The Road to Hana and the Piilani Highway (aka the “Forbidden” Road)

The Road to Hana and the Piilani Highway (aka the “Forbidden” Road)

So I wrote this right after we got back from a rather epic driving day. After leaving the house at 8 am in the morning heading east via the Hana Highway, we staggered back at about 7 pm after heading west on the Piilani Highway.

In short, the trip was incredible. But you already knew that, right? The Road to Hana is one of the best-known drives in the entire world. Nicknamed “the Divorce Highway” because of all the supposed arguments it inspires among newlyweds who drive it on their honeymoons in Maui, this is a classic “journey not the destination” type of experience. The idea is not really to get to Hana, which as a town doesn’t have a ton to see or do (although the food trucks at the end are quite a delicious, hard-won reward), but rather it’s about stopping at waterfalls, natural pools, beaches, scenic overlooks, the occasional arboretum, and yes of course – some world-class banana bread.

The reason for all the arguments? Well, the Road to Hana has an incessant amount of turns and blind curves, often shrinking to one shared lane for both traffic directions while going over dozens of one-lane bridges. 

Combine that with extremely limited sight distances while driving through the jungle, endless amounts of waterfalls that tourists often stop to photograph with no warning, chaotic parking areas that never have enough room for everyone who wants a spot, and returning drivers going in the opposite direction with no experience how to navigate the above, you can imagine a series of unprepared couples screaming at each other over whether or not to continue. Oh yeah, and there are also cliffs, although not as many as I thought there would be.

I’ll just give a brief summary of our stops, since this topic has been done to death on a ton of travel blogs. I’m much more interested in talking about the return journey on the Forbidden Road, aka Piilani Highway, a subject I had not seen enough about before taking the drive myself.

On our drive to Hana, we stopped at the “Garden of Eden” arboretum (ok), Aunty Sandy’s Banana Bread (outstanding), the famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park (pretty good), countless waterfalls and overlooks (really pretty but not a huge difference between one and the next), and the “Seven Sacred Pools” at the other side of Haleakala National Park (inconclusive).

While all of these stops were worth doing, in a few sentences here’s what you should know about all of them. 

The Garden of Eden on the Road to Hana
See it there in the middle at the bottom of the valley? This is as close as you get to the rock the helicopter flies past in Jurassic Park. It’s nice, but better not be the only reason you stop at the “Garden of Eden”.

The Garden of Eden involved about 15 minutes of waiting in line and costs $20 per adult. The view of the famous rock from Jurassic Park was cool, but you don’t even get within 1,000 yards of it. We ended up leaving pretty soon after we arrived since there was so much else to see and it took so long to get in. The grounds were nice though so if you’re really into interesting plants and aren’t planning on making a lot of other stops, I say go for it.

Keanae Lookout
This is just 2 minutes down the road from Aunty Sandy’s Banana Bread at Keanae Lookout. Don’t miss it!

Aunty Sandy’s Banana Bread really lived up to the hype. Worth it for sure – just keep in mind that it comes out hot right out of the oven and takes about 15 minutes for it to be prepared (although ours seemed to come sooner). Pro tip – after getting your bread, don’t be a fool like 90% of the people we saw, and just turn around and go back the way you came. Head down the road to the end for an incredible view of waves smashing into gigantic lava rock formations. It was one of the surprise highlights of the day and had ample parking and limited crowds. Eat your banana bread there!

The black sand beach at Waiʻānapanapa State Park
The black sand beach at Waiʻānapanapa State Park is pretty cool but very crowded, small, and not so convenient to get to. You need to take a bunch of stairs down the side of this cliff to get there.

Waianapanapa State Park’s famous black sand beach was nice, but very small and quite crowded. You have to pay $30 and make a reservation in advance to get there, and go up/down a lot of stairs past the showers/restrooms. Once you’re at the bottom, you’re not going to want to go back up until it’s time to leave, so uh… make sure your needs are attended to prior to heading down. The waves and current are pretty intense too. You really need a spare hour to make this worth the trip, and if you’ve already been to a black sand beach elsewhere (like Santorini in Greece) you could probably skip it and spend more time at waterfalls – and it’s way easier to clean up after a dunk in a waterfall-fed pool, than getting black pebbles out of every nook and cranny.

This is what it’s all about folks. Waterfalls. Lots and lots of waterfalls.

I can’t really talk much about the dozens of waterfalls we drove by or saw because as the driver I barely got to see them, as my main focus was not driving off a cliff or into an oncoming car. They all looked very pretty, but they were also all completely mobbed, with almost nowhere to park near them. The few we were able to get out of the car to see were crawling with other people which really isn’t how I prefer to experience nature. Looked like it would be fun to jump into the pools they create though. I just didn’t want to drive back in the dark, especially knowing the Piilani Highway lurked ahead, so the possibility of getting wet and drying off multiple times was off the table, especially since we planned to take a dip at the Seven Sacred Pools after the black sand beach.

Same thing for the overlooks. Pretty nice, but totally mobbed, and tough to find parking. We also had mostly clouds and a little rain during the pre-Hana portion of the drive so our viewing distance was pretty severely constrained. Getting in and out of the parking lots (when they weren’t totally full) was also pretty chaotic and stressful so – again for me personally – not my cup of tea.

'O'he'o Gulch Kipahulu Maui
The end of the Road to Hana. The top image in this post was another view. This place was excellent and I wish we had more time to spend here.

Our final stop after picking up a burrito and quesadilla for a late (and very messy) lunch on our way out of Hana, was the Seven Sacred Pools hike at the national park. I specify hike because for whatever reason the pools themselves were closed so we couldn’t go in, we could only see them. They looked nice though! Also more waterfalls, and the coast! And the sun finally came out and stayed out for us. This was definitely the best view we had of the drive, and because it’s a national park there was actually an organized parking lot, and some space to move around without worrying about getting run over.

From here we proceeded towards the Piilani Highway.

All day I kept hearing Saruman in my head saying “Piilani… you fear to take that road… the tourists drive too greedily and too stupidly… you know what they awoke in the middle of nowhere… head on collisions and pissed off locals.”

There apparently was also a rockslide a few weeks prior and the road had only recently re-opened. The ranger at the entrance to the national park said the road was open, but the two rangers at the visitor center, after correcting my pronunciation of Piilani (it’s pronounced “Pih-ih-lah-nee” not Pilani) really tried to discourage me from going, saying it was really only supposed to be used by local residents, and I could void my rental agreement by going that way. 

But was it open? It was, they admitted, but they didn’t want to comment on anything outside the park. After talking it over as a family/team though, we decided that going back the way we came wouldn’t just be boring (I have a pretty strict “no backtracking” policy on adventure trips), but the idea of driving against the current of tourists around all the cliff-hugging turns and one-lane bridges did not seem particularly safe either. 

Towards the end of the Road to Hana we started encountering a lot more cars making the return trip, and started frequently having to deal with drivers who were afraid to get too close to cars going the opposite direction as them, leaving it to us to come within inches of losing a mirror as we passed them when they refused to back up into a pullout. It was extremely frustrating and a few times it was pretty dangerous too. And here we would be going against most of the flow of traffic, so we’d be dealing with triple the number of these encounters. 

The thought of dealing with that for hours, as opposed to continuing forward, having 99% less opposing traffic (because who’s driving TO Hana at 4:30 in the afternoon, and using the “forbidden road” no less), cutting down our driving time by an hour AND seeing the entire other side of the island, kind of made this a no brainer. Plus the ranger at the entrance was very matter-of-fact about the road being open, while the other guys seemed to have some kind of weird agenda. Also both the Hawaii Department of Transportation and the Maui County website both said the road was open and there weren’t even restrictions on what kinds of cars could drive on there. We were in a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had 4-wheel drive, so like… what’s the problem?

Lots and lots of these waterfalls on the Road to Hana. But don’t be fooled by the picture I took, there are tons of people everywhere.

Lastly, the last couple of miles past Hana on the Hana Highway weren’t really in the greatest condition either. What I had read about the Piilani Highway was that it wasn’t much more curvy or narrow than the “proper” road, just that it was partially gravel and not as well maintained. That doesn’t scare me at all. So, we decided to push forward, and despite all the warnings about rental agreements and everything else, we made a left instead of a right and decided to go for it.

So how did we do? Was it the right decision? Check out Part 2 on the Road to Hana and the Piilani Highway, aka The Forbidden Road when I post it later this week.

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