When I made the decision to visit Maui, several of my friends gave me travel advice for the island. I was told about National Parks, waterfalls, tropical paradise beaches, food, and resort recommendations. But there was one tourist-y location that garnered very differing opinions: Driving the Road to Hana.
It seems that people fall into three categories related to the Road to Hana:
- Category 1: It is a cannot-miss experience – a LIFETIME goal. GO GO GO!
- Category 2: Horrible. I\’ll never make that mistake again.
- Category 3: Keep me out of this debate.
Wait, what? I found it intriguing that one destination could result in such divergent reaction and opinions. Once my curiosity was piqued, I knew I was going to drive this famous route and experience it for myself. I was determined to discover what made it both “Amazing” and “Horrible.”
I spent a full day driving and exploring the Road to Hana. I thought this was an official scenic byway. Apparently not. Although it should be!
After spending an entire day driving and exploring this route, I better understand why I received such conflicting advice. If you are planning to explore the Road to Hana, allow me to share my experiences so you can make a fully informed decision.
Stunning Views & Experiences
The Road to Hana is a beautiful drive with amazing experiences. You will see unbelievable views, charming shops, creative food stuffs, and interesting places to explore. It possesses the quintessential Hawaiian experiences you dream about when you dream about Hawaii, including swimming holes, waterfalls, nature trails, scenic overlooks, national parks, etc. It is a rich cultural location that is worthy of its reputation.
What you may not read about in the glossy travel brochure is that the road itself is a challenge to drive. You must be a confident driver. Let me specifically define what I mean by ‘Confident Driver.”
You should be comfortable driving a car on very narrow lanes, and making turns on a dime. During one route, I looked over and saw the wall of vegetation popping into the passenger window as I waited for my turn at the single-lane bridge.
If your driving requires a lot of space for comfortable navigation, or you swing your car out wide in order to make a turn, you will struggle to navigate the Road to Hana. While I was breezing through this drive, I saw more than a handful of stressed-out, paralyzed-with-fear drivers struggling to navigate the road. If you think this might be you, reconsider doing the drive yourself. There are other options.
The Road to Hana (RtH) is like a 50 mile construction zone: slick from rain, no shoulders, no median, and slicing along a cliff\’s edge. While I was having the time of my life driving this serpentine route, there were so many other drivers obviously not enjoying the experience.
Afternoon is peak tourist time on the RtH. During the peak tourist crush, I saw one driver in obvious distress. He was driving a convertible Mercedes and unable to handle a curve. He couldn\’t make the turn and remain in his lane, so he swung wide and ended up causing a complete traffic jam on both sides of the road.
He was paralyzed with fear and panicking. His wife/girlfriend was equally anxious. She stiffly sat in the passenger seat staring straight ahead while cars honked and people yelled.
Now I know why they call it Divorce Highway.
Logistics to Know
The Road to Hana has 617 hairpin curves. There are also 59 bridges, many of which are single lane bridges that require drivers to take turns (or fully yield).
You can find dozens of amazing “Things to do” articles about the Road to Hana. But you should know the reality of the road even if you are a super confident driver!
This is a serpentine route with super tight, blind curves. There are no shoulders on most of this route, which means you’ll be driving very close to everything. Since this route is edged along a mountain side, you are not always driving along an open-space. Use caution and slow down at every blind curve for several reasons: oncoming (scared) drivers cutting your lane off, stopped traffic, pedestrians, and just smart, defensive driving. There is no room for error on these tight, unforgiving turns. More than once I found oncoming traffic swinging out or leaning into my lane – and not by a little.
Bridges and Waterfalls
The bridges on the RtH seem to be the focal point of the most Hawaiian-views imaginable: stunning waterfalls that cascade into pools or rock-strewn rivers, frothy waters bubbling their way down to the ocean surrounded by the lushest greenery you’ve ever seen. These views are the reason the word “breathtaking” exists. Everyone slows down to view these beautiful sights. You’ll slow down, too. I can’t imagine how the locals get anywhere when they have such beauty to enjoy!
There’s a crushing desire to see these waterfalls. Drivers pull over and park in locations not designed for cars. If you approach these bridges you may have to navigate around cars jutting out into your lane, or stopped cars trying to find a way to park somewhere. You’ll have to dodge pedestrians as well; they’ll be all over the bridges and popping out from behind plants as they exist hidden trails.
A few waterfalls had limited parking available nearby. Here I found cars struggling to back out onto the road to leave, while other cars are waiting patiently for a parking spot to open. The pressure for these parking places is pretty high. Once you pass this location, there isn’t a turn-around nearby. You’ll have to continue driving away – quite far away! without the chance to go back. So drivers opt to put their car almost anywhere until they think someone is leaving – and this might be in the lane you are driving. So you can imagine how much traffic jams up around these areas.
Road to Hana at her best and her worst
I was still waking up before dawn due to the time-difference from the east coast to pacific Hawaiian time. Because of this, I was up very early and driving the Road to Hana as soon as the sun lightened the sky. In the early morning mist, I had this beautiful road to myself.
At this hour of the day I easily found parking spaces near a trail and a waterfall. I was able to get out and explore. I was enthralled by the hairpin curves and simply loved driving her bends. So if you are a driver who likes the idea of this road simply to drive it – the earlier the better.
The closer it got to noon the worse the traffic became on the RtH. Parking was impossible, and every popular spot was congested with humans and cars. Also, as the hours passed, the number of confused, scared, and rude drivers increased. What was once a brilliant drive in paradise was quickly becoming a slog through angry humanity and traffic.
Bridges were becoming confrontational, as inexperienced drivers failed to give way to oncoming traffic. Or perhaps it was just confused tourists unable to read the road signs causing a nose-to-nose situation in the middle of the bridge. This obviously brought all traffic to a stand-still. Someone had to drive in reverse, on a narrow bridge, with a sharp bend, while avoiding pedestrians. You can imagine the scene.
My humble advice based on my one-day experience
Now that I’ve scared you a little bit about the road, let me share the beauty and benefits of this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Before we go any further – please note that I only experienced this road once. I know the limits of my knowledge, but I feel I can successfully describe the physical challenges of this road.
Koolau Forest region
- My cautions and concerns are focused on the RtH in the Koolau Forest region. In the forest, the RtH route is the most dense, narrow, and difficult to navigate.
- Once past the forest region, you will find open spaces, villages, and more forgiving navigation options and resources. When you look at the map, know this lengthy stretch of the route is where most of my tales and cautions are concentrated.
- I strongly advise that you should start early in the morning. You’ll get to where you have to go and possibly get a coveted parking space. I found cars parked on the side of the road as early as 8am. The secret waterfalls and hidden gems only have one or two places to squeeze the car into – so plan to leave even earlier for those coveted spots.
Pack food and water
- The RtH has earned her reputation for beauty, charm, and Only-In-Hawaii experiences. There are stunning vistas, amazing beauty, and some places you can get out and experience Hawaiian pools and hiking trails. There are some food trucks, but there is no guarantee that these food sources will be open on the day you tour. Also, there are miles of driving without access to fuel / food / bathrooms. Plan accordingly.
It’s Hawaii; mud and bugs
- It will rain when you are in tropical Maui. When I visited the Waikamoi Ridge Trail it was gently raining in the early morning. I tried to navigate the full ridge trail, but failed to make it to the end due to a collapsed tree that fully obstructed the trail. The only option was to climb over it on hands and knees, but everything was muddy. Everything! Muddy trails, wet gravel, sand, puddles… the land is alive and usually not dry. Pack accordingly.
- Also, have bug repellent and sun protection. Honestly, you could pass on the sun protection because the plants are so lush and thick you could be in shade for most of a trail. But do have bug repellent.
I shopped at the Nahiku Marketplace, ate at a roadside pizza shop, purchased some treats and souvenirs, etc.
- I tried to participate in the local shops. Some shops accepted credit cards but most did not. If you plan to stop by random roadside locations, make sure you have cash on hand.
Start with a full tank of gas
- You could be on this drive for hours, and there are very limited fuel stops.
You can’t turn around
- If there is a place you plan to go while passing through the Koolau Forest region, ensure you slow down and do not pass your driveway. The driveways are almost camouflaged due to the lush foliage.
- I found the difficult to find my entrances due to the curves in the road; your entrance may be on the curve and you won\’t see it until you are on top of it.
- As a tourist, I didn\’t know where they were beforehand, so I made sure to slow down and keep an eye out for them. If you miss your turn there is very few places you’ll be able to turn around and go back. You may have to drive for several more miles before you find a place you can pull off the route and turn around.
- The entire route isn’t like this. You will be passing through open-spaces and lovely villages when you are outside of the Koolua Forest. But while passing through the Koolau Forest region, use caution so you don’t miss your destination.
You can’t walk on this road
- If you think you can pull over somewhere and then ‘walk back’ to a preferred location – please know that there is no shoulder on most of this road. You can’t park and walk any long distance on this route.
Car sickness / motion sickness
- If you are prone to car/motion sickness, take your medications before leaving. The curves are extreme, and you may struggle (despite the slow movement of traffic).
Don’t make timed plans
- Because this route is so susceptible to traffic delays, I strongly advise that you don’t make any timed plans. Don’t even bother making dinner plans. You may be stuck in traffic. Let the RtH happen without expectations or pressure.
Bus Tours Options
- There are van / bus tours you can take if you don’t think you can drive this route. I saw so many vans snaking along the path that I was almost curious to see what options were available. I didn\’t have the time during this trip to do the RtH a second time, but I know I would look into this service if I visit again. Imagine sitting back and letting someone else navigate the road while you photograph and enjoy the views!
If going from Haiku to Hana, the driver’s side will give you the Ocean view
If going from Hana to Haiku, the passenger side will give you the Ocean view
I fell in love with Maui
In the end, I loved driving the Road to Hana. I loved every curve and bend. I appreciated the slow points so that I could enjoy the scenery surrounding me. I had no goals or plans for the day, so it was an adventurous experience without time restrictions. I ate when I got hungry, and I headed home when the sun set. What an amazing day!
Reflecting back on the cautious advice friends and colleagues shared with me, I can understand what they were saying. It is easy to imagine the stress and difficulty this drive may present to people who don’t like driving. But I love driving. So I came away with all positive feelings and experiences, and a new respect for what this route demands of her guests.
There is no possible way to experience everything on this route. I had to pick what was possible and available on the day I was there. I will definitely return to Maui, and to the Road to Hana. There’s so much more to see and do!