Pi’ilani Highway, the Back Road to Hana

[Hana, Haleakala National Park & Kihei, HI, Nov 23, 2022]

I originally planned to go back to central Maui the way I came, through the Road to Hana. I just assumed that the road dead-ended past Hana and it didn’t complete a full loop around east Maui, which would not be all that unusual for Hawaii. But I needed to go past Hana to visit the Kipahulu unit of Haleakala National Park, which got me looking at the map more closely. And lo and behold, there was (sort of) a full loop! Pi’ilani Highway runs for 38 miles along the southern flank of Haleakala all the way to Kula, where I visited a lavender farm on my first day. Then why, I wondered, didn’t Google Maps want me to take it?

Pi’ilani Highway used to connect all the way to Kihei, but development in Wailea-Makena cut that route off

Calling Piā€™ilani a highway is misleading. It’s a remote, one-and-a-half lane, mostly paved country road hugging the coastline. Its notoriety comes from a 6-mile section past the Kipahulu unit of Haleakala. These 6 miles are down to 1 lane along a cliff with blind curves. Signs warn you to honk before you take the turn because you can’t see if anyone’s coming from the opposite direction and there is no room for cars to pass each other. Portions of this road are unpaved and/or have large potholes, making safe travel extremely slow (15 mph). This causes Google Maps to pick the front road as the faster option.

A blind curve on the narrowest section of Pi’ilani Highway

I read a lot about this road before I decided to drive it. I was a female traveling alone, after all. There are 3 things that gave me confidence. The first was this blog post with photos of the worst road conditions. The second was the fact that most of the road was actually straight, 1.5 lanes wide on brand-new blacktop. Finally, the weather forecast promised great weather and no rain.

Of course, I had a few things to see before I even got to Pi’ilani Highway.

I left Hana fairly early looking for a red sand beach that had popped up in my research. At first I used Google Maps, which took me to Hana Bay beach park. There was a trail here that seemed to be going in the right direction. But then it quickly disappeared and that, combined with the private property signs, gave me pause. I googled some more. I found a blog post with a detailed description of how to get to the beach, but the comments on it made me realize the trail to the beach was treacherous and on private property. I promptly abandoned mission and continued to my next destination.

Hana Bay beach park – not the red sand beach I was looking for

Hamoa Beach more than made up for the missing red sand beach. This beautiful crescent-shaped beach was all but empty this early in the morning, which made parking on the side of the narrow street a breeze. I walked down and enjoyed the waves. A couple joined shortly after and I asked what their itinerary was. It turned out that they were also headed on Pi’ilani Highway. As I was still nervous about driving that road, I asked them to keep an eye out for me in case I popped a tire or something. They were even up for me tagging along with them, which I did for a little but until I realized they wanted to make one more stop than me. They were more than gracious and their kindness gave me a much needed peace of mind.

Wailua Falls was next and it was a super easy stop right of Hana Highway, at mile marker 45. This 80-foot waterfall is one of the more popular ones on the road to Hana, but I wondered how the heck people made it all the way out here and back to east Maui in one day. It was remote!

My final stop before the big drive was the Kipahulu district of Haleakala National Park, 12 miles past Hana. This coastal area protects an intact ahupua’a, a traditional Native Hawaiian land division. I had two hikes in mind for this area – the Kuloa Point Trail and the Pipiwai Trail.

Halekala National Park Visitor Center – Kipahulu Unit

The Kuloa Point trail is less than a mile and it provides access to a viewpoint into the ‘Ohe’o Gulch and its pools. However, I got caught in a rainstorm while on this trail, so I returned later to take some photos when the sun came out.

Pipiwai Trail was 4 miles overall with only 800 ft of gain, although it seemed steeper to me – maybe it was the mud from the rain I had just endured. Aggressive signage warned visitors to stay on trail. I could see how the numerous waterfalls and streams would tempt people into the jungle.

Makahiku Falls about a half-mile in and it was beautiful. It looks like a men’s tie to me. At 185-feet tall, this waterfall is quite impressive, though not nearly as tall as the one at the end of the hike.

The Banyan tree was absolutely magnificent and so huge!

I didn’t expect this bamboo forest here. It was so beautiful!

The icing on the cake was at the end of the trail. Waimoku Falls drops 400-feet down a sheer lava rock wall. The water crossing to get to the end of the trail was a little bit tricky, but I made it! I saw the couple from Hamoa beach on my way back down and they said “Hey, good to see you, we are looking out for you!”

And now it was time to leave Hana Highway and get on the treacherous Pi’ilani Highway! The change-over happens about 3 miles west of the Kipahulu District of Haleakala, at Kalepa Gulch. I accidentally captured this exact spot!

Can you see Pi’ilani Highway carved into the cliff across the bay?
Drop a Google Maps pin near Kalepa Gulch and have fun driving this road virtually šŸ™‚

Luckily, this tricky section was only about 6 miles long, although it does take a long time when you’re driving less than 10 miles an hour. Once I got to the sparsely populated, sustainable ranching community of Kaupo and St Joseph church, I knew the worst was behind me. The church, dedicated in 1862, made for a much needed rest stop after all that white-knuckle driving.

I was starting to see the southern flank of Haleakala in all its glory. There was one section in particular that was full of waterfalls I could see all the way from the road.

So many waterfalls!

Just a few minutes of driving past the church I finally reached the section of brand new blacktop and what now seemed like a very wide 1.5-lane road.

Hello, brand new blacktop! This section had 2 proper lanes but most parts were still down to 1.5-lane width

The views just kept getting better and better. I kept stopping to take pictures. I even drove back the way I had come for a while because I just didn’t want this road to end. It was so much fun and I am so glad I drove it despite my trepidation!

I knew I was getting close to reaching civilization again when I started seeing a random building here and there. I stopped by the bee sanctuary I saw – their balcony looked super inviting! They were not serving coffee any more this late in the day but I bought some local honey and enjoyed the view just the same.

Maui Honey bee sanctuary

I passed Grandma’s Coffee House and I knew I was back in Kula proper. From here, it was another 30 minutes to my AirBnB in Kihei, by the beach. I had just about half an hour to kill before I could check in, so I decided to do an architecture detour I picked up from my real Hawaii guidebook.

The King Kamehameha Golf Course clubhouse looking towards the slopes of Haleakala

The King Kamehameha Golf Course Clubhouse is based on the unbuilt Arthur Miller house. It was originally conceived by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957 for playwright Arthur Miller and his then wife, famous actress Marilyn Monroe. However, Miller and Monroe soon split up and the project was abandoned. Wright’s work remained in the Taliesin archives for more than 2 decades (Taliesin was the architectural firm founded by apprentices of Frank Lloyd Wright to carry on his architectural vision after his death). In1988, developers for the King Kamehameha golf course visited Taliesin Architects in Scottsdale, Arizona, and expressed interest in building a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed golf clubhouse. Architect John Rattenbury combined the Arthur Miller house and the two previous designs it drew from, enlarged them to meet the spatial requirements of a commercial clubhouse, and designed it to fit into the natural landscape of Waikapu’s hilly terrain. Construction of the clubhouse was completed in 1993. Located at an elevation of 750 feet in the foothills of the West Maui Mountains, the clubhouse looks east towards the Upcountry slopes of the Haleakalā volcano. It was a beautiful building with magnificent views and I was glad I made the detour.

Kihei seemed rather busy and overwhelming to me after 2 days of one-lane roads and remote Hawaiian scenery. I was ready to explore the more-developed west side of Maui and I was back at checking the darn Haleakala summit webcam again, hoping to get my bucket list hike sometime over the next two days.

2 Comments on “Pi’ilani Highway, the Back Road to Hana

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