Haleakala National Park: My Favorite Hawaiian Hike in the Kīpahulu District and the Road to Hana
Updated: Feb 18
My first Maui hike was the Pīpīwai Trail in the Kīpahulu District of Haleakala National Park. This smaller area of the park is on the south eastern side of the island just past Hana. I had been super excited to spend some time in Haleakala ever since my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park last summer. That being said, I knew it would be a long day with lots of driving to see the sights on the road to Hana along the way.
I left my hotel in Kaanapali around 5:30am and headed towards the trailhead with the GPS directing me south of Haleakala to make a loop around the island. The road to Hana stretches north of Haleakala and wraps around the eastern coast to the southeast corner of Maui. When my GPS routed around the south coast, I was all for taking the less traveled route, avoiding some of the tourist traffic that was guaranteed on the road to Hana. Never did it cross my mind that my low clearance Nissan Altima rental could potentially have issues along the highway.
As I drove, I was greeted with a beautiful sunrise as a drove through rural farms along the south coast. There were no stores, gas stations, or public buildings, just small farmhouses and rolling hills. It was a very windy road with many one-lane bridges, but luckily there were no other cars to contend with. I didn’t realize why until the paved highway transitioned into mix of gravel and patchwork paving. I was still almost twenty miles from the Kīpahulu visitor center so it was a slow, bumpy ride. This was the first time I had ever been motion sick from my own driving! I thought about turning back for the sake of the rental’s suspension, but detouring back to the road to Hana would have added over three hours onto the already seven hours of driving I had planned for the day. That being said, both the car and I made it to the visitor center after a quick stop for a fruit bowl from a beautiful little far near Kakanoni Point. It was the freshest, most delicious fruit I've ever had!
When I got to the visitor center and trailheads, I was surprised to find an empty parking lot. It was already 8:30am, so I had expected lots of other people coming to see the area. After a quick look around I grabbed my pack and got on the trail. The first hike I did was the Kūaloa Point Trail to the Ohe’o Pools and Gulch. This is a half mile loop that brings you to gorgeous cliffs overlooking the ocean. There are a few pools along the way connected by small cascades, and usually you can cool off in their crystal blue water.
Today the water was raging, its swift power threatening to sweep away an extra enthusiastic swimmer. I stood at the lookout point for a while watching the brown rain runoff mixing with the aqua ocean water. The waves were angry, crashing against the rocky cliffs with gusto. The sound of the water drowned out all of my thoughts, and I enjoyed the loud white noise. It wasn't a bright, cheery morning but I really enjoyed the more moody gray sky. After a few minutes I continued up the loop back to the trailhead. The footing on this trail was excellent, with well placed rock stairs and hard packed dirt making it easy to cruise along. It was a nice departure from the slick conditions I had faced on every hike in Oahu.
When I got back to the trailhead, I followed the Pīpīwai Trail across the road and started ascending. This was a wide, rocky trail with easy footing at a very gentle grade. It traversed along next to a large drop-off leading down to Palikea Stream, the water source of the Ohe’o pools. Just a half a mile from the trailhead I reached the Makahiku Falls, a 185 foot cascade just off of the trail. Makahiku stands for “water that recognizes no friends,” eluding to the danger of rockfall from the water eroding the sharp stones. There were many signs along the cliff screaming, “DANGER! STEEP CLIFF! FATAL DROP!” and I couldn’t help but think about what must have happened to require those signs to be put there.
The trail was quiet as I walked through the forest. I had seen no other hikers so far, and I loved the serenity of a truly solo hiking experience. I soon made it to the enormous banyan tree towering above the canopy. Its thick branches reached out parallel to the ground with new prop roots stretching back down to the ground to stabilize them. Pictures can’t capture the true grandeur this tree encompasses. I touched the huge branches and though about all of the history that a tree like this holds. I can’t even begin to imagine the number of visitors this tree has seen over the years.
From here I made my way through the last bit of trail before reaching the bamboo forest. This was about one mile into the hike just after walking across two bridges perched above a few smaller cascades. As soon as I stepped into the forest, I felt like I was being transported to a different world. It was the type of dark that reminds me of dawn just before the sun peaks up over the horizon. The bamboo was so thick that very little light came through the tufts of leaves. I walked the winding trail through the dense trees, and it was eerily silent.
Every few minutes a gust of wind blew through the tops of the trees making a hollow clacking sound as the stalks touched. I soon reached a series of footbridges that cut their way through the tall bamboo. Here, the sky opened up and let a downpour of rain down into the forest. I ducked into the tall stalks as I fished out my rain shell, and the dense leaves protected me until I put on my waterproof layer. There were some areas after the footbridges that were in desperate need of drainage, but other than that the trail was perfect. I loved this part of the hike. It was so unique, so different from anything I had ever seen before.
After about a half mile of bamboo forest, the trail broke out into an open jungle with tall palm trees and bushes. The rain had since moved on, so the sun beamed down onto my face. Here I caught my first glimpse of Waimoku Falls, a 400 foot waterfall crashing down from the cliffs above. It felt like I was walking through the base of a ravine as I made my way closer and closer to the towering falls. I noticed four or five smaller falls coming down from the cliffs surrounding Waimoku and learned after talking to a ranger that they are only visible after significant rain.
When I reached the final stream crossing, I was faced with a dilemma. There was a large sign warning against crossing in flash flood conditions, and having just experienced a large downpour I was hesitant to cross. I planned out my route across carefully, hopping from rock to rock until the final jump to the other side. Just a few feet past the crossing there was a sign informing me that I had reached the end of the trail and warning not to go any further. It said there had been fatalities before and that anyone who did go further was subject to a fine and being kicked out of the park. I felt such an urge to continue past the sign and go all the way to the base of the falls, but I didn’t for a few reasons.
First, I already had some awesome views of the waterfall and I doubted that getting closer would be a whole lot better in that department. Second, getting to the bottom of the falls required risky rock hopping through the raging stream I had just crossed with the strong potential for flash flooding after the recent downpour. It didn’t sound like a great idea for a solo hiker with no reliable form of communication with the outside world who had seen no other people on the trail.
Finally, I have too much respect for these parks to break the rules just to get an extra quarter mile of hiking. There are reasons that they warn people against going off trail. Not only does it have an impact on the environment, but if anything happened to me I would have put the park rangers and search and rescue crew in real danger especially with the water conditions. I also paid good money for my annual national parks pass so I didn't want to jeopardize it! There are many short side trails off of the main trail, but herd paths damage the natural plants and ruin the fragile ecosystem that the parks service works so hard to maintain. They also sometimes cliff out, making them a hazard if you're not familiar with the area.
On the hike back to the visitor center there were lots of people starting up the trail. I was glad that I got an early start to have some peace and quiet on the trail. When I got back I started the long drive to the hotel on the road to Hana. Although it was a super long day with seven hours of driving, the sights along the road to Hana was totally worth it. The road to Hana is one of the most well known attractions in Maui for good reason with pull offs every few miles for waterfalls and other unique attractions. Below are a few of my favorites!
Wailua Falls: This was my first stop after leaving Kīpahulu. The waterfall was impressive but right off the highway resulting in huge crowds. I only stopped for a minute and it was worth it, but I wouldn't try to stay here too long or take lots of pictures because of all of the tourists.
Hamoa Beach: I heard about this beach because of the creamy soft sand and the clear blue water. It's fairly popular for surfing, but when I got there the surf was harsh with huge waves crashing close to shore. It looked like it was about to rain as well so I didn't stay long.
Koki Beach Park: This little stretch of beach is right next to Hamoa Beach. It was really quiet and the red cliffs were a beautiful sight.
Kaihalulu Beach: The red sand beach is definitely one to visit if you're driving the road to Hana. It was a short but treacherous ten minute hike from the road where you can park (but there are only a few spots so get there early if you want to stay). Definitely make sure you have good footwear to get to the beach. I didn't go all the way down to the beach because I was pretty tired and the undertow was too strong to swim. It was a really cool sight from the cliffs above though!
Pa'iloa Beach: This black sand beach is one of the most popular sights along the road to Hana located in Waianapanapa State Park. This was the busiest attraction I went to all day, so by the time I got there I was pretty exhausted and fed up by the hoards of people. It had been raining on and off all day so there weren't many people relaxing on the beach. I walked to the lookout, waited for the people to disperse to take a quick picture, and promptly got right back into the car. It was a really cool sight, but I didn't love all of the tourists there.
Makapipi Falls: This waterfall is underneath a bridge on the road to Hana. Be careful when visiting this one because the one lane bridge is very narrow and lots of cars drive through. Looking down at the falls from above was pretty unique, and seeing it plunge down into the pool 40 feet below. Apparently this one is weather dependent, but when I was there the rain made it a sight to see.
Pua'a Ka'a Falls: This little waterfall was right off of the highway with ample parking and bathrooms! What a luxury. It was really pretty and an easy little walk up a few accessible ramps to get there. I've heard it's a popular swimming spot, but with the high waters I didn't want to risk it.
Wailua Valley State Wayside: This lookout is a short five minute hike from the roadside pull off for gorgeous views of Wailua Valley. You can see cliffs and waterfalls far into the distance towering over a lush green valley below. When the weather is nice you can see Haleakala crater as well. When I was there, it was cloudy and mysterious making for some really interesting views as well! Definitely worth the quick stop.
Aunty Sandy's Banana Bread: Seriously the best banana bread of my life! They make it with the sweet little apple bananas native to the island. Their haupia ice cream was excellent as well. It's only a short detour from the road to Hana and totally worth it for a quick snack!
Ho'okipa Beach Park: This overlook yields gorgeous views of the ocean and north coast. I stopped here for a while, watching surfers in the waves below. It was fairly busy but it was a large area with lots of parking so it didn't feel too bad.
Twin Falls: This is arguably the most popular attraction on the road to Hana with lots of traffic every day. It's a short ten minute walk to the falls, and it was pretty cool although maybe not worth the stop. I personally preferred other falls that I had already seen that day without the crowds of people, so I just made a quick stop here before going back to the hotel.
Kūaloa Point Trail to the Ohe’o Pools and Gulch
Pipiwai Trail to Makahiku Falls and Waimoku Falls [4.14 mi, 800 ft, 2:00]
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more photos!