Should you do Haleakala sunrise and road to Hana in the same day?

haleakala-hana

Several readers have studied a Maui map and asked if I advise driving two of Maui’s most popular attractions – Haleakala summit for sunrise and the road to Hana — on the same day? They see that from Haleakala summit, they could possibly drive south on Highway 37 which turns into Highway 31 and circles around to Hana and East Maui. At first glance, it looks easy and efficient to do both in the same day. Looks can be very deceiving.

I created the following custom Google map to indicate the road to Hana and the drive to Haleakala summit to help illustrate the issues with trying to drive both in the same day. The road to Haleakala summit is in blue and the road to Hana is in yellow. There’s a reddish rectangle indicating an unauthorized section of road. A turquoise blue line shows the approved drive that connects Haleakala Highway to the Hana Highway. Please note that sometimes the details, markers and indicators do not load properly, so click here to see a bigger version of the map along with all the marker descriptions.


View Haleakala & Road to Hana in a larger map

Now let’s look at the three main issues of driving to both attractions to the fullest in the same day.

Issue # 1:  A portion of Highway 31 is “unauthorized” by rental car companies

Most if not all of the major rental car companies have designated an eight to 10 mile stretch of Highway 31 as “unauthorized.” Here’s the exact quote from the Maui Drive Guide supplied by Avis:

Do not drive between these points. Driving on unauthorized roads violates car rental contract.

The rental car agencies don’t make a point of telling you where you can and cannot drive when you pick up the car. They rely on you referring to their drive guide maps.

Don’t shoot the messenger because I don’t make up the rules. I simply want you to be informed about the risks of driving this unauthorized road so that you can make your own informed decision. The risk is that if you should have a breakdown or accident while driving the unauthorized section, you would be in violation of the rental contract and most likely your insurance will not pay for repairs.

I can only speculate why this section of Piilani Highway (Highway 31) is off limits. My guesses would be:

  • Portions of the unauthorized section are unpaved. The unpaved areas are fairly well-graveled in places and only dirt in others.
  • In rain, the area is prone to rockslides and mudslides.
  • The road has areas that are extremely narrow with blind curves. Unlike the authorized section of the road to Hana, the unauthorized  road is not marked or designed for steady two-way traffic.

piilani highway unaurthorized section

I have been on the unauthorized section two times – once briefly by accident before we turned around and once on a guided tour. To be honest, I didn’t think the area was particularly scenic. I’d describe most of it as miles of a semi-barren, lava rock landscape. It’s definitely not lush and green like the main road to Hana.

I wrote an article several years ago  on the topic of should you drive the back side of the road to Hana? Many readers have commented saying they drove the road cautiously with some challenges but no calamities. A few have said it was rather frightening. Some even remarked that the landscape was stunning, however, I believe they were not referring to the unauthorized section. I believe they were referring to the stretch of the road to Hana between Hana and the Kipahulu region of Haleakala National Park where Oheo Gulch is which is also called the Seven Sacred Pools – which is perfectly fine to drive and very beautiful.

For driving the road to Hana, I recommend starting your journey from the Hana Highway near Kahalui and Paia and continuing on past Hana to the Oheo Gulch. Then, I recommend that you drive back the same way that you came. Though it is the same road, you’ll be seeing the scenery from a different perspective. Plus you get the opportunity to stop at points you missed on the way in.

As previously mentioned, there is an approved route that connects Haleakala summit drive to the Hana Highway. On the above, custom Google map, the approved route is indicated in the turquoise light blue. We have actually driven that route and a section of the road to Hana, but only as far as the Garden of Eden in the same day. It was tiring for the driver of our group and one person from our group got a bit carsick.

Issue #2: Limited time to enjoy the scenery

If you attempted to complete both drives in the same day, you really wouldn’t have time to fully enjoy the road to Hana. You would probably be fatigued from the drive to Haleakala getting up early – as in around 2am to 3am or so depending on how much stargazing you want to do before sunrise.

With all the blind curves, it’s much safer and easier to drive the road to Hana in daylight hours. You might be surprised to learn that the sun sets as early as around 5:45 pm in winter months and as late as around 7:15pm in summer months. So, you can see that you have limited daylight hours. I advise getting at least a 7am start from your resort on the day you drive the road to Hana. From my experience, you will avoid traffic with an early start. I have left as early as 6am and experienced very, very little morning traffic on the road to Hana and it was fantastic.

The road to Hana is about the journey and catching a glimpse of a waterfall or view that you want to pull off the road to stop and take a closer look. It is impossible to experience everything that the road to Hana has in just one day. You can hit the highlights that I describe in our road to Hana post. I want you to be able to enjoy as much as you can.

Issue # 3: Both drives take extreme concentration

The drive to the summit of Haleakala is steep with switchback after switchback. You need to have full concentration both driving up in the dark before sunrise and down in the daylight. The roads are in great condition, but the nature of the steep drive to and from 10,000 feet above sea level is not to be taken lightly.

The road to Hana drive is equally daunting. According to GoHawaii, Hana Highway has 620 curves and 59 bridges with most of them being single-lane bridges. Many of the curves are hairpin, blind curves. It is a lovely drive, but one that you definitely need to keep your focus on 100%.

But, what if I want to drive to both Haleakala Summit and the road to Hana in the same day despite the issues?

If your time on Maui is extremely limited to just one or two days and you really, really want to see both Haleakala summit sunrise and the road to Hana in one day, then go for it. Just be aware of the following:

  • Drive the approved routes as previous described in detail.
  • If you drive as far as the Kipahulu region (i.e. Oheo Gulch/Seven Sacred Pools) on the road to Hana, plan on about three hours return drive to most South or West Maui resorts. That’s three hours one way and without stops.
  • Make sure you know sunset time in order to try to avoid driving the road to Hana in the dark.
  • Be sure that you know that it will be a very tiring day. You will be a zombie at the end of it.
  • Be prepared in case you or someone in your group gets carsick — even if you are not prone to carsickness.
  • Bring snacks and water with you as you will have extremely limited time for food breaks.
  • If you wanted to abbreviate your drive to something more manageable, try to drive as far as the beautiful black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park, which is definitely one of the highlights off the road to Hana. If you drove that far, you’d also get to see a couple of other highlights Keanae and Waikani Falls.

The bottom line is that it is much, much more enjoyable to drive to the summit of Haleakala and the road to Hana on separate days.

Ohana Beach Rentals

About Sheila Beal

Sheila Beal is the founder and editor of Go Visit Hawaii. You can connect with Sheila Beal on Twitter, Go Visit Hawaii on Facebook, or Sheila Beal on Google+.

22 comments

  1. Try finding THAT advice in a guide book! Very well done!

  2. The Road to Hana was one of our favorite parts of our Maui trip. I would not have wanted to share the full day that we took to poke around and explore the area with any other excursions. I couldn’t agree more about how much concentration the drive required, and we spent hours pulling over and hiking, sightseeing, and taking photos. I would not have appreciated feeling rushed. We were pretty wiped out by the time we were done exploring, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if I’d have started my day at 1am…

    Unfortunately, we missed out on Haleakala on that trip, but we will be going back to compare ;)

    • Erin – the road to Hana was definitely the highlight on our first trip to Maui, too. I remember that we did it on our last full day on the island. I said we had saved the best for last.

  3. This description of the drive up Haleakala is the best I’ve seen. No one ever really says what the drive is really like, just that it’s well paved/marked.

  4. I did both in one day… It was like a race. Not enough time to enjoy the road to Hana or the many stops along the way.

    • Yeah, the road to Hana is to be savored and enjoyed with stops and short diversions for views and such. You can’t do that on a strict time schedule.

  5. Listen to Sheila; she gives the best advice you’ll find anywhere. I’ve done both separately…the Road to Hana (all the way around) a couple of times, and Haleakala many times. I couldn’t agree more that to try to do both in one day is very ill-advised. Maps are deceiving; topography, once you get on these roads, is not deceiving at all…it’s an experience to endure, but oh, so worth it one day at a time. Both trips are full day excursions in themselves, and there is so much more to see going up the mountain and spending time at the top if you get off the road and see the beauty, and taking a few diversions along the road to Hana. To see only the road and all of the curves and switchbacks is such a loss when there’s so much to see if you take the time to get out of the car!

    • Thanks for that kind endorsement Rod. :-)

      Absolutely agree that there’s so much more to see if you take the time to get out of the car. That’s when you really get to experience and soak in such a special place.

  6. I advise my travel clients to not cram too much into one day, the savor the sights and experience. My advice: Do them separately and thoroughly enjoy each one.

  7. I agree that these two excursions should be done on separate days to truly enjoy each. Both experiences were such distinct parts of my trip to Maui and I couldn’t imagine being able to enjoy them if I had visited both on the same day!

  8. Yeah, I think you should do them separately, too. Even for Road to Hana with all the stops I wanted to make and taking in all the beautiful scenery one day was not enough for us!

  9. Hi Sheila..!
    Great information here.. I am planning a trip to Maui this December on my honeymoon. Certainly want to do Road to Hana and Haleakala Summit on different days, but which one do you recommend i should do first followed by the other..
    Is it convenient to do RTH, stay in hana or Heleakala national park (cabins maybe)and then head towards Heleakala sunrise..
    From Hana, do i have to go back all the way to Paia or can i head towards Heleakala Summit ..

  10. Question 1: If we go to Haleakala to see sunrise and stay at the peak till say 7:30am and then drive down. By what time should we be back? I need to know this to plan where to be the rest of the day (given that you advise not to do the RTH).

    Question 2: I have read your article about why not to do Haleakala and RTH on the same day. I have also read the answer above where you mention that it is too stressful to go to Hana on a day, stay overnight at Hana and go to Haleakala for sunrise next day. But what do you think about the following. We do Haleakala sunrise, then go to Hana, stay overnight, next day morning go to Oheo Gulch, then turn around and go back to catch an afternoon flight. Is this still too stressful?

    • Answer 1: I advise you to use the directions function on Google Maps to determine drive times.

      Answer 2: Stressful driving is subjective. What I believe to be too stressful may not be too stressful for you. Without stops, you’re looking at nearly 3 hours of grueling driving from summit to Hana — this, after you’ve already driven to the summit in the middle of the night.

  11. Sheila,

    Will appreciate your thoughts on driving from Ka’anapali to see Haleakala sunrise then drive the road to Hana. Will that be too much mountain driving in one day? We can stop on a few stops on the way to Hana. Stay over in Hana for 2 nights and then back using the same route and stop at a few more places on the way back from Hana to Ka’anapali. We plan to go the week of Jan 18th. Thank you!

    • Faye –

      Can it be done in theory? Yes.

      Is it ideal? No.

      I don’t know what else to tell you other than what’s in the article. It’s possible that you do both and not be fatigued and/or carsick. It’s up to you to decide, but it’s not ideal and not advised.

  12. Sheila,

    Thank you for your response. It helped us make the decision not do both on the same day. Happy Holidays!

    Faye

    • Faye – glad it helped! I think you’ll better understand the roads and their challenges once you experience them. There are so very many curves on both roads. Enjoy and happy holidays to you!

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