Maui: The South Rim Road to Hana and Pīpīwai Trail at Haleakalā National Park


After taking in the view and monarch tree at Sun Yat-Sen Park, Sam and I continued our drive along the Pilani Highway towards Hana. The seascapes were immaculate as we ascended the south rim of Maui. We were one of the few cars driving the highway (and the only car going east, towards Hana, instead of away from Hana), but there were plenty of horses walking alongside the road. We let the ocean breeze blow through the windows as we tried taking in the scope of this place. This isolation and tropical paradise felt like a dream.

Driving the South Rim of the Road to Hana

We started coming back down from the rolling foothills of the volcano, easing closer to the shoreline. There was a scenic overlook on the edge of the road with an overlook, and we were shocked that no one else was stopped there. A fierce, gusting wind kept us back from the edge, reminding me that the spirit of this place is a living, powerful force still present today. I could have bathed in the colors of this scene for hours and never get sick of it.

Driving the South Rim Road to Hana - Ocean OverlookSouth Road to Hana - Ocean Overlook PanoramicSouth Road to Hana - Ocean Overlook View

We continued eastward. Our goal was to reach the Haleakalā National Park on the south shoreline. It would be the fifth National Park we’d visit in 2016, and we wanted to add it to our list. The Park occupies a massive 33,000 acres on Maui, stretching from the summit of the dormant volcano on the inner part of the island all the way to the south coast.

From our hotel in Kihei, the drive to Halaeakalā’s Visitor Center near Kaupo was estimated to take two hours. There was one rule that kept appearing over and over again as we researched the Road to Hana: make sure you’re off the route before the sun sets. We left Kihei shortly after noon and the sunset was scheduled for 6 pm. Based on the open road and expansive vistas we’d seen from higher up the mountain, we were confident we’d have an hour or two to explore the park once we arrived.

Little did we know what we were in for as we cruised along towards Kaupo.

Leaving the overlook, our route quickly changed. Rather than the road cutting through wide, expansive foothills, we delicately balanced on the side of cliffs on a two-way road that was barely over a lane and a half wide. I peeked glances over the edge of the steep dropoff into the aqua-blue ocean below, marveling at its beauty while trying not to think about how close we were to the edge. Sam white-knuckled the steering wheel, cautiously creeping around each blind corner.

South Road to Hana - Ocean OverlookSouth Road to Hana - Cliff Ocean Overlook

With each hairpin cutting sharply against the rock walls, we prayed another car wasn’t coming around the corner at the same time. Best case scenario: we’d crash into an oncoming car. Worst case scenario: we were the car that toppled off the edge and into the water. So, you know, comforting. It was more than just going around one-ish lane blind corners, though. We were also working our way down towards the shoreline, then back up again, then into a jungle, and finally back on a paved portion of the road as we approached Kaupo.

Driving the South Rim Road to Hana

We made it to Halaeakalā’s Kipahulu Visitor Center alive, breathing deeply with relief. Glancing at our watches, we didn’t have a lot of time here after all. Our cautious driving took far longer than we anticipated, leaving us with about an hour to explore the National Park before making the treacherous drive back to Kihei.

Our goal was to check out the Seven Sacred Pools, but they were closed due to high water levels (they’ve been closed indefinitely as of January 2017). That was a disappointment because it was a big draw for us coming all the way out here, but we had to shift gears. Instead, we chose the Pīpīwai Trail, which wound up through the rainforest and offered stunning views of various waterfalls nearby. 

Pipiwai Trail at Haleakala National Park in MauiTree on Pipiwai Trail at Haleakala National Park in Maui

Pīpīwai Trail also offered some of the muddiest conditions I’ve ever hiked in, leaving our shoes slathered in thick, heavy mud when we came back down. At least we had the foresight to not hike in flip-flops like some other visitors! If you’re going to do this hike—or any hike in Maui—don’t hike in flip-flops. You’re going to be miserable, filthy, and possibly without a shoe if it gets sucked into the mud abyss.

Pīpīwai was a good combination of tough hiking (the mud definitely factored in) and scenic views, but the trail was also overcrowded. Plus, in the back of our minds, we knew we still had a grueling drive back along the non-barricaded cliff walls to get back to Kihei. The anxiety of our drive here and the drive we had to make home lingered in our minds no matter how many stunning Hawaiian vistas we took in on the hike. 

Muddy, hot, and fairly exhausted, we hopped back in the car and started our drive back east along the coast. I convinced Sam to stop at a roadside fruit stall for some fresh produce, but other than that, we focused on getting back safely. Luckily, the drive back was much better than the ride out to Kipahulu. We drove with traffic instead of against traffic, and we were on the inside of all the curves instead of the outer edge. While it still took some time and wasn’t a relaxing joy ride, it was nice to follow a few cars in front of us rather than being the only car advancing around the edges.

South Road to Hana - Fruit Stand near HaleakalaSouth Road to Hana - Fun Fruit Stand near Haleakala

We made it back within a reasonable time and met up with Fred and Ruth for dinner. After sharing our adventures with them, they told us they’d still like to see the South Road to Hana even if it meant some crazy driving. We set our sights on a day later in the week to make the whole loop around the Road to Hana, since it would be a full day to traverse so far around the island. 

It’s fascinating how early everyone goes to bed in Maui. Once the sun sets, the whole world settles into a quiet stillness broken only by the sound of gentle waves lapping at the shoreline or a tropical breeze rustling the palms. I’m naturally an early-to-bed kind of person so this was an easy adjustment for me. On this particular night, we all made our way to bed at an early hour to prepare for our snorkeling trip to Molokini Crater the next morning. More on that soon!

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