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Driving The Back Road To Hana Via Piilani Highway: From Ulapalakua to Kipahulu

A Note (10/6/2016): Local’s have stated that they don’t like tourists driving this back road. Also, keep in mind that driving through the unpaved portion of this road may void your rental contract. The unpaved road and pot holes will make driving through this area during heavy rains very difficult. Be respectful of the area and do not stop and park where you are not supposed to. Pack out what you pack in…don’t leave your trash around!

Hana is a sleepy, quiet town, but driving to get there via State Highway 36 can be challenging for some. The drive through Hana Highway features many hidden waterfalls, but is also well known for its narrow single vehicle lanes and bridges. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the number of twists and turns that define the Road to Hana. It’s no wonder that most visitors to Hana leave the town with a t-shirt declaring that they Survived The Road to Hana.

I don’t care how much you love nature, if you get car sick, then you won’t enjoy the Hana Highway. An alternative is to drive through upcountry Maui, though Kula, Kaupo, and and Kipahulu. Most people avoid this route to Hana, and most tourist are told that they shouldn’t even attempt to drive through it. Car rental companies wiIl tell you that driving through this stretch of road will void your rental contract. Hesitant, I decided to take a look for myself using Google Maps Street View. Although uneven, it didn’t look as bad as everyone made it out to be. Sure, it looked bumpy on Google Maps, but hey, it’s not like we would be driving a horse carriage.

The closest landmark to us was the Tedeschi Winery. Looking at a road map, it was obvious that Waimea was very close to the winery. Unfortunately, what should have been a 10 minute ride to the winery was extended to an hour drive through Kihei, Kahului, Makawao, and then Kula. Unfortunately, the part of Highway 31 that goes through Wailea, does not connect with the part of Highway 31 that brings you to Hana. So, we basically had to drive through the middle of the the island in order to connect to Highway 37, which then becomes Highway 31.

The drive through Highway 37 and 31 is a twisty, up and down roller coaster of a ride. This stretch of road (counterclockwise route) can induce as much (maybe more) car sickness when compared to its Road to Hana counterpart (clockwise route). The main difference? You’ll encounter far fewer cars with this back route. At around mile-marker 25, the hilly up-and-down road ends after you cross a very small wooden bridge. From here, the road becomes a single lane road. You’ll know that you’ve reached this part when you notice that the yellow median line has disappeared. Follow this road and you will come to a beautiful lookout point at around mile-marker 27, just before you hit Manawainui Valley Bridge.

Continue on Highway 31, and just beyond Manawainui Valley Bridge, you will reach the dreaded restricted area. If you dislike potholes, then you will absolutely hate this part of Highway 31. It’s not a gravel road, instead, it looks more like a very old paved road that’s been patched over and over and over again with asphalt. Yes, the emphasis was needed there. You’ll have to take it slow. For this 8-mile stretch, we probably drove at around 10 mph. It was a snails pace. There’s nothing much on this stretch, other than some residential homes, farms, and old St. Joseph’s Church at mile marker 33. The gate to the church was closed, and there were state trucks and maintenance men around, so we didn’t bother to check it out. In retrospect, we drove all the way out there and endured the torturous road. We should have gotten out, trespassed, and snapped a few photos.

At mile marker 35, you’ll have reached the historic Kaupo Store. This is where the bumpy road torture sort of ends. When we finally reached the Kaupo Store, we both quickly stepped out of the car and jumped for joy. Our rental car had survived the no-no road. And so did we.

Stepping into the Kaupo Store  is like take a step back in time. The walls are lined with antique bottles, clocks, and signage. I was immediately drawn to the wall behind of the rusty cash register. Vintage cameras that belonged to the former owner of the Kaupo Store, Nick Soon, were neatly displayed next to each other. Established in 1925, the historic store now caters to bewildered tourists looking for a slice of civilization (usually in the form of ice cream, candy, or Coca-Cola) after having just endured the Road to Hana. The story behind Kaupo Store and its owners is an interesting one and this article from Maui Magazine offers insight into both.

From the Kaupo Store, we would drive the seven miles to Haleakala National Park. We would reach our destination at around 1:45PM. The drive from Wailea through upcountry Maui took approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes. The drive was indeed a unique one. Would we do it again? Well, Michelle and I both agreed that we wouldn’t. But hey, we said the same thing about the traditional Road to Hana and I’ve been through that road twice since making that promise. Honestly, I’d love to return to Hana. I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Hana, but there are so many things that I have yet to see. So many waterfalls to check off of my list, people to meet, and roadside fruit to taste. Maybe we’ll fly in next time.

Back Road to Hana Landmarks and Mile-Markers:

  • Tedeschi Vineyards and Winery (between mile-marker 14 and 15)
  • Ulupalakua Ranch (mile-marker 15)
  • Start of one lane road (just beyond mile-marker 25)
  • Manawainui Valley Bridge (mile-marker 27)
  • Bumpy Pot Hole Filled Road Begins (mile-marker 27; just beyond Manawainui Valley Bridge)
  • Huakini Bay (mile-marker 28)
  • Nuu Bay (mile-marker 31)
  • St. Joseph’s Church (mile-marker 33)
  • End of Bumpy Pot Hole Filled Foad (mile-marker 35)
  • The Kaupo Store (mile-marker 35)
  • Alelele Falls (mile-marker 38)
  • Popoiwi Heiau (mile-marker 38)
  • Haleakala National Park (mile-marker 42)

[Note: We totally failed to photograph most of the drive through Highway 37 and 31. I was focused on driving through the winding and bumpy road and Michelle got a bit car sick. Thank goodness for Google Maps (see below)! Our cameras did come out, though, once we reached Maunawainui Valley Bridge at mile marker 27.]

Curvy roads. Photo via Google Maps.

Curvy roads. Photo via Google Maps.

You'll pass large pastures of land. The road will continue to be very curvy. Photo via Google Maps.

You’ll pass large pastures of land. The road will continue to be very curvy. Photo via Google Maps.

Then the road begins to get very bumpy. Photo via Google Maps.

Then the road begins to get very bumpy. Photo via Google Maps.

Some people were standing to the left here and they waived to us as we drove by. We bit that they don't see many people around here. Photo via Google Maps.

Some people were standing to the left here and they waived to us as we drove by. We bit that they don’t see many people around here. Photo via Google Maps.

Just beyond mile marker 25, the yellow median disappears and the single lane roads begins. Photo via Google Maps.

Just beyond mile marker 25, the yellow median disappears and the single lane roads begins. Photo via Google Maps.

This is what the "bumpy" portion of the road looks like. Imagine 8-miles worth of THIS. Photo via Google Maps.

This is what the “bumpy” portion of the road looks like. Imagine 8-miles worth of THIS. Photo via Google Maps.

Just beyond the paved, two-lane portion of Piilani Highway is this beautiful lookout.

Just beyond the paved, two-lane portion of Piilani Highway is this beautiful lookout.

Rocky beach below.

Rocky beach below.

Looking toward the ocean.

Looking toward the ocean.

A break in the bumpy road.

A break in the bumpy road.

A car had just passed us by.

A car had just passed us by.

The Kaupo Store was a welcomed sight.

The Kaupo Store was a welcomed sight.

The front of the historic Kaupo Store.

The front of the historic Kaupo Store.

A collection of vintage cameras inside of the Kaupo Store.

A collection of vintage cameras inside of the Kaupo Store.

Tight road. Be sure to honk before turning into the blind turn. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

Tight road. Be sure to honk before turning into the blind turn. Photo by Michelle Sagucio.

See the white car to the left? He had to drive a little bit up the mountain side so that the gray car in the front of us could drive past.

See the white car to the left? He had to drive a little bit up the mountain side so that the gray car in the front of us could drive past.

It's an okole clinching drive.

It’s an okole clinching drive.

If you can get past the anxiety of the single lane road, then you'll realize that the drive is indeed a beautiful one.

If you can get past the anxiety of the single lane road, then you’ll realize that the drive is indeed a beautiful one.

View of Nuu Bay.

View of Nuu Bay.

Welcome to Haleakala National Park.

Welcome to Haleakala National Park.

Haleakala Visitor Center.

Haleakala Visitor Center.

About Coty

Founder of Exploration: Hawaii. Adventure, Minimalism, Vinyl, Typography, and Coffee + Matcha. A single space after a period, please.

4 comments

  1. My wife and I drove the Pi’ilani Highway in late January. At first I was reluctant because of all the messages on various forums warning that the road is very difficult, likely to damage cars, forbidden by rental companies, etc. Then I saw in a guidebook, “Maui Revealed,” that all those presumed prohibitions are a myth.

    I looked further. Sure enough, Alamo had no restrictions about taking that road. It’s a beautiful road, generally smooth and wide enough. It has dazzling views of ranchland on one side and the ocean on the other. The road is lightly trafficked and largely undeveloped but hardly isolated. If we’d broken down, another car would soon have come along to take us to a phone.

    The only caveats are: There are a few blind curves, so honk as you approach them. There’s a stretch that’s not paved, but it’s only about 9 miles long and is well-maintained — no potholes, washboard surface, or any other impediment. I’d suggest taking the road west from Hana, which allows you to be on the inside lane for your entire Hana excursion.

  2. Thank you for the insight! The last time I was in Maui, I REALLY wanted to hike the Pipiwai Trail in Haleakala National Park, but I was driving from Hana and the road was closed due to maintenance so I didn’t get to go :( I didn’t even think to take the Piilani Highway route that you did. I’m kicking myself because we went to the winery the next day and even drove a bit of the Piilani Highway, but then turned around and drove back to explore other places. Oh well. I think the next time we visit, we’re definitely going to try this way to see if we can finally make it to Pipiwai.

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