Should I drive the Road to Hana (also known as the Hana Highway)? This seems to be a question that frequently comes up when it comes to visiting the waterfalls in the eastern side of the Hawaiian Island of Maui.
Since Julie and I have self-driven on the Road to Hana many times, we thought we’d give our take on this very topic.
As you can see from our Maui Waterfalls page, we’ve demonstrated that it certainly is possible to drive completely around East Maui via the Hana Highway and Pi’ilani Highway, but just because we’ve done it doesn’t necessarily it’s for everyone. And we’re going to explain why.
What Is The Hana Highway Like?
The Road to Hana or Hana Highway is a very twisty and narrow paved road, and it is by no means a relaxing drive. I don’t think the road itself even has any straight sections.
The one straight part that I can recall is off of the “highway” into the Wailua Settlement, where residents there generally don’t welcome tourists trespassing and snooping around their yards.
Also, just about all of the bridges are single lane so we really had to pay attention to the signs to know who had to the right-of-way and who had to yield.
And on top of all that, given the nature of this road, we had to take things slow while constantly being on alert for things such as…
- cars going the other way swerving onto our lane (especially at blind turns where they come up suddenly without notice),
- fast drivers tailgating us (typically from locals who know the roads very well),
- slick roads due to high rainfall since the Hana Highway is on the rainy windward side of Maui
If we were to drive from the accommodations in West Maui to Hana Town, it would probably take us at least three hours without stops. Of course, we’d have to double that time to get all the way back to the accommodation we started from.
Note that this didn’t even include stops along the way. So you can see how doing this drive with stops along the way can easily take the entire day or more.
Beyond Hana, the road continues further south. We feel that some of the best waterfalls are found beyond Hana so we definitely recommend continuing at least ‘Ohe’o Gulch. The road is still paved up until then.
However, beyond ‘Ohe’o Gulch, the road starts to become graded dirt. The dirt road may be bumpy in some stretches, but it was totally doable in our 2wd rental car. The unpaved road persists for a while until it eventually becomes smooth asphalt again when the Pi’ilani Highway picks up at the other end near South Maui.
There were a few sights along the way in this stretch of road such as Alelele Falls and the Pokowai Sea Arch.
However, most of this drive was pretty much more about the transition from lush tropical greenery back to dry and windswept grasslands and deserts as the road re-enters the leeward parts of Maui. We were also able to spot the Kaupo Gap and some old lava flows, which indicated the tendency of the lava to flow in this direction when Haleakala had erupted in the past.
I suspect that this was probably why the road was left as unpaved and graded. Why invest more resources into something that is not that well-used and might be prone to another lava flow when the volcano could wake up from its dormant state?
We knew that driving this section of the road was assuming a risk that if we damaged the rental car or had a flat tire, we would be responsible for it regardless of whether we took out insurance or not (they generally don’t cover you on unpaved roads).
We’d also have to figure out a way back to civilization if we somehow got stranded out there. These things do happen, and we generally do this thought exercise to be mentally prepared (not to mention drive slower and more deliberately to minimize the risk of damage). But at least we knew we were taking a calculated risk.
By the way, I’m aware of saving on rental car rates by declining the insurance and going with personal insurance (only optional if you’re from the States) or with the credit card’s rental insurance.
There are drawbacks to those, but that’s a topic for a different discussion that we won’t cover here. The bottom line is that we’re pretty much on our own in the areas the rental car company doesn’t want you to drive.
So now that you have an idea of what the Hana Highway is like and the time commitments involved, let’s get into some of the strategies that we employ to handle some of the issues we’ve highlighted above.
Strategies For Taking On The Hana Highway
Since I’ve spent years driving roads in Europe that were as narrow or even narrower, steeper, and more stressful than that of the Road to Hana, I’m actually not all that stressed out about this drive.
Of course I also recognize that people who aren’t used to driving such roads don’t have the luxury of learning the ropes over several overseas trips. Nor would these people be willing to put up with the inconveniences along the way.
It takes a certain adventurous spirit to put up with such uncertainties. So if you don’t have such driving experiences under your belt, here are some tips that I employ to make life easier on this drive. Perhaps you might find them helpful, too.
First, when Julie and I are intending to do the Road to Hana, we always get an early start. This means getting to the start of the Hana Highway by no later than 7am. So that means leaving say Lahaina or Ka’anapali no later than 6am.
In the past, we’ve been able to dovetail a Road to Hana drive immediately after seeking out a Haleakala sunrise, especially since those typically require a 2:30am departure to make the three-hour drive up to the summit in time for the event.
Regardless of whether or not the weather cooperates and we managed to catch the sunrise, we could then head back down the mountain and get a head start on the Hana Highway drive. If we didn’t do the sunrise, then we’d make sure to leave the resort no later than 6am.
Second, when we know we’re going to do the Road to Hana, we always have a plan. Given the drive times involved without stops, there’s no way you can do it all in a day. Something has got to give. At least six of the hours of the day will be spent driving without stops.
And you figure most of the stops will take a minimum of 15 minutes (typically much longer than that unless you’re on a whirlwind tour), and you can quickly see that the number of stops to make would be limited depending on how long each stop takes.
So by doing our research on what we think is worth doing, we would then prioritize them and make a plan of attack. We’ll get into what sights that we generally prioritize in the next section.
If we didn’t have a plan, it would be easy to get distracted by sights along the way. Then, one of two things would happen.
One, we’d either miss something we really should’ve seen but ran out of time. Or two, we’d wind up driving these twisty roads in the dark, which can be a pretty dangerous time to be driving here.
Third, when we are out on the Road to Hana, we can easily reduce the stress of being tailgated by faster drivers by simply pulling over at the nearest convenient pullout to let them pass.
We’re not in a rush, and we generally want to be able to spot pullouts or mile posts since they help keep us oriented while also helping us stick to our plan.
That said, I’ve been on the other side of the coin where I’ve been behind slower drivers refusing to use the pullouts, and I can easily share the frustration of locals who know these roads and aren’t in the mood to be forced onto someone else’s pace.
Trust me on this. Use the pullouts. And I guarantee you that the road will be safer for both you and the person doing the passing, and that you’ll be less stressed about having someone tailing you and dominating your rear-view mirror.
Fourth, we’ve actually split up the Hana Highway drive into two days by staying in Hana for a night.
This was probably one of the smartest things we’ve ever done even though the circumstances around the time we did this revolved around the Southeast Maui road being closed for years thanks to the October 2007 Kona Earthquake.
That said, this serendipitous stay made very obvious the benefit of breaking up the drive into two days.
Indeed, we could do more stops on the Hana Highway and not be worried about running out of daylight nor driving in the dark. And we’d have a second day to tackle half the distance as well!
If you’ve ever wondered how we were able to document so many waterfalling excursions on our Maui page, this was a big reason why.
Now since we exercised this option, we also have to say that we were double-booked for the Hana night as we had already secured several consecutive nights in Ka’anapali way out in West Maui.
The benefit of doing this was that we could leave most of our stuff in West Maui and not have to worry about our rental car being broken into from leaving stuff in the car. Of course the downside was that we had to pay extra to stay in Hana, when we had already paid for a night’s stay back in West Maui.
Fifth, no one said that you had to drive all the way around East Maui to enjoy all the sights while avoiding the unpaved sections. Actually, it’s possible to drive as far as Alelele Falls before turning back to minimize the amount of driving on unpaved roads.
Then on another day, it’s possible to approach the Pokowai Sea Arch from South Maui and the Pi’ilani Highway before turning back. That way, most of the entire stretch of unpaved road would be avoided, and thus we’d limit the exposure to the risk of damaging the rental car or getting a flat tire.
Finally, if all these tips and things to remember about driving the Hana Highway might seem like a bit much, well, there’s always the option of leaving the driving, the planning, and prioritizing work to someone who already has this down to a science.
Indeed, it can be very wise to go on a guided tour with a reputable company. After all, you’re generally going to Hawaii to relax, and if you can’t relax self-driving the Hana Highway, then why not go with a tour so you can both relax and see the treasures on this side of Maui?
Prioritizing The Sights – You Can’t Do It All In One Day
Even though this is at the end of the paved part of the Hana Highway, we can either choose to come here first, then visit the other sights on the way back out, or be disciplined enough to make it here no later than 2pm so there’s still time to leave before dark while enjoying the highlight of East Maui in ‘Ohe’o Gulch.
That said, the weather also has something to do with how we would visit the ‘Ohe’o Gulch. If the weather is clear (i.e. no threat of rain even upslope from where we’re at), then we’d make sure to leave ample time to visit the Lower Pools and chill out by the swimming holes.
However, if it’s raining or there’s any threat of rain, then we wouldn’t be staying as long as it would be way too dangerous to get near the water. Therefore, we’d be merely content to photograph the waterfalls and admire the scene a little bit before leaving.
In addition to these waterfals, we also like to stop at the Waianapanapa State Park with its impressive lava arches and black sand beaches.
If we were able to continue into Southeast Maui and around all the way back to South Maui, then we’d stop for Alelele Falls and the Pokowai Sea Arch, but that pretty much stretches the limit on what can be done in a day.
In fact, I’d say that trying to fit all of these things in a day would require a very early start (i.e. arriving at the Hana Highway just when the sun starts to rise, which means leaving Lahaina or Ka’anapali at least an hour before sunrise).
Indeed, having that second day makes all the difference.
Julie and I feel that you haven’t truly seen the best of Maui until you’ve seen its natural side. And the best way to see its natural side is to go waterfalling in East Maui.
If you come in prepared, then there’s really no reason why you couldn’t self-drive and have control over your own time as well as what you want to see and do.
That said, there’s a risk and responsibility involved in going it alone, and you have know what you’re signing up for. So in that regard, it’s totally understandable to leave the more unpleasant aspects about this excursion to a guided tour.
The bottom line is that there’s so much more to Maui than the resorts and kitschy things that keep you at the resorts.
We’re not trying to scare you with all the information provided here. Rather, we always believe that you’re better off knowing the truth, then deciding for yourself what to do next.
So with all that there is to consider regarding the topic of whether or not it’s wise to self-drive the Road to Hana then go all the way around East Maui or not, we hope that this article has helped you to make an informed decision about how best to experience what we think is the best of Maui.