I often hear these two questions as people are planning their scenic drive on the road to Hana:
Should we make a loop of the road to Hana?
Should we drive a portion of the road to Hana and double back?
Before I give you my answer, I want to clearly explain the roads in question. I’ll attempt to explain an exceptionally confusing mixture of roads and mile markers. The road to Hana is composed of three different roads — highways 36, 360 and 31. They all flow directly into each other, but they have their own mile markers, which are crucial navigation points on this beautiful rainforest drive. Most folks begin their road to Hana drive from the town Paia on Highway 36 which ends after mile marker 16. Then the road becomes Highway 360. Just past Hana, the highway number changes to Highway 31. At this point the mile markers become even more confusing because they continue to go up in numbers until approximately mile marker 50 where they begin to go back down in numbers. Believe me, I don’t think the DOT could have made it any more confusing.
The road to Hana is bit of a misnomer, because this scenic drive goes to the small town of Hana and beyond. After you drive past Hana there are a more key sites that are well worth the visit. Those are:
- A drive down Haneoo Road just past Hana to see a red pebbly beach, Alau Island and gorgeous Hamoa Beach.
- Wailua Falls just off the main road.
- Kipahulu area where you’ll see the Oheo Gulch (a.k.a. Seven Sacred Falls) and can hike through a bamboo forest to a 400+ foot waterfall.
- Charles Lindbergh’s grave
Those scenic spots are all perfectly safe and authorized areas of the road to Hana that you can easily access.
Now that I’ve explained the pieces of the road to Hana puzzle, let me define the “back side of the Road to Hana” as the section of Highway 31 that is known as the Pilani Highway that goes around the southeast side of Maui towards Ulupalakua and the Kula Highway (Hwy 37). More specifically, let me say that I’m referring to the back side of the road to Hana as the section of road beyond the Kipahulu area, that’s counting down from mile marker 38.
I recognize that all that information can be confusing and perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to a first time driver on the road to Hana. Just trust me that this information is very useful for making your plans. I might even suggest that you print this page to take with you the day you drive the road to Hana as you will be able to relate to the advice.
Now let’s get to the answer that I promised earlier. My advice is always to drive one-way, turn around at the Kipahulu area (also known as Oheo Gulch or Seven Sacred Pools) and double back to Paia. Here’s why:
The back side of the road to Hana is an unauthorized section of road.
Most of the major rental car companies specify certain roads and sections of roads as “unauthorized roads”. These unauthorized roads will be clearly indicated on the maps in the drive guides that the rental car company provides when you pick up the car. If you drive beyond Lelekea Bay on Highway 31 (at approximately mile marker 38), you would be driving on an unauthorized section of the road. Basically that means if you continue to drive on that road, it is in violation of the your rental contract. If you should have an accident or issue with the car while on the unauthorized section, you will be responsible for the rescue and repairs. So, if you drive on the unauthorized road, you are taking a risk. Do tourist violate this rule and get away with it? Yes, they do. Is it worth the risk? In my opinion it is not worth the risk.
The rental car companies don’t go out of their way to highlight the restricted roads when you pick up your car. They have you sign the contracts, give you a map and send you on your way. Take a look inside the Drive Guide they either hand to you or you pick up in the rental office. (The major rental car companies use the same publisher for these maps, so all the information is similar, but branded differently.) Here is a photo I took of East Maui from the Maui Maps by Drive Guide provided by Avis. (You might want to use this link to see a larger version of this map photo.)
Notice the the red arrows between Kipahulu and Nuu? That’s the unauthorized section. The red text in between the arrows says, “DO NOT DRIVE BETWEEN THESE POINTS. DRIVING ON UNAUTHORIZED ROADS VIOLATES CAR RENTAL CONTRACT.’
The road on the back side is rough, narrow, prone to mudslides, and unpaved in sections.
After driving the extremely curvy road to Hana, you can easily become fatigued. The back side of the road to Hana is unpaved and quite bumpy in sections. That’s one of the reasons why rental car companies designate the road as unauthorized. Do you really want to endure a semi-terrifying drive after driving over 50 miles of the most curvy road you’ll most likely ever see? Take a look at the following photo. It’s at the very beginning of the unauthorized section. Notice how narrow it is. It’s basically wide enough for one car, but there is actually two-way traffic on this road.
Here’s another photo that shows the narrow width of the road. Notice the signs and the wire mesh on the rock wall. Can you imagine having to pass a big dump truck coming in the opposite direction? Let me tell you that I have personally experienced that and it was pretty darn scary. Mere inches separated us from the rock wall on the right side and a massive dump truck on the left.
I hope these photos help to illustrate why I don’t advise tourist to drive the back side of the road to Hana. I feel that it would be careless of me to suggest otherwise.
Additionally, I have taken a guided tour of the road to Hana that included driving around the back side of Hana on Highway 37. It’s a matter of opinion, but I was not impressed with the windswept, barren scenery through the unauthorized area. Personally, I enjoy the rain forest drive much more. If you double back, the scenery does look different, plus it gives you the opportunity to stop at places you missed earlier. When people comment to say they enjoyed the beaches or waterfalls on the unauthorized section, I have no idea what they’re talking about and I don’t think they do either. The landscape is mostly dried grasses over old lava fields. I’ll take the beautiful green jungle drive of the road to Hana any day over that dessert like landscape.
If you want a cheat sheet version of where you should turn around to double back to Paia, I think that either the Kipahulu area at Oheo Gulch (aka Seven Sacred Pools) or just further down the highway at Charles Lindbergh’s gravesite are two good points for turning around. See my advice for driving the road to Hana for many more tips.
If you’re a road to Hana “survivor”, please chime in and tell me if you drove the back side. I won’t be surprised to hear differing opinions.