Visitors to Hana often remark that the journey there is just as important as the destination; thumb through a guidebook and you’re apt to come across the same. But the spin on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous words have become something of a cliché for a reason: the drive to Maui’s most sacred and secluded town is as enthralling as the picturesque village that rests at its end. Comprising 52 cliff-hugging miles, 600 curves, and 54 bridges—and all of it enveloped by sheer drops to the sea and vast, glistening rainforests—it’s true that Hana’s wonder begins the moment you glide past Haiku.
Spectacular spots abound on the way to the town of roughly 1,200, from the breathtaking Wailua Overlook to the many marvels at Wainapanapa State Park. Among Hana Highway’s many gems also lies Waikamoi Ridge Trail (Waikamoi Nature Trail), a modest hike that’ll drive home precisely why this side of the island is often considered tantamount to heaven.
Waikamoi Ridge Trail—an often unnoticed attraction on the Pacific’s most fabled road—climbs towards the sky just past mile marker 9 between Twin Falls and the Garden of Eden Arboretum before Ke’anae. A broad shoulder that serves as a parking lot on the mauka side of the twisty road leads to the trailhead, where a sign canopied by old growth asks visitors to be quiet; the trees are at work. At less than a mile, this hike is as breezy as the trades blowing in from the Big Island, serving as the perfect stop for avid trekkers and sporadic hikers alike. But be forewarned: parts of this trail are slippery when wet. (In other words, prep for stretches of mud and small puddles.)
Wide, manmade stairs interspersed with tiered roots take visitors into dense forestry with the first step. There, thickets of trees that compete for attention with peekaboo views of the Pacific indeed seem to be working—at multiplying, that is. Groves of paperbark—a variety of eucalyptus named for its pale bark, which peels off like pages of a much-loved book—give way to columns of bamboo that creak in the wind like flutes.
Positioned at the far eastern edge of the Waikamoi Preserve, which is home to some of Maui’s oldest trees, including a 600-year-old native ‘ohia, the trail enchants with its mix of indigenous and introduced species. Bright bunches of heliconia—a rainforest regular that favors the tropical regions of the Americas—clamor for admiration amidst the lush ferns; with their red-orange talons for petals, it’s no wonder that these ornamental jewels are frequently called lobster claws in other parts of the world.
Ascending 200 feet through a copse so thick and green it almost feels hallucinatory, you’ll find a lone bench in a small clearing. Pause for a moment to absorb the scenic beauty: the great bowl of rainforest in the valley below and the verdant greenery on the ridges above. Consider the slice of sea and sky a glimpse of your future: just beyond the next few bends, you’ll find Ke’anae Peninsula, a finger of lava that houses taro patches, an ancient fishing village, and one of Hawaii’s oldest and most beloved churches.
A large part of Hana’s allure is the opportunity it offers to forget the outside world and instead embrace wild, unsullied nature. Walk deeper among the trees and life as you know it will take on the quality of a distant dream. Mango trees ripe with fruit elbow kukui nut, which holds the honor as Hawaii’s state tree. Snap a pic, as this beauty is considered a beacon of peace and protection, perhaps in part because ancient Hawaiians lit the nuts for light and used the burning bulbs to measure time. Step farther in to find spiky hala trees and lichen-covered ‘ohia, a towering tree steeped in Hawaiian mythology. (Rumor has it that the twisted sapling—one of few to grow in lava—is the result of a man who deigned to spurn Pele.) Tropical ginger in sweetheart hues (think: glossy reds and pinks), lobed philodendron large as elephant ears, and pala’a ferns with radiant leaves soak up the plentiful rain that falls on Maui’s eastern slopes (to the tune of 300 inches per year).
Located just past the community of Kailua—a tiny hamlet that caters to employees of the East Maui Irrigation Company—Waikamoi Ridge Trail is also home to a number of birds, from the red-bellied I’iwi to the buzzy amakihi. And listen closely amid the clatter of insects for the sound of parrots in the distance: the nearby arboretum shelters this bright, gregarious bird.
After your initial ascent, you’ll come to a sign indicating the continuation of the trail loop—which will lead you back to the shoulder from which you came—or the choice to keep rising on the extended hike. Take the road less traveled by opting for the latter, a relatively short, mildly sloped incline through even more prodigious expanses of serenity. Here, ‘ohe, or bamboo—an exceptionally versatile canoe crop that’s thought to have arrived in Hawaii with the first Polynesian settlers—walls the trail, which grows gnarlier in more ways than one: the exposed roots that function as nature’s steps become thicker, ropier and slicker the higher you ascend. Along the way, you’ll pass forests of mahogany, while intermittent plagues offer brief lessons in botany. Halt when you reach kopiko, an understory plant that thrives in the wet wilderness. Feeling plucky? Lift a leaf—the perpetually grinning Happy-Face Spider, a spindly-legged critter endemic to Hawaii, is known to hang out on the underside of the kopiko leaves.
Plunge ahead and you’ll reach a clearing—both of the mind and of the forest. Jungle-green pandanus groves frame a square of sun-splashed grass, while a picnic table and benches offer hikers a chance to rest their feet and enjoy a bite. The respite found here is well-worth the extra jaunt—the only noise being the electrical hum of insects and the sweet trill of birds. Relish it and make Emerson proud, for this is the sort of place where poetry is made. Then, descend with care. Hana is set to a slower clock, reminding all who come that nature doesn’t hurry—and yet, as Lao Tzu once wrote, everything is accomplished.
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