Hiking the Lahaina Pali Trail | Camping at Papalaua State Wayside Park | January 2, 2020
After our first two days of vacation had gone off without a hitch, it was only a matter of time that something unexpected should happen. We had planned to spend our third day of vacation in Southwest Maui, and then take the ferry to Lanai on our last day. Things became a little bit logistically complicated here, but we thought we had it all figured out beforehand.
Since we were taking the ferry to Lanai and then flying home from there, we wouldn’t need a car on our last day, but we could only return our rental at the airport in Kahului (maybe we could’ve avoided this complication with other rental companies, but we had just gone with the cheapest option). We checked out the bus system and it looked like it would work out just fine — there was a bus that went from Kahului to Lahaina, and then others that went further up the coast, so we could get around West Maui that way. Curtis even found a hiking trail that started right off the highway at one point on the way to Lahaina and ended several miles down the road along the same bus route. We planned to camp that night in a county park that we thought was just North of Lahaina, then we could catch the first bus the next morning into town to take the ferry. It felt like we had thought everything through and were prepared, but unfortunately the plan started to unravel little by little that morning.
We got up before the sun and said goodbye to Haleakala as we drove down the mountain. When looking for a gas station in Kahului, we came across the one and only Krispy Kreme’s in Hawaii and naturally had to stop. Since they also had Wifi, we decided it was a good time to look up exact addresses of places we were planning to visit. First was the Parks & Recreation office in Lahaina. While planning this trip, we read online that we could camp at a place called Papalaua State Wayside Park. There were permits and rules and everything on their website, but no address or email to send in the permits — they must be submitted and obtained in person. The office had been closed the past 2 days for New Year’s, so today was the only day we could pick it up. After figuring out where the office was, I searched for where the actual campground was. It turned out to be nowhere near where Curtis had thought when planning — I’m not sure how this happened, but the campsite was actually 11 miles South of Lahaina and not just North of town. That’s fine, we thought, we would just have to get up even earlier and take a different bus.
We went and returned our rental car, then got on the bus and bought day passes for $4 each. After one transfer, we were on the bus headed for Lahaina. This is when the next complication came up — we realized that this bus makes minimal stops along the way. We saw on the bus app where each stop was and hoped that they actually had more stops than that…but no, about a half hour into our ride we were passing by the beach where we hoped to camp with no stops in sight. The closest one was in Ma’alaea, 5 miles away. We started to become concerned and began thinking through alternative plans.
After getting off the bus in Lahaina, we walked to the Parks & Recreation office and talked through our options. We could take a bus back to the airport, rent another car for a day, then drive it back first thing in the morning and take another bus to Lahaina. We could camp illegally at a closer beach (I gave that one a big fat ‘No’ immediately). We could try to stay in a hostel in Lahaina (a quick Google search told us that they were all booked and not that cheap either). We could just take a ferry to Lanai today and camp either at their one official campsite on the island for $80 (!!!) or take our chances with camping ‘illegally’ there (there seemed to be so much open vacant land, would anyone really care? While maybe possible, it would be a potentially expensive mistake to make if we were caught). Or we could do our best to go along with our original plan and take Uber or Lyft when necessary. We decided to go along with that, as long as there were still camping permits available.
We reached the office, and thankfully there were several spots still open. We were able to get a camping permit for $10 (it would be $20 for non-Hawaii residents). Since this was a longer walk than we had planned, we decided to take a bus back into Lahaina’s town center and figure out where to go from there. The bus only came by every hour, so we first crossed the street to hang out at the beach before going back to the bus stop.
We got on the bus for what was supposed to be a quick ride back into town…when Curtis realized he didn’t have his jacket. We knew he had it that morning and I remembered seeing it when we were at the permit office, so it had to be somewhere around that area. It seemed a little silly to be fretting over a second-hand jacket that we paid less than $10 for over a year ago, especially as the temperatures were creeping up to be our warmest day of vacation yet. But this rain jacket was such a good investment and we really do use our jackets a lot (and it proved to be very much necessary to make it through the next day, but more on that later). We arrived back at the the main stop in Lahaina, and decided that I would stay behind with our backpacks (because at this point without a rental car, we were carrying everything: our tents, sleeping bags, food, water…) and Curtis would retrace our steps and hopefully find the jacket and make it back to the bus stop before it came by in the next hour.
Thankfully this worked out, Curtis found his jacket and made it to the bus in time, and an hour later was back with me. We had our next step sorted out: We were going to take the Lahaina-Kahului bus to Ma’alaea because the trail Curtis had picked for the day started around there and ended near the beach where we’d camp that night. This way, we’d only need to pay for one Lyft ride early the next morning into Lahaina. We arrived in Ma’alaea around 2, strapped on our heavy backpacks, refilled water at a gas station, and walked along the highway to our trailhead.
Hiking the Lahaina Pali Trail
Our hike for today was the Lahaina Pali Trail, which is a 5 mile through hike from one point to another following a historic path over the foothills of West Maui. I guess if we had come with a car, we would’ve either had to only hike half the trail or double the distance by walking from one end to the other and back, so this way we were able to efficiently hike the entire trail. We did have to add an extra mile at the beginning for the road walk, and in the heat of the day with heavy backpacks that felt like no small feat. But at this point, we didn’t really have any other way to get to our campsite 5 miles away.
We finally reached the actual trailhead, and stopped to read the signs about the historical significance of the area. There were also very descriptive signs about the exact trail length, elevation gain, and conditions. They called it a rugged trail, which I wasn’t sure I felt up for, but again — we didn’t have a choice at this point. Besides, what else would we do, take a Lyft to the campsite and beach bum for several hours? …Ok, that doesn’t sound terrible, but it’s not our style.
Onward we walked, with only about 3-3 ½ hours left of daylight. The first 1.3 miles of the trail were probably the steepest, over a rocky trail that gained over a thousand feet in elevation. We took frequent breaks and drank lots of water. It wasn’t comfortable with the heavy backpacks, but I constantly reminded myself that this is what we want. We always talk about our desire to backpack, and this is exactly what we’re asking for.
After the 1.3 mile sign, the trail got easier and even had some shaded parts. The most interesting part came about halfway through, when we came across the wind turbines. If you’ve flown to Maui, you may know what I’m talking about: there’s a line of wind turbines that stretch up the side of a ridgeline in Southwestern Maui. We walked right past them, and it was really fascinating. First off, we learned that they’re really loud, like constant planes flying over (a point we had questioned when protesters tried blocking construction of similar turbines here on Oahu). There were informational signs there where we learned more about what they’re made of and other fun facts. After this point, we began our long descent down the second half of the trail. On this last part, we came across more hikers and enjoyed watching the sun set, making it to the end of the trail just as it dipped below the horizon.
Finally, we reached the end of the trail, where all we had to do was cross the busy highway and road walk less than a half mile to our campsite at Papalaua State Wayside Park. However, we arrived only to find a family with a giant tent already set up there. Curtis went to the dad and started to ask about whether they had a permit and tell them they were in our spot, but they turned out to be French and didn’t understand. “Oh, our reservation is under Lindsey…” he replied, which we knew wasn’t true because there were no reservations here, just first come-first serve permits that you have to get in person. But we aren’t confrontational people and weren’t up for arguing with foreign people, so we forfeited our rightful spot and went to talk to the campers that would have been our neighbors. Since they had also been to the office that day, we asked what spots they remembered being available, and made our way to one of those. We found one of them to be empty, but just in case, we waited to set up our tent until around 8. I have to say that out of all the things that stressed us out today, this was the part that got to me the most. After coming up with solutions and doing everything we needed to do to camp legally even though it wasn’t convenient, only to not get our campsite, annoyed me. I felt like it affected my sleep that night because I was constantly waking up wondering if we would get kicked out of this spot.
But the night passed, and thankfully everything turned out fine. I will say though that if you’re thinking of camping here, it’s right along a noisy highway and this was anything but a quiet night. In fact, camping right next to us was a family that had screaming kids AND was blasting music, but we couldn’t even hear those because of the traffic. Camping in either district of Haleakala was much quieter and more enjoyable, even though both areas can be crowded. And while we’ve camped “on the beach” before both on Maui and Kauai, this was the first time we had to camp on actual sand and not a grassy area near the beach, and sand got EVERYWHERE. Also, this was the most expensive campsite we’ve stayed at on Maui. But at only $10 and relatively close to where we needed to be the next morning, we couldn’t complain.
We ended our day with eating risotto and sausage on our camp stove. It rained off and on throughout the night and the wind was pretty strong. But eventually the traffic noise died down a little, and we listened to the sound of the ocean waves as we drifted off to sleep.