“Congrats! You’re a winner of a trip to Maui.” I couldn’t stop re-reading the notification, I finally won a contest and it was big. Expedia and Fairmont Kea Lani were sending me and my husband on a Hawaiian adventure for entering an Instagram contest. The first thing I planned to do: take the Road to Hana, the most celebrated drive in the state. The winding highway is famous for revealing the wild, untouched beauty of the island’s east side.
We started on Route 36 in north central Maui, which eventually becomes Route 360, following the road as it hugged the coastline through lush jungle, plunging waterfalls, and tropical attractions. The highway has an outdated reputation of having bumpy, treacherous roads. Though the road may narrow and be curvy at points, it is now smoothly paved and was the highlight of our vacation.
For those feeling daunted, these following tips will help you experience the most out of your journey.
1. Leave early
Hana Highway may only be a little over 64 miles along, but a full day is required to tackle its twisting lanes and multitude of scenic attractions. With a 25 mph speed limit, it can take two to three hours without stops to reach Hana, and that does not include the time it takes to return. To leisurely enjoy the sights and evade traffic, it’s best to get a head start from Paia before 7:30 a.m. You’ll also want to keep a track of when the sun sets, the road is tricky to maneuver at night.
2. Fill up on gas
Don’t forget to check your gas tank before heading on your journey. Kalahui, a nearby major city, is a good place to fill up on fuel. Paia, the next town over and unofficial start of the Road to Hana, is where drivers will encounter the last station before hitting the highway. Though there is a service station in Hana, expect to pay high premiums for its remote location.
3. Plan your must-sees ahead of time
With over 20 stops, it’s impossible to hit every landmark in one day. It’s best to do a little research ahead to decide on must-see sights and how much time you’ll need to devote to them. Stuck on where to go? Here’s what what I recommend: Start with a quick warm-up trek on Waikamoi Ridge Trail, picnic by the rugged black sand beaches of Wai’anapanapa State Park, hike through the bamboo forest on Pipiwai Trail, and then cool off in the nearby Pools of Ohe’o.
4. Enjoy the journey
The Road to Hana is not about rushing to a destination, it’s about savoring Maui’s natural wonders and local gems. Once you’ve decided your must-sees, fill in the remaining time with spontaneous stops at smaller attractions like scenic overlooks, roadside vendors, and waterfalls.
5. Expect to lose cell phone service
Hana Highway runs along an isolated part of east Maui that is shielded by Haleakalā Volcano. This means that cell phone reception is spotty at best and most likely non-existent along the majority of the road. Hana Town and the Ke’anae Peninsula are your best bets for finding coverage. Take screen grabs of important information on your mobile phone before you leave and use offline apps for wayfinding.
Viewfinder Tip: The Road to Hana is not about rushing to a destination, it’s about savoring Maui’s natural wonders and local gems.
6. Pack provisions
Since stores and restaurants are few and far between, it’s a good idea to pack some key items for your road trip—water, snacks, bug repellent, and sunscreen are essential. If you plan on doing any hiking or swimming, consider bringing both flip flops and a sturdy pair of shoes, plus a towel and change of dry clothes. With poor data coverage, it’s also helpful to have a guidebook and map handy. Music CDs or an auxiliary stereo cable for your mobile phone can keep the tunes going since there’s very little in the way of radio stations.
7. Don’t leave valuables in the car
Maui may be paradise, but unfortunately there is a high rate of vehicle break-ins. Rentals are particularly popular targets. Never leave anything valuable in the car or left in plain sight. Conceal items before you reach your destination so you won’t be scoped in the parking lot. The Hawaii Police Department’s website recommends not leaving any forms or paperwork out either, they may attract thieves attempting identity theft.
8. Parking is limited at many stops
While many of the major national and state parks offer big parking lots, most of the smaller attractions usually only have spaces for two to six cars. Don’t be surprised to find all of those spots taken. If there’s a shoulder where you can wait safely, parked cars usually pull out every few minutes. You may just have to move on and find another magical site to explore. Don’t worry, there’s one around every corner.
9. Know where to find the public restrooms
Nothing is worse than not knowing how long you have to hold it before finding a bathroom. Many of the major parks have public restrooms. Among them are: Ho’okipa Beach Park, Pua’a Ka’a State Wayside Park, Wai’anapanapa State Park, and Haleakalā National Park’s entry to the Pools of Ohe’o and Pipiwai Trail. There are also many food vendors and privately run sites that allow patrons use of their facilities.
10. Return via the backside of Hana
Most travelers arrive at the Pools of Ohe’o just past Hana and turn around, retracing the highway back towards Paia. But continuing on through the less-explored, shorter backside of Hana yields some of the most dramatic views of the entire trip. The road opens up to expansive black rock beaches, windswept grasslands, and rugged lavascapes spewed by Haleakalā. You’ll want to pull over every few minutes just to soak up the evolving scenery. This route however is not for everyone; there are a few cliffside mountain curves and at mile marker 37, drivers will encounter approximately 9 miles of roughly paved road. Also beware: Some rental companies prohibit vehicles from being driven there, check your rental agreement before proceeding.
What’s the most scenic route you’ve ever driven?
This article and the photos are by Lara Dalinsky. Lara was instilled with the travel bug at an early age and has visited over 27 countries. Her mother’s job as a flight attendant enabled a childhood of discovering the world. She recently relocated to Seoul, South Korea, where she hopes to explore Asia over the next couple of years. Lara works as a freelance graphic designer and photographer. She is also the founding editor of the online independent travel magazine, En Route Traveler. In her spare time, she contributes as an online contributor to AFAR, enjoys vegetarian cuisine, instructs Zumba, practices yoga, paints, and of course, travels as much as possible.