatically narrows.
Fittingly called “West Maui’s Road to Hana,” this gorgeous route is replete with steep drop-offs and one-lane bridges – and short stretches of one-lane road, too. Drivers need to heed road signs; slow down and be prepared to stop, or even back up, to let oncoming motorists squeeze past. Courtesy and common sense are essential.
Intrepid travelers will be rewarded with unforgettable views of the ocean on one side and verdant valleys on the other. Unlike the Hana Highway, this road provides ample spots to pull over to enjoy the vistas. Novice drivers should steer clear of this one, with its winding turns around vertiginous cliffs. It’s also not to be traveled at night or during a rainstorm.
Take a break from the road with a visit to Kahakuloa. Located just off the highway, the village is home to around 100 descendants of Native Hawaiians who once fished the nearby waters. Refresh with shave ice from Lorraine’s or banana bread from Julia’s.
Tips for Driving in Maui
While driving in Hawaii, be sure to pay attention to all signage. Don’t go beyond warning signage or barriers – even if just to park briefly. Fines of up to $235 can be issued for cars stopped along the road to take photos.
Resist the urge to explore off the beaten path since doing so might find you trespassing on private property or violating cultural restrictions.
On coastal roads, rain can create real danger. In addition to slippery conditions, flooding and mudslides can bring traffic to a halt.
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