Vacation to Maui • Driving the Pi’ilani Highway • Day 2, Part 2 • January 3, 2018
If you’ve ever been to Maui, you’ve probably heard about the Hana Highway, also called the Road to Hana. This is a long, narrow, and winding road that attracts many visitors because of the scenic views, many waterfalls and beaches, and the small friendly Hawaiian towns along the way. Most will take an entire day to drive the road, stopping frequently for the highlights, and then drive back the way they came. The highway actually continues around the Southeastern part of the island, where it turns into the Pi’ilani Highway. However, this part receives much less traffic because the roads are even more narrow, winding and hilly, with dirt sections that can be closed without notice because of flash flooding, and most rental car companies don’t allow you to drive their cars on this part of the highway.
After we made it back to our car after our hike, we knew we wanted to drive around to the East side of the island to the other half of Haleakala National Park and camp on the coast. Our options were to either take the Hana or the Pi’ilani. According to Google Maps, the Pi’ilani would be faster. The rental car company we used hadn’t told us not to, so we figured…why not? It was early afternoon at this point, and we didn’t know of many attractions on the Pi’ilani highway, but had several places we wanted to stop on the Hana highway. It made more sense to save the Hana for the next day, when we would have more time. We’ve had a lot of experience driving on sketchy mountain roads in the Southwest, so how much harder could this be?
From the Haleakala summit, it’s 60 miles to the rainforest district of Haleakala National Park. Including a few stops, driving this stretch took us about 3 hours. We stopped to get fuel in Keokea, the last town heading South as recommended by a park ranger, then continued on our way. As we began our drive along the coast, it was honestly very pleasant. There wasn’t much traffic at all, and while the road was narrow without shoulders we could drive a decent speed and not be nervous when other vehicles were approaching. There wasn’t a center line painted on the road, but the land immediately surrounding the road was grassy and flat. All that was really out here was farmland, homes, and wide open land with incredible views of the ocean and the backside of Haleakala.
The highlight of driving this road was something we definitely weren’t expecting. We had never seen pictures of what the back of Haleakala looked like, and we were stunned when we saw the giant canyons. We honestly had done no research on hikes or places we could have gone along this highway, so I have no idea if there is a way to get closer, but we were perfectly content with pulling over, standing in a clearing and taking in the amazing sight from a distance. This alone made the sketchiness of the road ahead worth it!
After pulling over a few times to admire different overlooks, the road became much more narrow and congested. I believe this happened after mile marker 32 — so if you’re interested in seeing parts of this highway but avoiding the narrow and more dangerous sections, stop and turn around here! The road turned to dirt, became one lane and hugged the edge of a cliff, with a steep drop off below into the ocean. Curtis is a great driver, I know for certain I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own! There are blind curves all over where you need to sound the horn, but on some sections I wondered how that would even help because the one-way road seemed to go on forever while going around the cliffs. There were also more hills around here. After doing both this road and the Hana Highway, we can say that this section was the worst of it all.
We still saw tour buses driving this stretch however, and that led to a discussion about what would happen if they improved this part of the road. Hawaii thrives on tourism, and living on Oahu we know well enough that it’s important to appreciate and embrace any part of the island that is left alone from big attractions and resorts that bring the crowds. Driving the Pi’ilani Highway showed us what our island could be like if there was a place where we could get away from all the tourists and noise.
We finally made it to Haleakala National Park, and drove to the campground to find a site. There’s a fee to enter the park, but camping here is free, and if you’re military the entrance fee is waived. It seemed like the campground was about full when we arrived after 4, with no official numbered sites or anything, but everyone spaced evenly apart. We found a spot and set up our tent. As it turned out, people continued arriving even past dark and started taking any open spot possible. It certainly wasn’t as quiet or peaceful as our night backpacking in the crater, but we just reminded ourselves — you get what you pay for! We started to wander around on park trails, but decided to save the main one for early the next morning, as it was rather crowded that evening. We went and found a quiet place to sit on the coast and watch the waves crash into the rocks, and admired the views of Big Island from the sea level.
Back at our campsite, we saw an old van pull up and park near our tent, and we were instantly curious if its occupants were renting it or living in it full-time. We went up and struck up a conversation, and ended up having a great chat with an awesome couple from Alaska. They had rented the van for their vacation on the island, and filled us in on how and why. We asked them about their life in Alaska — they live about 4 hours outside of Anchorage in a rustic log cabin. How cool is that?! The guy also happened to be from Iowa originally. He has traveled around the different Hawaiian islands, so he started comparing and giving us his one-word take on them. The word he used to describe Maui was “Plenty.” Plenty of fresh fruit, plenty to share, and a certain generosity and hospitality among the locals.
When we said goodnight to our new friends, we retired to our tent. Despite it being a bit noisier around the campsite, we both were able to sleep well, drifting off to the sound of the nearby ocean waves.