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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
The most famous road in all of Hawaii may also be the Aloha State’s most contested attraction.
Done right, the Road to Hana encapsulates all that makes Hawaii magical: Wading in pools under gorgeous waterfalls and hiking to tucked away beaches with sands in impossible colors. Done wrong, it’s a windy, nauseating, crowded highway to an uninspiring town, capable of ending a marriage before the honeymoon is over.
For me, the journey to Hana is my favorite activity in Hawaii. Each time, I discover new trails and can’t find old ones. A perfect waterfall for bathing could have dried up or become a dangerous rapid. My initial plans for the drive never pan out, but I always end up with a new appreciation — and reinforced love — for Maui’s eastern side.
Try these seven tips to experience the Road to Hana like one of its biggest fans.
1. Set Aside Multiple Days
The biggest mistake most people make when visiting Hana is trying to do it all in one day. You’ll battle the traffic with other day trippers, missing some of the drive’s highlights due to time constraints and eventually running out of daylight.
Despite being the most common approach, there’s no reason to rush this trip. With a night or more in Hana, you can linger at a waterfall or venture off on a side hike without checking your watch. Hana doesn’t have large hotels or points properties, but there are a handful of guesthouses, independent hotels and Airbnbs you can book instead.
Waianapanapa State Park rents rustic cabins (linens not included) and has cheap campsites. Just south of Hana, Kipahulu campground is part of Haleakalā National Park and has free camping with a park entry fee.
You can also visit Waianapanapa’s black sand beach or Hana’s red sand beach before the crowds arrive, perhaps even for sunrise. After, take a leisurely journey home, doing justice to the other side of the drive as well.
2. Leave Early — Or Late
To beat the crowds, you’ll want to pass Paia before 8am. A one hour difference on your departure can turn a leisurely scenic drive into a stop-and-go gridlock.
If you like to linger along the way as I do, it will probably be far enough along the highway that the crowd will be spread out as it catches up to you.
Or, if you’re planning to spend some nights in the Hana area, you can give the crowd a head start and leave after 10am. Take your time getting to Hana and arrive by sunset. You’ll have the next day to explore the area.
3. Use a Guidebook
It’s easy to get caught up in the flow of traffic, catch a glimpse of a few waterfalls in passing and park in Hana saying, “That was it?”
For this journey, you really want a guide. I’m a huge fan of “Maui Revealed,” part of the entertaining Hawaii Revealed guidebook and app series. To the chagrin of many locals, these guidebooks have exposed Hawaii’s hidden secrets to the outside world. And the Road to Hana is full of hidden secrets.
Audio guides are also available, and can keep you from needing to consult a book — a much safer option if you’re driving solo. Shaka Guide GPS audio tours come highly recommended and can be downloaded as an app. But if you still think of an “app” as something you eat before the main course, perhaps the Experiencing the Road to Hana audio CD guide is a better fit for you.
4. Plan a Few Stops
While you want to leave room for exploration, serendipity and stumbles, there are highlights you won’t want to miss. Review the guidebook chapters or listen to your guides in advance. Note the spots you definitely want to hit, and prioritize those over the temptation to pull over at yet another waterfall if you’re short on time.
Also, when exploring, you’ll quickly realize Mother Nature didn’t design any of this with our entertainment or safety in mind. Many of these great stops require tricky or difficult hikes, while others have dangerous drop offs. There are attractions along the Road to Hana that appeal to travelers of all ages, and plenty that won’t work for small children or less-fit travelers. Know what works for you beforehand (your guide should tell you) so you won’t waste time on a spot that’s ultimately inaccessible to your group.
5. Don’t Miss These Sites
Three Bears Falls (Upper Waikani Falls) is a popular trio of waterfalls often photographed from the road, but most people don’t notice you can actually climb down into them. Across the bridge from the viewpoint on the side closest to the falls, there’s a hidden chain that can help you descend the steep rocks to the path. Footing is tricky, but the payoff is worth the effort. The three falls vary in intensity, so you’ll likely be able to comfortably swim under at least one.
After heavy rainfall, though, Three Bears Falls can get too intense for a swim. When this happens, move your playtime farther along the highway to Hanawi Falls, which looks like a scene from “FernGully.”
If you can handle a moderate 10-minute hike partially along a cliff edge, there’s the Red Sand Beach. Tucked in a bay hidden from Hana town, the trail feeds into a red walled canyon protecting a beach of black and red sands. The open ocean is buffered by jagged volcanic rocks, leaving peaceful wading pools along the beach.
South of Hana, Venus Pool (Waioka) is unlabeled and invisible from the road. But a short hike takes you to a large, serene pool that spills into the ocean, with tapering cliffs on one side and a beach on the other. This may be the best spot left on Hana Highway for cliff jumping, but it’s also great for wading or lounging on the rocks.
6. Respect the Land
Tension has grown over the years with the steady increase of tourists and secret local spots exposed by guidebooks — and the internet. The complaint is valid: Tourists now outnumber locals in spots that, 20 years ago, travelers never knew existed. Other spots have been closed off completely. Upper Puohokamoa Falls, for example, was my previous favorite falls to jump from, but now large fences keep anyone from even getting a peek. And previously legendary cliff jumping at the Seven Sacred Pools, part of Haleakalā National Park, has been banned completely after an injury and a lawsuit. Even swimming or approaching the pools is rarely allowed anymore.
While I understand the Hawaiians’ frustration, I don’t agree that these natural wonders on public land should be hidden from visitors. But if we are going to share in the appreciation, we need to respect the rules, residents and the land.
So don’t leave any litter behind, and respect the rules of the road. I saw many vehicles make “quick” stops on one-lane bridges or in areas clearly marked, “No Parking,” and these minor offenses add up to major annoyances for locals.
7. Drive the Backside
When it wasn’t washed out completely by landslides, the backside of Hana was once banned by car rental companies due to terrible road conditions. Many repeat visitors to Maui don’t realize this has changed. Rather than doubling back against traffic, continue on to complete a full circle of Maui’s eastern half.
Several more falls await past the Seven Sacred Pools, and eventually the jungle recedes to reveal a beautiful coastal drive that leads to rolling hills with panoramic ocean views. Hopefully, you’ve stayed the night in Hana and can take a leisurely drive with stops at a deserted black sand beach and a vineyard that makes wine from pineapples.
Hopefully, you’re inspired to put the Road to Hana on your Maui itinerary. It’s very possible that your journey will looking nothing like the pictures you see here, but if you take the same approach, you’re sure to find your own Hana magic. And you’ll understand why I — and many other travelers — keep going back for more.
Want additional advice for tackling the Road to Hana? Watch my recent Instagram takeover or listen to this episode of “Miles Away” for even more tips and tricks.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org!
All photos courtesy of the author.
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