No trip to Maui is complete without embarking on the iconic drive along the Road to Hana. Boasting 59 bridges and 620 curves in just 42 miles, the Hana Highway is a precarious drive that is not for the fainthearted.
I’m lucky that my husband is an excellent driver and didn’t bat an eye at the turns, crazy parking situations and one-car bridges! We had an amazing time doing the drive on our own, as we could go at our own pace and prioritize what we wanted to see. If you’re willing and eager to plan a DIY drive down this winding wonderland, here are some tips for you!
1. SET OUT EARLY
Even though it’s just about 42 miles (67 km) to Hana Town, it would likely take you 2-4 hours to drive without factoring in stops or your return drive! I would advise setting out as early as possible, both to beat some of the crowds and also ensure you have enough daylight to accomplish your must-do’s. We did this in September (make sure you look up sunrise/sunset times for whatever season you’re there in) and started from Paia Town around 8:00am. By the time we made it to Pipiwai Trail at the end of the day (10 miles south of Hana), we were sprinting up the path to try to get to the bamboo forest before dark…and didn’t succeed.
Plus, if you’re planning on driving back to West Maui at night, these roads are not super fun to drive when it’s pitch black and you’re going down dirt paths along steep cliffs! If we could do it again, we would likely choose to spend the night in Hana.
ALSO, I just want to mention: you might get carsick. This might be obvious, but it was something I didn’t expect and nobody mentioned to me. I got soooo dizzy around so many of the turns!
2. DOWNLOAD MAPS AND RESET YOUR ODOMETER…
You won’t have cell reception for most of the Road to Hana. So if you’re driving yourself, make sure you reset your odometer right at the beginning (there will be a sign indicating where the road starts), and have an idea of what mile markers have interesting things you want to stop at.
3. …BUT IF ALL ELSE FAILS, FOLLOW THE CROWDS!
However, if your odometer gets messed up or you forget to set and don’t know what mile markers to look for, do not fret. If a spot is worth visiting, most likely you’ll see a few cars clustered around. If you’re curious enough, just pull over and check it out—might be a waterfall, a pretty view, a botanical garden, lava tube or something else fun!
4. IF YOU MISS A WATERFALL, DON’T WORRY—THERE WILL BE MORE
This might sound like weird advice, but it’s true. There are sooo many incredible waterfalls along the Hana Highway, and when we first started out, I made my husband stop (and in some cases, dramatically pop a U-turn and backtrack) at every one, but we quickly realized that it wasn’t the end of the world if we missed a couple here or there. Enjoy the journey and stop where you can, but don’t beat yourself up over anything you might miss—the adventure gets better with every mile.
That said, I would like to advocate for my favorite waterfall spot: Upper Waikani Falls (aka “Three Bears Falls”) between Mile Markers 19 and 20. You’ll see them when you’re driving over a bridge, and will find there’s no parking right there—don’t panic, there’s a little dirt area just a minute or two past that you can park at and then walk back down. It’s a bit of a climb to get to them, but absolutely a worthwhile waterfall to chase!
5. BRING A TOWEL, SWIMSUIT, CHANGE OF CLOTHES AND CHANGE OF SHOES/SANDALS
Trust me, you’ll be jumping off of waterfalls and swimming at some of the most beautiful beaches you’ve ever seen, and be in desperate need of a wardrobe change. Also, because it’s so tropical and wet, you’ll be getting muddy as you hike along paths on your stops. I brought sneakers, but never wore them and stuck to my flip flops—but on the other hand, my husband pretty much exclusively wore shoes (until we were splashing around waterfalls!). Regardless, you’d much rather have options and not have to worry about it!
6. STOP AND EAT THE FOOD
While it’s definitely a good idea to bring snacks for the drive, there are so many delicious stops on the Road to Hana that you won’t want to miss. Try banana bread at Aunty Sandy’s (my husband’s fav!) or at Halfway to Hana, and pop into Coconut Glen’s at Mile Marker 27 for some of the tastiest (and allergy-friendly) coconut ice cream you’ve ever had. We’ve also heard there’s an insanely good Thai place somewhere on this road, but we didn’t manage to find it. Ah well, something new for next time!
7. VIEWS, VIEWS, VIEWS
While pretty much ANY place you stop at on the Road to Hana will be breathtaking, this highway has some incredible lookout points that should not be missed. Mile Marker 18.8 has an incredible lookout point with a view of Wailua Valley, and is one of our highlights from this drive.
8. SEE THE BEACHES IN HANA
I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that the Road to Hana is more about the journey and less about Hana itself. While Hana is indeed a sleepy town of 1,200 people, it’s still not to be missed. Besides the delicious food trucks and tropical views, there’s the ever-famous Waianapanapa State Park (Black Sand Beach). And Kaihalulu Bay (Red Sand Beach) is one of the most magical Hawaiian beaches I’ve ever seen. Yes, Kaihalulu is a bit off the beaten path, but it’s 100% worth going to!
9. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO PAST HANA
Most people will do the drive, arrive in Hana, grab some food and then head back the way they came. I would say if you can, you should keep driving and head back to West Maui the other way—via the back side of Haleakala, which offers you a unique perspective of Maui that very few experience, and which takes you the same amount of time to drive as the Road to Hana. The climate is arid, resembling California in parts. And the starry sky we saw was enough to make us pull over, huddle together and gape in awe at the Milky Way before us. I’ve been in plenty of sparsely populated destinations, from the Sahara Desert to the Marquesas Islands, yet still have never seen as many stars as I did that beautiful night.
I will confess: if the Hana Highway is winding and narrow, these roads are dusty, steep and bumpy. Much of it isn’t even paved. It seems that a lot of rental car companies will have a “your own your own” policy and threaten to “void” your rental car contract if you take this pathway. We had NO idea this was a thing, and merrily took our Hyundai Sonata on this very special drive and returned the car without any problem or additional charge. But I can’t guarantee that this will be everyone’s experience!
10. BUT MOST OF ALL, TAKE IT ALL IN AND HAVE FUN!
Driving the Road to Hana is an experience unlike any other. Being disconnected from the world allows you to take in the grandeur of God’s creation and marvel at the wide variety of beautiful terrains on such a small island. This day fueled my love for waterfalls, introduced me to the glory of red sand beaches, filled my stomach with delicious coconut-y things and brought me closer to my darling husband for all his bravery and skill behind the wheel. It was exhausting, exhilarating, enlightening and ecstatic. And I would do it all over again.
ADDITIONAL ROAD TO HANA TIPS
Currency: U.S. Dollar (make sure to have cash on hand!)
Languages: English (Official), Hawaiian Pidgin, many people can speak Mandarin Chinese and Japanese
Transportation: Public transit is nonexistent; rent a car or hire a van.
Food: Banana bread, anything coconut, Thai, barbecue and Hawaiian-Mexican fusion (we ate at “The Surfing Burro” food truck in Hana and really enjoyed it!).