By Matt Villano, on April 1, 2014

The back road to Hana

Maui rental car companies and the local convention and visitor’s bureau will tell you that there’s only one way to Hana—the 36-mile Hana Highway that starts in Paia and hugs the twisty-turvy northeast coast from there.

But there’s another route to Maui’s most secluded spot: the Pi’ilani Highway that encompasses highways 31 and 330, and stretches from outside of Kula for 45 miles along the south coast.

Many refer to this thoroughfare as “the back road.” For years—basically since the road opened in 1937—locals were the only ones driving it. In recent years, as a preponderance of tour buses has made traffic on the Hana Highway intolerable, a growing number of tourists are ignoring warnings from local rental car companies and giving the Pi’ilani a try.

Viewfinder Tip: Don’t be scared away by rental car companies; every vehicle can drive the Pi’ilani Highway just fine.

To be fair, these warnings aren’t for naught; one section of the road traverses a dry river bed, a few sections are unpaved, and a few other sections are so poorly paved they might as well just be dirt. Still, a drive on the Pi’ilani introduces visitors to a Maui many never see. For this reason, it’s worth the time.

The drive begins in Keokea, a tiny town on the southeast shoulder of Mount Haleakala. Here, at Grandma’s Coffee House, stop for a char siu (barbecued pork) omelet and a cup of house-grown coffee. Portions at this Greasy Spoon bakery are so large you won’t need to eat again until Hana, especially if you buy a home-baked cookie for the drive.

After Ulupalakua Ranch—home to Maui’s only winery —the topography changes dramatically. Green trees disappear. Volcanic desert takes over. Five miles out and you’re not sure whether you’re still on Maui or you’ve been transported to Wadi Rum.

(Thankfully, the Pokowai sea arch and blossoming wiliwili trees remind you this is not the desert.)

Next up is Kaupo, one of the oldest settlements on Maui. Here, leave time to stop and marvel at St. Joseph’s Church, a stone chapel that has been standing in the same spot since 1860. Another step back in time: The Kaupo Store, a family-run grocery that sells snacks and cold beer by the bottle, and displays a number of antique cameras which date back to when the place opened in 1925.

The church in Kaupo


Unpaved and poorly-paved stretches of road (which, at some points, narrow to one lane) connect Kaupo to the southeast corner of the island, where lush tropical forests return. This region, dubbed Kipahulu, is home to Palapala Ho’omau Church, burial site of Charles Lindbergh (yes, that Charles Lindbergh), and a section of Haleakala National Park that includes a cascading waterfall known for its seven pools. It’s also where you’ll find the organic Laulima Farm; volunteers lead tours here every Monday morning, and a farmstand (that used to boast a bicycle-powered blender now) sells everything from jackfruit to fresh arugula.

Hana is another 30 minutes from here—a winding drive that curls past more waterfalls, more beaches and thousands upon thousands of guava trees. Celebrate your arrival with a Maitai in the bar at Travaasa Hana; while all of the other day-trippers hurry to beat return traffic on the Hana Highway, you can linger to the sounds of live ukulele music, knowing that on the Back Road, it’ll be smooth sailing all the way home.

What are some of your favorite off-road road trips?