This is Part 2 of a series on The Road to Hana and the “Forbidden Road” aka the Piilani Highway aka “the back road” to Haleakala. If you’d like to read about our experiences heading towards Hana, check out Part 1 by clicking here.
The Piilani Highway has a legendarily bad reputation due to a sometimes literally lethal combination of really rough road patches, blind turns (some with cliff walls on one side and cliff drops into the Pacific ocean on the other) with one lane for both traffic directions, flash flood washouts, and locals who have little patience for slow-driving, picture-taking, gawking tourists who have never negotiated a road like this before. Oh also, supposedly rental car companies forbid driving on this road and would “void your contract” if you did go here. Whatever that means.
Making matters worse, the highway had been closed just two and a half weeks prior to our drive due to rockslides wrecking large chunks of the road. I’d seen that it had re-opened to traffic but 4-wheel drive cars were recommended (although not required). I figured our Jeep Grand Cherokee rental qualified but you know… it’s not REALLY what you want if you’re planning to do some serious off-roading.
As for the rental contract, ours (with Alamo) said nothing of the sort – it was literally the exact same agreement as what I’ve seen in Florida (an elsewhere) which is not really well known for mountain and cliffside driving. I don’t even know where this rumor came from, because even if it did say that… what would be the net effect? They won’t come get you if you get stuck? Ok? Do they do that regularly if you’re driving on the interstate? Or maybe you’ll be responsible for any damage to the car… again, ok? How is this different than driving anywhere else? Also, if your main concern is that you might crash head on into oncoming traffic or drive over a cliff, I highly doubt your last thoughts before sinking to the bottom of the Pacific would be “oh no, what will the rental car company think of me?” The bottom line is that your incentive to be careful should have absolutely nothing to do with what your rental car contract says. Like, come on.
Also, after having driven up and down Haleakala, I don’t really see why a rental car company would find one acceptable over another. Even while staying in low gear, I had to ride the brake big time coming down the mountain, if only because the guy in front of me kept doing it! Way more wear and tear on that drive (and my worn out driving foot) than anything we did on the Piilani Highway.
If you haven’t figured out where I’m going with this, I’ll just spell it right out for you, there’s nothing more dangerous or worse about the Piilani Highway than the Road to Hana. If anything, it’s probably LESS dangerous since there’s so much less oncoming traffic heading your way! Especially compared to the last 5 miles of the Hana Highway where suddenly we started coming face to face with all the people who started their day about an hour before us, now heading back in the opposite direction… and by the way, the road gets quite rough towards the end, long before the “forbidden” portion starts.
And let me tell you – this was by far my favorite part of the day. Like it wasn’t even close. After hours of jungle driving, we suddenly burst out onto the coast with absolutely incredible vistas on both sides of the car. To the right, the sloping, beautiful monstrosity that is Haleakala. To the left, the beautiful blue monstrosity that is the Pacific Ocean. Also, being that this side of Maui is the dry side, for the first time that day we got the dazzling sun and clear skies.
Not only do you get these grand vistas, but you go through a whole host of different landscapes. You start out in a jungle, which transitions into lush green hills, then a canyon, then a lava blasted landscape, then drier mountain valley grasslands, before finally getting an incredible view of Maui’s west mountains toward the end. Seriously it’s like driving through the Shire, Rohan, Fangorn, and Mordor all within the span of two hours! Or if you prefer real world examples, try Ireland, California, Colorado, and yeah even Hawaii itself.
You also get views of some of the smaller outlying islands around Maui, and if the weather is clear, the Moana Kea and Moana Lau mountains on the Big Island.
Is it treacherous? I guess, maybe? I didn’t think it was any more dangerous than the Road the Hana itself, which has far more blind turns, one-way bridges, and oncoming traffic than Forbidden Piilani. Numerous times on the Hana Highway, I had to pass by some idiot who didn’t yield and was terrified to drive past me because the distance between us was less than a foot. Like yeah pal, that’s kind of how this thing works! On Piilani, I maybe had 4 or 5 total encounters with oncoming traffic, and in every case one of us yielded without it being an issue. On Hana, there were multiple times where MULTIPLE CARS had to pass within a few inches of my mirror on one side, while the sharp cliff edge was within inches of the passenger side mirror.
You’re telling me it would be safer to turn around and spend 3 more hours doing that dozens more times? Preposterous.
Sure, the road was rougher during the first 5-10 miles or so than most of the Hana Highway (until the part between Hana and the national park entrance where it kind of just starts falling apart). Some parts were unpaved, other parts barely maintained. But so what? Having a rough road FORCES you to drive slower and if you’re expecting to be speeding around turns on the Hana Highway because it’s asphalt vs gravel, do me a favor and please just stay home.
Now the rock slides are no joke. We saw where the road had been crushed a few weeks ago, and it was clear that being on that road during whatever storm produced this could be a death sentence. And had the Hawaii Department of Transportation NOT opened things up just a few days prior to our drive, we would have had no choice but to turn around. Honestly though in retrospect, if we had to do that, I think I would have rather not gone at all. Again, I want to repeat, the “forbidden” Piilani Highway was the shorter, more comfortable, more scenic, and SAFER option than driving back past 100’s of tourist cars for three hours.
I understand that the locals don’t want us clogging up their road, and I respect that. Although everyone I encountered was courteous (maybe because I took every opportunity to pull over and let them pass, or yielded to give the oncoming car the right of way even when it was technically mine), so I’m pretty sure that if you find them to be obnoxious it’s a *you* problem, not a *them* problem. Which by the way – is way more than I can say about most of the self-absorbed tourist cars on the Hana Highway.
It does get narrow, there are some cliffs, and the road is definitely nasty until you get to the Nu’u Refuge. But if you’ve driven down Observer Highway in Hoboken in late March, you can probably handle it. Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch, but actually the bad parts really just reminded me of some of the rougher parts of the Old Mine Road in New Jersey, just for a little longer.
Once it opens up past Kaupo though, man… what a fun drive. I really haven’t been on a road like this since New Zealand, only this time I was able to drive on the right side of the road (well technically since it’s often just one lane, there’s no “side” but at least I was on left side of the car like I’m used to!) and fully enjoy the trip. You’ll even start to have some two-way traffic with a separate lane for oncoming cars in places, which never happens at all on the Hana Highway. Eventually it becomes two lanes for good before rejoining the rest of the Maui highway system.
Maybe it was just the euphoric feeling of bursting out into the open landscape after the stifling/crowded jungle drive. Maybe it was just being on an open road with almost no other cars for the first time in years. Maybe it was feeling like I was being transported across half a dozen completely different landscapes in an hour. Or maybe it was just the relief of not having to backtrack for three hours against the current of dozens of inexperienced, terrible driving tourists.
All I can say is, ignore the naysayers. If you can do the Road to Hana, you can do the forbidden road back. The Piilani Highway is absolutely preferable to backtracking, and if you don’t think you can handle it, or if you’re worried about “voiding your rental contract” you probably shouldn’t be trying to drive to Hana in the first place. In fact, if more people did it this way, it would make the Road the Hana a lot safer and more comfortable to drive! Although that would probably ruin the Piilani experience for the people who know it.
Hell, I would even say you could consider skipping the entire Hana Highway and just drive the “back road to Hana” to the Seven Sacred Pools and back. At the very least – you MUST take the drive from central Maui to Kaupo on its own even if you don’t want to go the distance, or on a separate day from Hana. Or even if you’re not planning to do the Hana Highway at all! The views are incredible, and there’s even Maui’s only winery!
And here’s the kicker – turning around at O’heo Gulch/The Seven Sacred Pools and backtracking the entire length of the Hana Highway, takes an HOUR LONGER than just continuing on!
Just be smart – check the road and weather conditions before you leave. If there’s ANY chance of rain on the backside of Haleakala, don’t go. Make sure you have an SUV, take it really slow during the rough part (especially on the turns), and don’t be a jerk and stop in the middle of the road to take pictures. There are plenty of pull-outs and overlooks you can stop at. And I guess review your rental agreement? Not really sure what you’re looking for though?
It really is the better option, and the road for pretty much that entire stretch is a delight.
And man did I feel like I earned my nighttime jacuzzi soak when we got back to our hotel.
Verdict: The Piilani Highway is a challenging, but exhilarating use of the time we are given.