This post was originally published in December 2015 and was updated in January 2020.
As I mentioned in my Maui post, the Road to Hana is a winding and narrow rainforest drive that's a highway only in the technical sense of the term. Distance-wise, it's only about 60 miles to Hana, but your journey will take all day: there's a 25 mph speed limit for much of the route, dozens of one-lane bridges, frequent photo stops, detours for hikes, and multiple swimming opportunities. There's no conceivable way to see every stop along the way in one day, so pick the sights that look most interesting and relax and enjoy the drive.
From a culinary standpoint, the Road to Hana can be hit and miss—while there are food stands along the way, their hours are often inconsistent. If you prefer to eat on specific schedule or if you have certain dietary needs or preferences, bring your own snacks and a picnic lunch.
For me, the Road to Hana serves as a needed reminder there is whole lot more to travel than the food. On each trip to Maui, our drives on the Road to Hana have been glorious: sweeping vistas of the ocean, hikes through a lush rainforest, tumbling waterfalls along the roadside, body surfing at an idyllic beach, and just breathing in the humid, fragrant air with the windows rolled down and gentle Hawaiian melodies on the radio. This post might be short on tips about nifty local eateries, but it will still help you enjoy the journey.
That's what driving the Road to Hana is all about.
Road to Hana tips:
Take a guidebook (we've used Lonely Planet's Discover Maui) that lists the sights both by landmarks and mileage marker, or use a GPS-enabled app (I recommend GyPSy Guides' Road to Hana). This Road to Hana website offers a comprehensive list of sights by mileage marker, but the directions aren't as detailed as Lonely Planet's and since you won't have phone service for most of the drive it's not as useful as GyPSy Guides.
Fill up your tank with gas before you leave Kahului. The only gas station along the route is in Hana.
Bring water and snacks (especially if you have dietary preferences and are prone to crabbiness when hungry. Not that I would know anything about that). There are some roadside stands along the way, but since many have erratic hours, it's better to be prepared.
Wear your swimsuit and bring a beach towel—there are several opportunities along the way for an impromptu dip. Some of our favorite spots for swimming are the waterfall-fed pool at Pua'a Kaa State Wayside Park (mile marker 22); Koki Beach for experienced body surfers (mile marker 51, after Hana—note that the mile markers go backwards after Hana); and Hamoa Beach (mile marker 50).
Bring hand sanitizer. While there are bathrooms with running water at several stops, soap isn't available. (This is also good tip for Hawaiian travel in general, since most beach park, state park, and municipal bathrooms don't have soap.)
A subjective list of my favorite sights on the Road to Hana:
Twin Falls (mile marker 2) is a bit of a crowded tourist trap, but if you get there first thing in the morning before the crowds it's a fun spot. However, I'd skip it if you want to make two or more swimming stops.
The Waikamoi Ridge Trail (mile marker 9.5) is a relatively quick and easy hike that gives you a taste of the rain forest's lushness—allow about 30 minutes if you want to walk at a leisurely pace. The trail is muddy, so wear sensible shoes.
Although they're not native to Hawaii, I loved the painted eucalyptus trees at the free Ke'anae Arboretum (mile marker 16). The arboretum also features a small bamboo grove, breadfruit tree, and taro ponds.
Take a short detour to see the waves crashing against Ke'anae Peninsula (turn off past mile marker 16). If you'd like a snack, stop at Aunty Sandy's Banana Bread. Our loaf was still warm from the oven, delectably moist, and rich in banana flavor.
Upper Waikani Falls (mile marker 19) is also known as Three Bears Falls—when the water flow is just right, it forms a row of three waterfalls that decrease in size. There's only enough room for a few cars to park at the waterfall, but if you continue further down the road it's wide enough to park and walk back to the falls.
As I mentioned above, Pua'a Kaa State Wayside Park (mile marker 22) has a waterfall-fed pool that makes for a scenic swim, albeit a chilly one. Scrambling over the rocks and muddy trails to the pool is a bit of an undertaking.
Hana Farms (mile marker 31) is a slick farmstand with produce, baked goods, food souvenirs, gifts, an espresso bar, and during lunchtime, a grill serving up plate lunches, tacos, and sandwiches. The giant chocolate macadamia nut cookies are delectable.
Wai'anapanapa State Park has a stunning black sand beach (mile marker 32). There's a hiking trail along the ocean with great views, and the picnic area was a perfect spot to enjoy our packed lunch.
Koki Beach (mile marker 51, after Hana) is best for experienced body surfers. There are large waves and offshore rip currents, so swim at your own risk. However, it's worth stopping for the view of the picturesque 'Alau Island, which is topped by a single jaunty palm tree.
Hamoa Beach (mile marker 50) is a sandy beach that's great for sunbathing and swimming.
My favorite of the many, many waterfalls along the route is Wailua Falls (mile marker 45).
Some guidebooks advise against driving the "back side" of the Road to Hana (i.e. continuing around the island back to Kahului instead of doubling back after Wailua Falls). Sections of the road are unpaved and narrow, with blind curves that require you to honk before proceeding. It's isolated and there's limited phone service, so if you have car trouble, getting help will be a long and expensive undertaking.
On the other hand, the "back side" is a shorter route to Kahului, and the scenery is stark but awe-inspiring—the ocean on one side, the rim of the Haleakala crater on the other. We've driven the route three times in a compact car, and we didn't find it markedly more perilous than the Road to Hana. However, it is stressful, and if you're driving after dark there is more of a risk of a collision with the free range cattle that wander across the road.
If you have the money and the time, I think the best option is to spend the night in Hana so that you can drive back in the daylight, whichever route you take; that's our plan for our next trip to Hawaii. This blog post from Erin at Never Ending Voyage has more information about spending the night in Hana.
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