The Back Road to Hana

Kipahulu

One of the many reasons Maui’s remote eastern coast remains a global destination is that it can easily lay claim to having some of the most exquisite sights on the planet.

A mere glance at the statistics is enough to inspire astonishment: the road to Hana may be only 52 miles from the island’s central isthmus, but those miles are comprised of 59 stone bridges and 619 hairpin turns. Along the way, visitors bear witness to one nearly-improbable marvel after another—from canopied rainforests teeming with wild birds to vertiginous cliffs that split into the Pacific to one glistening waterfall after another.

From the moment you venture onto this road, you’ll note that nature here has a voice. Crashing waves and abundant rain give way to insects so profuse and alive they provide a background buzz to Hana’s humid air. Is it any wonder why this dramatic slice of the Valley Isle sees more than a million visitors per year?

But many visitors make the mistake of turning around at Ohe’o Gulch and heading back to their accommodations from the way they came. While certainly understandable—some rental car companies explicitly prohibit driving the “back road to Hana,” and the road is narrower and more harrowing than its oft-treaded northern parts—lapping around the mountain offers a whole new side of paradise.

Back Road to Hana

 

The Back Road to Hana

backside Hana

 

If nature has a voice on the road to Hana, then it takes on a different timbre just past Kipahulu. Called “The Beyond” by some, “the backside of Haleakala” by others, this isolated, gorgeous road grants visitors one of the most telling glimpses of Maui’s vibrant history.

Shortly after the tiered pools that spill into the Pacific at Ohe’o Gulch, the landscape radically changes—from the lushness of Hana, where mango groves and guava forests are nourished by more than 250 inches of rainfall per year, to the sunnier, dryer realm of the island’s southeastern side (thus explaining Kipahulu’s translation of “fetch from exhausted gardens”). Indeed, if Hana is defined by its greenery, then the end of its road is distinguished by desolation.

 

Charles Lindbergh’s Grave, Laulima Farm, and the Kipahulu Coastline

 

Charles Lindbergh HanaAs you begin your trek into these barren parts, two points of interest remain just past Ohe’o Gulch.

The first is Charles Lindbergh’s grave at Palapala Ho’omau Church—a chapel, fashioned out of limestone coral, whose grounds supply some of the most striking vistas of Hana’s shoreline. Stay for a spell under the copses of plumeria and you’ll understand why the famous aviator chose this as his final resting place.

Laulima FarmOn the mauka side of the road, you’ll then come across a brightly-colored sign for Laulima Farm. This 13-acre organic orchard grows a variety of tropical wonders, from papaya and cacao to pineapple and ginger. Their bright and breezy stand is open 7 days a week; pop in for a slice of cold, pickled mango, or a cup of plantation-grown coffee.

The banks of native plants you’ll find as you head deeper onto the island’s southeastern flank tell a fascinating story. Archeological discoveries from the Kipahulu Coastline suggest that, prior to Captain Cook’s arrival and the sugarcane boom that ensued in the 19th century, a large population of Hawaiians flourished in this space (evidenced in part by the ancient rock walls and village remnants found at and near Ohe’o Gulch). Added to Haleakala National Park in 1951, the upper sections of this region—which are nearly inaccessible—were found to possess the biggest hotbed of native plants in all of Hawaii: 200 different species, only 20 of which were introduced by man. What’s more, members of the Nature Conservancy discovered that the plants here display arborescence—a propensity to evolve into tree-like forms. (Lobelias are just one remarkable example of this tendency. Otherwise small and humble, more than a dozen species of lobelia grow to forty feet in height in the wonderland that is Kipahulu.)

Oheo Gulch Hana

 

The Beyond

 

Continue south and such dense vegetation starts to fade. The road—which possesses blind turns that call for extreme caution—hugs the coastline on one side and grasslands on the other, and some stretches tower precipitously over the water. The views here are downright spectacular, rendering the rugged patches of road (broken pavement, gravel, tapered, one-lane tracks) part of the area’s seduction. Resting beyond Haleakala’s rain shadow—thereby making it challenging for plant life to thrive—this vast expanse of land calls to mind the golden coastal prairies of California, and are made all the more majestic by the dearth of traffic and complete lack of modern structures.

Driving Hana Highway

 

Kaupo

 

Kaupo GapWhat structures you will come across will be found in Kaupo. A century ago, this Wahi Pana (or “special place”) was a lively community filled with farmers, hunters, ranchers, fishermen, and their families. Steamships would pull into Kaupo Landing and the town’s residents would come together for hukilau (a group fish haul); meanwhile, canoers paused on the town’s shores while sailing from Lahaina to the Big Island. Today, the tiny hamlet is sparsely populated, but it boasts some of the most compelling buildings on the island.

The first is Kaupo Store, a small, colorful store—complete with a tin roof and plank walls—that sells cold beer, icy sodas, Hawaiian shirts, locally-crafted wares, and Haagen-Dazs bars. (The food here is limited; gather provisions at Hasegawa’s in Hana town.) Down the dry, windswept road, you’ll find Huialoha Church. Built in 1859 by church laborers and native Hawaiians, this whitewashed Congregational chapel—which has weathered gale-force winds, rock slides, earthquakes, and the departure of its flock—sits on the Mokulau Peninsula and provides views of the seemingly-boundless ocean.

 

Kaupo Gap, Pokowai Sea Arch, and Manawainui Gulch

 

Shortly thereafter you’ll be given another splendid view—that of Kaupo Gap.

An immense valley in the leeward shoulder of Haleakala, it was once believed that this area was vulnerable to geologic forces before scientists confirmed that the gulch was created by wind and rain erosion. A hiker’s Shangri-la, it’s the shortest distance from summit to sea level. But trekkers aren’t the only ones who relish these knockout views of Maui’s most deserted coasts: cattle from Kaupo Ranch roam through these quiet parts.

Past Kaupo you’ll have the chance to view the Pokowai Sea Arch—a bleak but beautiful arch that was formed when Haleakala’s lava collided with the cold Pacific waters. You’ll then encounter the dazzling-in-its-massiveness Manawainui Gulch. As the road soldiers on—pot-holed in parts and paved in others—you’ll catch sight of Hawaiian ruins, jagged lava rocks, and mile after mile of wild, even lonely, uninhabited country.

Lonely it may be but this silent sweep of land gives way to breathtaking views of La Perouse Bay, Makena Beach, Pu’u O’lai, and Wailea. Bask in it all from this unique perspective before Ulupalakua Ranch begins to assert itself. Here, the road changes again, swapping its deserted slopes for grasslands dotted with horses and jacarandas in full, brilliant bloom. No doubt that after such a ride a part of you will have been transformed too.


La Perouse Makena

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