When we visited Hawaii several years ago, we decided to divide our week of travel between the Big Island and Oahu. Our priorities were exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, where we saw incredible active lava flow, and visiting Pearl Harbor, where we learned more about WWII.
This year we decided to visit Hawaii once again, spending a long weekend on Maui. With such a short itinerary, we had to prioritize a few key experiences that were important to us – namely, exploring Haleakalā National Park and driving the Road to Hana.
Planning Your Drive: How Many Days To Complete the Road to Hana
Leading up to this trip, I spent time researching the different ways people approach their Road to Hana experience. The majority choose one of two options.
Option 1: Day Trip. Drive as much of the road as is reasonable based on what time you want to set out and where you’re starting from, and then turn around at a predetermined point. While it’s possible to make it all the way to Hana, you’ll likely be driving in the dark at the end of your trip.
Option 2: Overnight Trip. Popular among those with more time because you can see more along the way and spend time in Hana. Take a full day to drive to Hana, spend the night there, enjoy the sunrise, and then drive back the way you came the previous day, stopping to see anything you missed.
Looking at the map, I grew curious as to why everyone drove back the way they came – there is another road that circles around the southeastern side of the island, bringing you back to upcountry Maui and completing a full loop. Why wouldn’t people want to see a different part of the island on their return trip?
As it turns out, the end of the official road to Hana turns into a backcountry drive along a sometimes graded, sometimes very bumpy and rocky dirt road with zero-visibility hairpin curves along guardrail-less cliffs. Eventually this morphs into a beautiful paved road; however, the drive is through remote backcountry – views of the ocean, old lava fields, and an assortment of cows, goats and horses but not much else.
After reading all of this, our decision was obvious:
Option 3: The Full Loop! We left early from Wailuku on Saturday morning and spent the day driving to Hana, making stops along the way. We checked into our hotel in Hana in the late afternoon with just enough time to clean up before heading out for a lovely sunset dinner. The next day, we woke up early for a red sand beach sunrise and then completed the loop, returning to upcountry Maui in the early afternoon.
If you have the time to overnight in Hana, I recommend making the full loop. The southeastern side of the island is quite different from everywhere else you’re likely to explore.
Planning Your Drive: Top Places to Stop on the Road to Hana
We didn’t visit all of the traditional stops along the Road to Hana because we learned that several of them are on private property. Trespassing didn’t sit right with us so we stuck to the public areas. We also set out early – coffee and snacks in hand – and a number of the produce stands people stop to explore along the road weren’t open yet. That said, I really enjoyed the following stops we made on our way to Hana.
Waikamoi Ridge Trail
Around one of the many hairpin turns, we saw a few cars pulled over at what appeared to be a trailhead. We squeezed into the only available spot and set out on this easy, 1.1-mile loop trail.
At the onset there’s a nice picnic area where we saw a few people having a snack. While the viewpoints along the trail didn’t offer much in the way of views thanks to magnificent trees with giant leaves, the hike itself was enjoyable and fairly easy, with only 192 feet of gain.
I completed the loop in walking sandals and was fine over the dirt and exposed tree roots, but I did have to navigate a little more carefully through one section where several trees had toppled over and completely blocked the trail.
Garden of Eden Arboretum and Botanical Garden
Although we’re not usually into gardens, I think we both enjoyed this one given the variety of animals, plants and scenic overlooks. We paid the entry fee, drove to the central parking lot, and then set out to explore the trail system.
There were some really impressive views of the ocean (and the much advertised Keopuka Rock featured in the opening sequence of the film Jurassic Park), and we also enjoyed the Puohokamoa Falls viewpoints, although the sun was in the wrong direction for waterfall pictures.
Other highlights included petting the resident black cat, admiring the wildly colored ducks and beautiful peacocks, walking through the massive bamboo forest, visiting the 100-year-old mango tree, and getting up-close views of beautiful rainbow eucalyptus trees!
Aunt Sandy’s Banana Bread and Ke’Anae Lookout
Soooo many people recommended Aunt Sandy’s for banana bread. I will go ahead and share the unpopular opinion that while good, this was not the best banana bread I’ve ever tasted.
Am I sorry we stopped there? No, I am not. Right across the road are stunning views of the black lava rocks and brilliant blue water, and around the corner is Ke’Anae Lookout where we parked and enjoyed the sunshine and the crashing waves while we snacked on our newly acquired baked good.
I’d definitely recommend making a pit stop (there are clean public restrooms!) on the peninsula regardless of whether you opt to try the bread.
While the banana bread was ok, the ice cream at Coconut Glen’s was quite good. Brian is a bigger coconut fan than me and really liked the original coconut ice cream. I opted for the pineapple banana and actually liked his a little bit better!
Not only did we get to enjoy a refreshing treat in the shade, we also got to pet another fur baby – this one named Captain Caramel. Adorable!
Hana Lava Tube / Ka’eleku Cave
Another favorite stop was the Hana Lava Tube just outside Hana. A reasonable entry fee gets you a flashlight and a self-guided tour of the one-third mile shoot.
Ka’eleku Cave is a cool, dark change of pace from the typical Road to Hana trip. This is the largest and most accessible lava tube in Maui, and also has many interesting features making it a must-see for those interested in caves and geology.https://mauiguidebook.com/road-to-hana-maui/activities-road-to-hana/kaeleku-cave-hana-lava-tube/
We’ve explored lava tubes twice before – on our previous trip to Hawaii (not our favorite) and in Iceland (fascinating).
I’d recommend this one because of the different cave features – in particular the ‘chocolate kiss’ cavern – and the cave-dwelling creatures. Although it’s not common to see them, Brian managed to spot one – a blind cave cricket! The kids in the family behind us were thrilled when he pointed it out and started searching for other critters (not sure if they found any).
We booked accommodations and dinner reservations in Hana in advance, and depending on the time of year you’re traveling, I’d recommend doing the same. Our hotel had no vacancies, and the food trucks closed relatively early, which didn’t leave many dining options for people arriving around dinner time.
After getting checked in and cleaned up, we walked down to the Hana Bay Beach Park, which was clearly a local hangout. We were even approached by one local who asked if we were tourists. When we replied affirmatively, he told us they love tourists and are happy for us to visit, but we are not welcome to relocate there and ruin their culture. He was pleased to learn we prefer cold weather and have no intention of moving to Hawaii.
Along our walk, I saw a small animal run across a parking lot and into a rocky wall – it was a mongoose! I only had time for a quick photo of him hiding and looking back at me before he disappeared.
Our final stop was the Hana-Maui Resort for a beautiful outdoor sunset dinner. What a perfect ending to our first day on the Road to Hana loop!