In a nutshell: If you like the road less traveled, continuing on past Hana around Haleakala is an adventure worth taking. In about the same amount of time as it would take you to go back the way you came, you can see a side of Maui many miss.
Minuses: The road becomes rough for portions and rental car companies say “you’re on your own.”
Sound-bite: [~thinking~] (…cliff or cow…cow or cliff…cliff or [THUD!])
Note: This article covers Kipahulu to Ulupalakua. You will also pass though Keokea-Ulupalakua and Kula.
Most visitors will travel toward Hana in a clockwise direction, and when they reach Hana, they’ll turn around and head back the way they came. Usually this is either because the free maps in the “Driving Magazine” that came with the rental car say “driving here voids rental contract” or because they were mistakenly told there was nothing worth seeing and that the road was difficult to navigate in a regular car.
Does driving here void your rental car contract, and can the car even make it?
First, lets dispel the pure myth that it is difficult for regular cars to make it around this side of the island. It’s not. The short portions of the road that are unpaved are well graded and graveled – and except during extreme weather events, this entire road is perfectly navigable by any vehicle.
The second most often repeated myth, that driving on this side “voids your rental car contract” is actually based on a grossly exaggerated smidgen of truth. Put into context, the truth to this exaggeration won’t be enough to deter most folks with an adventurous spirit.
I called five rental car companies and, sure enough, when I called to ask, they all repeated this very statement word-for-word. But the nagging reality of what this statement means doesn’t actually add up – so, I pressed for a real answer. What all five reluctantly confirmed was pretty much the same thing: your contract will not be void – but if you get in trouble out here, you’re on your own to get yourself out of it.
So caveat emptor: if you smack into an unsuspecting cow around the other end of a blind corner, you’ll likely be paying for the tow truck (and maybe even the cow!)
For those seeking adventure, this open-vista driving tour is a fitting finale to a Road to Hana adventure. The trip will proceed through several climate zones as the scenery transforms from the lush jungle of Kipahulu, through ranchland, dry grasslands, lavascapes, and ultimately back into lush green views of cloud-forest. Most will pass through the back side after a full day of activity, so the less frequent stops will probably be welcomed by most. But if you’re like my wife (and the Energizer Bunny) there are plenty of options for more stops along this route to torture your mortal companion(s). If your timing is right, you’re also likely to witness a spectacular sunset over the impossibly blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
This drive is not for everyone. While there are recently just-resurfaced glassy-smooth stretches of asphalt, significant sections of the road are still relentlessly bumpy, having evolved over time into a sloppy mosaic of asphalt patches. (This is quite likely the real motivation to the rental car companies trying to discourage you from driving here: additional wear and tear they don’t wanna pay for.) There are also a few vertigo inducing “edge-of-the-cliff” moments. Throw in some unpaved stretches, and add a couple road-grazing cows for good measure, and real “city slickers” might think twice before embarking on this adventure.
If this sounds just like just the kind of fun adventure you’ve been lookin’ for, then keep on reading!
Past the Seven Sacred Pools
Once you pass Kipahulu you come to Kaupo, and soon after Kaupo the terrain begins to change dramatically. As you pass into the rain shadow of the massive Haleakala volcano, the jungle begins to give way to open space, then vanishes, replaced by exposed rock, tall grasses (usually brown, but occasionally exploding with life and color) and a few hardy plants adapted to arid climates. The vistas are spectacular, both mountain and ocean, and there are opportunities to adventure to unknown beaches – many of them black sand and rounded lava rock.
Following are Landmarks (with mile marker locations) that you’ll encounter as you drive from Kipahulu toward Ulupalakua:
(40.9 mm) Lindbergh’s Grave
GPS Coordinates: 20.651502,-156.054806
Just past the 41 mile marker on the ocean side look for the wood “Maui Stables” sign at Ho’omau Rd. This short road takes you to Palapala Ho’omau Church, the site of Charles Lindbergh’s Grave. The Hawaiian garden-style cemetery and surrounding grounds here are serene. Lindbergh held the special spirit of East Maui close in his heart, and when you visit, you’ll likely be able to feel why he chose this spot as his final resting place.
There is also small park (Kipahulu Point Park) accessible through the far side of the cemetery. The park is situated on the cliff’s edge overlooking the Kipahulu coastline, and is typically deserted. There are also two lonely concrete picnic tables sitting in the shade, just waiting for you to show up with your afternoon snack to keep them company.
Between the graves of Sam Pryor and Charles Lindbergh are six small informal grave markers. These small markers look less like graves, and more like chunks of an old sidewalk that children had scrawled their names in while the cement was still fresh. These faded slabs of concrete mark the graves for six of Sam Pryor’s gibbons. Pryor considered these small apes to be part of his family, and they were taken with him (around town, and around the world) as if they were.
Pryor, a wealthy airline executive, was also the person responsible for restoring this church to its original condition. Clearly his position afforded him significant influence in convincing clergy to allow animals to be interred beside humans, as Sam said “[to be] a part of posterity…there for my grandchildren to see.”
A colorful man many ways, Pryor came to live in Maui after WWII, largely because he was concerned about the threat of nuclear holocaust engulfing the mainland United States. Being a good friend of Charles Lindbergh, Pryor is also the reason Lindbergh found Maui. Lindbergh fell so in love with Maui on his very first visit, that he told Sam that he wanted to stay. Pryor responded by giving Lindbergh five acres of his land to settle on, and the rest is history.
(40.7 mm) Laulima Fruit Stand
GPS Coordinates: 20.651651,-156.059515
A hair past Ho’omau Rd., on the mountain side is Laulima Fruit Stand. Their claim to fame used to be a bicycle-powered smoothie blender – which, unfortunately thanks to the County of Maui is now gone (the blender, not the fruit stand!) 🙁 These guys certainly don’t deserve the lame review Maui Revealed gave them, and if you’re ready for a healthy refreshment break, this is a good stop for a farm-fresh snack or coffee.
(38.8 mm) Alelele Falls
GPS Coordinates: 20.649943,-156.085596
Just before you get to the 38 mile marker you will descend to sea-level and a rocky beach. There is a white bridge, with “Alelele Bridge” stamped in the concrete. On the mountain side a couple well-marked trails head through awapuhi (shampoo ginger), maunaloa flowers and mountain apple trees to the 60′ high Alelele Falls. Outside of winter (the rainy season) the falls are frequently only a trickle – but the pool is spring-fed year-round with crystal-clear fresh water. There are places to wade-in and sit in the shallow water, and the pool is always perfect for bathing. The energy here is strong, and when the awapuhi is in season (mid-late summer) you can practically see the pre-contact Hawaiians bathing here.
(38.7 mm) Popoiwi Heiau
Popoiwi Heiau looks like a rock wall up the hill – much older than other recorded heiau – this was constructed by what are thought to be the first settlers of Hawaii, settlers from the Marquesas Islands. Heiau are religious structures, most often used to make offerings to the Gods. There are actually remnants of around 50 heiau recorded in this district, so you may see one of the others. (Most heiau are difficult to pick out without a guide.)
An interesting side-note, is a theory that the second wave of Hawaiian settlers (from Tahiti) took over and began calling the Marquesan peoples Manehune (“commoners”, in Tahitian.) 1500 years later, the word was assimilated into the Hawaiian language to mean “lowly people.” When Westerners came and applied their somewhat broken understanding of Hawaiian, the definition became lost in the translation, and Menehune became the equivalent of Hawaiian forest elves.
(37 mm) “Oh, This is the Part of the Road Everyone Was Taking About!”
Around mile marker 37 the road becomes a mixture of paved and graded gravel/dirt road for 10 miles (after which it becomes a welcome stretch of brand-spanking new smooooth asphalt!) Believe it or not, you’ll find that much of the graveled road is a far better ride than the patchwork of paved portions before, during and after.
(35.1 mm) Mokulau
GPS Coordinates: 20.637609,-156.111842
Before you reach the 35mm a strikingly idyllic peninsula and church come into view. Dozens of small lava islets poke dramatically out of the ocean – This is Mokulau, which fittingly means “many islets.” There is a dirt access road at mm 35.1 that takes you to the Huialoha church and boulder beach. Don’t enter the ocean here, as the water is rough and the currents are unforgiving. The Huialoha Church was constructed in the 1850’s and lovingly restored by the Kaupo community in the 1970’s.
(34.9 mm) Kaupo Store
GPS Coordinates: 20.635895,-156.123646
Just past the 35mm is the Kaupo Store. This store is in the historic register and has been operating since 1925. A friendly, cluttered, no-nonsense general store unchanged from yesteryear. This is the kind of place you might have found “out in the country” (back home) 40 years ago – you serve yourself drinks out of an old white household refrigerator. There are old knickknacks, stacked here and there on the old rough-worn wood shelves. Old cameras and clocks are a favorite – but all kinds of odds and ends from years gone by humbly adorn this living time capsule. All said, this friendly place is largely going to be more of a colorful and friendly “last option for cold drinks and snacks” than a destination stop in itself. You won’t find another place to buy anything until Ulupalakua or Kula (where you will find most places close early!)
(33.7 mm) St. Joseph’s Church
GPS Coordinates: 20.634005,-156.138696
St. Joseph’s is an historic Catholic church built in 1862 and restored in the 1990’s. Now it is falling into disrepair, the roof leaks, and if something isn’t done soon it will probably become a ruin to sit alongside the remnants of the crumbling walls of the original church. The church reportedly holds services on the fifth Sunday of the month, but I couldn’t verify that as fact. The grassy lawn here is a great place to view the Kaupo Gap, as the church stands smack in the middle of the lava flow that poured out of it.
(33.7 mm) Kaupo Gap
GPS Coordinates: 20.702587,-156.147709
The Kaupo Gap: Take a look up to the summit of Haleakala. As you may already be aware, the Haleakala Crater is not actually a volcanic crater. The Kaupo Gap is a large opening formed from hundreds of thousands of years of erosion that was later partially filled back in by lava flows. Views of the gap are expansive and impressive, and as you’re driving through this area you can clearly see how the lava flowed down and filled in this area…wow, that’s a lot of lava!
(31 mm) Nu’u Bay
GPS Coordinates: 20.625198,-156.1795
Around the mile marker 31 area is Nu’u Bay. It is reported to be good for snorkeling and scuba – but I’m not too keen on recommending this place for anyone but intermediate to advanced divers and advanced snorkelers because conditions can be rough (especially in the summer) and it gets deep fast, with strong currents. If you’re a diehard and want to hit this spot, the gate is at 31.1 and a dirt road (may be 4wd depending on conditions) takes you to the parking area. Be sure to re-latch the gate shut when you pass.
(31 mm) Pu’u Maneoneo Petroglyphs & Village Ruins
As you pass mm 31 there is a trail through ruins of a pre-contact Hawaiian village with many intact petroglyphs. Many have been trying to find these, and they are currently contained in no guidebooks. Ed Fornataro who writes BigIslandHikes.com discovered the location a few years ago, and has written a dedicated article about the area for MauiGuidebook.com.
(29.9 mm) Huakini Bay
GPS Coordinates: 20.627887,-156.190708
A long beautiful rounded-rock beach that is a good pit-stop for just sitting and listening. When the waves crash on these rounded rock beaches it adds texture to the calming zen-sounds of the ocean’s rhythms.
(28.7 mm) Huakini Bay (Arch View)
GPS Coordinates: 20.624601,-156.209734
Another black sand/rock beach on Huakini Bay, this one is a great place to view and photograph the Pokowai sea arch. The sea arch is exactly like it sounds, a natural arch of land that formed with a hole through it.
(27.7 mm) Manawainui Valley
GPS Coordinates: 20.622387,-156.222094
The Manawainui bridge is comically oversized compared to the road connected to it. Over-engineered by the federal government (imagine that), it has plenty of room for you to park and take a peek up the stunning Manawainui Valley. This valley is also breathtaking from a helicopter, with some of the most heavenly waterfall views on earth. Helicopter tours will put you back about $250/head, but if that kind of money is in budget, the experience is well worth the price.
After the tease of new road stubs connected to the bridge are in the rearview mirror, you’ll be happy to know that smooth asphalt is just one more bumpy mile away.
From here the road also begins to slowly climb away from the sea and up toward Kula at 3000′ elevation.
As you begin your ascent, you’ll notice “new” lava fields toward the ocean. These are among the last eruptions of Haleakala, and in geological time, happened just yesterday. You’ll begin to have stunning views of La Perouse Bay, and behind you you may be able to see the Big Island of Hawai’i. As you continue further, Makena, Wailea and Kihei come into view on land, while off in the blue ocean our neighbor islands of Kahoolawe, Molokini, Lanai and Moloka’i come into view, one by one. From this bird’s eye view you can clearly see where “the wild” ends, and resort development begins – you also get a picture of how irrigation plays a role in keeping the developed areas of South Maui green. Further yet and the views become bi-coastal, where you can see entire south and north shores, and the isthmus in between. The views are memorable, and many.
The area in between coastal portion of the road and Ulupalakua is also home to Kahikinui (mm21) which is a slice of 23,000 acres from the summit to the sea (in the traditional ahupua’a) set aside for native Hawaiians, and which began to be resettled starting at the end of the 20th century. It is not much to see as there are few hearty homesteaders working with virtually no infrastructure – but it is the idea – a place that native Hawaiians can call their own, and fill a void that has ached in many of them to finally return to the ways of their ancestors.
This area may look unforgiving now, but thousands of Hawaiians lived and thrived here prior to western contact, when the area was more hospitable and native dryland forest was still intact. (More info – link to AP News article from 1997)
As the road continues, it begins to wind through progressively greener scenery. You will then come to Ulupalakua, and the Tedeschi Winery. If you had a full day in Hana, it is likely past closing time, so the winery should be scheduled for a “Upcountry Day.” (also see Keokea-Ulupalakua article.) Beyond Ulupalakua is Keokea and Kula – you’re now on a real highway, which begins a much more rapid straight-line descent toward Kahului at highway speeds.
Mile Marker Span: #42 (Kipahulu) to #15 (Ulupalakua) (Pi’ilani Hwy aka Hwy 31)
View Back Side of Haleakala in a larger map