The Counter-Clockwise road to Hana

Read about the clockwise road to Hana here

Every Maui guidebook, youtube video, and tripadvisor review will tell you to take the road to Hana. It’s Maui’s #1 tourist attraction and it takes the top spot for a reason — it’s an adventurous drive through a rainforest paradise. However, what the internet and print media doesn’t agree on is — whether to take the more popular, well-established clockwise road to Hana, or to take the seemingly riskier, edgier counter-clockwise road to get there.

The good news is that you can approach Hana through either direction. Your choice purely depends on your interests, your driving skill, and your risk tolerance. In our trip to Maui in November 2020, we visited Hana multiple times, taking different roads at different times of the day. It’s not that we were obsessed with Hana and we wanted to drive these roads multiple times — we just happened to plan poorly and were adventurous enough to let serendipity guide us in our decision-making :)

Tropical Paradise

It’s myth-busting time!

Ok lets first bust some myths.

Myth 1: Counter-clockwise road to Hana is treacherous and should not be done

Obviously not true. We drove it twice. In a Nissan Sentra. We are still alive.

The reality is that on an average, a road in Hawaii is perhaps more dangerous than your average road in the lower 48. There is mountainous terrain, rugged coastline, narrower roads, sharper turns, unpredictable weather, not many streetlights etc. You should always drive with caution. As long as you’re not doing something stupid (eg. texting and driving, looking out and taking a selfie before a blind turn), you should be fine.

Myth 2: Rental car companies void your contract if you drive the counter-clockwise route

This is not true. I have a feeling this rumor was spread to prevent inexperienced drivers from driving through a remote section of the island. Probably for good reason. Given that there are no traces of human civilization in some sections of this road, I can imagine you’d be in a tough spot if you did encounter an issue.

Myth 3: There is a scary unpaved section — don’t drive it

Like I said earlier, we drove our fabulous 2-wheeled drive Nissan Sentra and we had no problems. There are two sections on the entire road that have a questionable surface — one is a paved road with potholes, and another is a gravel road. Both are pretty short sections (maybe 20 mins each). As long as you drive slow, you should be good.

Disclaimer

You’re probably thinking — ahh this is the section where the author will conveniently negate everything he wrote earlier to absolve himself of any responsibility. Well, that’s partly true. Hawaii experiences unexpected changes in weather conditions. So, it would be wise to use your common sense during these road trips. If the road looks flooded, turn back. If you’re not getting the traction you need, turn back. If you feel nervous about driving, turn back. In general, driving during rain conditions is risky given the potential for flash floods. Driving during night is risky given lower visibility.

Now, on to the counter-clockwise road to Hana

We started our journey in Kihei. From Kihei, the counter-clockwise path to Hana can be broken down into the following sections:

  1. Kihei to Pukalani (Why the heck do we have to do drive around this whole island?)
  2. Pukalani to Keokea (I’m flooring this goddamn rental car and it still doesn’t move!)
  3. Keokea to Maui winery (Playing Need for Speed with the locals chasing us)
  4. Maui winery to Kaupo (Where the road gets “interesting”)
  5. Kaupo to Hana (From Desert to Rainforest in 5 miles)

Kihei to Pukalani

Let’s get the big question out of the way first. Yes, even though Kihei is geographically close to the southern section of the island, there is no road that directly connects the two places, unless of course you’re Oprah Winfrey (well, at least she opened her private road during a disaster evacuation). So you have to drive around the northern section of the island, bypassing the airport and taking the highway that leads to Haleakala.

While there is not much to do, there are some interesting sights along the way. Like the rusted and deserted sugar mill standing tall like a burning man installation. Or the random house graffitied with the noble of cause of saving the cats (#meowmeow). Or the Kealia Pond Wildlife Refuge where you can spot absolutely no wildlife.

Pukalani to Keokea

We were craving for a good cup of coffee that morning so we made quick detour to the town of Makawao. More on Makawao later, but let me just say that they have this amazing coffee truck — Espresso Mafia, that reminds you of the hipsters from San Francisco.

The road from Pukalani to Keokea slowly gains elevation. You wouldn’t know that you’re climbing a gigantic dormant volcano because the elevation gain is so gentle. That said, a non-powerful car would easily give it away. You’ll see the RPM go up, the engine sound like a Ferrari on an F1 race track, but struggle to beyond 40mph.

With the morning sun shining on Mt. Haleakala, the vistas are nothing short of spectacular. You’ll also see small farming communities holding on to the mountain’s green slopes. As you reach Keokea, you’ll drive by several farms. If you have the time, you can check out the Ali’i Kula Lavender farms. Unfortunately, the farms were closed during the day we went (lavender will have to wait another day :( ).

Windmills along the route

Keokea to Maui Winery

Grandma’s Coffee Shop is a great place to stop for breakfast. We had our fair share of lattes, mochas, hot chocolates, and bagels before we proceeded on our journey. After Keokea, the road starts to twist and turn. Just when you start to think that the views couldn’t get any better, they start to get even better! With green slopes on your left and lava rock and the blue ocean on your right, this section is right out of a car TV commercial.

The only challenge is — you will get hustled. Watch out for the locals in the big pickup trucks behind you. They get quickly agitated and will push you out of their way if they can. I can’t blame them — imagine your daily commute being blocked by a hapless tourist driving 20 miles per hour below the speed limit. Empathize with them and move out of the way.

Maui Winery to Kaupo

Once you cross Maui Winery, you’ll enter into a wild section of the island. Wild because civilization starts to thin out. This is a fairly undeveloped part of the island. You’ll also see fewer tourists because they were scared away by the myths I wrote about earlier in this post. On a sunny day, which we were lucky to experience both times we drove this section, the views are absolutely gorgeous. I’d wager to say that they’re the best views in the island. You’ll get to see all the natural features of Maui in a short section — black lava rock, green mountain slopes, brown desert landscape with agave and cacti, the deep blue ocean with possibly a hunchback in the background, and wild goats!

Abandoned water pump

Each spot on this drive is beautiful. Feel free to stop on pullouts to take great pictures and enjoy the scenery. Our favorite spot in this drive was Manawainui Gulch — an arched bridge that goes over a ravine. With a mysterious water pump and graffiti ridden walls, you are reminded of those adventure novels you read as a kid.

Just when you start to think that hey, these roads aren’t too bad, you’ll hit the first unpaved section. Or rather, it is a paved road that was dealt a hard blow by the elements. There are lots of potholes so be prepared for a bumpy ride. We stopped at St Joseph’s Church to pay our respects and admire the views. The historic church offers views of many waterfalls flowing down the steep slopes of Haleakala.

St Joseph’s Church

We thought Kaupo was a big town and were excited to halt there for a meal. Turns out that the only commercial entity in Kaupo is Kaupo General Store, which was unfortunately closed during the time we went.

Kaupo to Hana

Ok now you’ll hit those sections everyone warned you about. There are no paved roads beyond Kaupo, leading you to drive over rough gravel. The good news is that the gravel is pretty even, offering a less bumpy driving experience than the previous section you drove through. The views continue to be stunning as you drive through narrow hairpin roads along side the ocean. There are plenty of places to pull over and soak in the views. We stopped at one such spot, pulled out our beach chairs, and enjoyed a fun picnic lunch.

Not a bad view, eh?

A few miles ahead lies Laulima Farm Fruit Stand. Some might say it’s less of a fruit stand and more like an oasis in a desert. Others might say it looks like a hippie commune. What I can tell you though is that they have fruit whose names you’ve never heard before in your life. We sampled a fruit that tasted like peanut butter, ate slices of Starfruit, and drank freshly juiced Tangelo.

Mysterious tropical fruits

After saying goodbye to the farm cat, we made our way to the Pipiwai Trail and the Pools of Oheo. The road becomes paved and smooth here as you enter Haleakala National Park’s southern section. The Pipiwai Trail is amazing — I would highly recommend it if you have a few hours.

As you cross the National Park, you’ll start to enter rainforest territory. This is the quintessential “Road to Hana” that everyone talks about .The surroundings become green and wet. Canopies start to cover the road and roots of trees dangle from branches.

In a few miles you’ll reach the town of Hana. Congrats! Your quest is complete! Hana is a small town, but it has its fair share of good restaurants and hotels. We had delicious milkshake at a burger truck and warm Thai food at AE’s Thai Kitchen.

What’s after Hana

What’s after Hana is as beautiful as the road you took to get there. I’ll talk more about this in my next blog post on the Clockwise Road to Hana. The key thing to remember is that you’ll need about 3 hours to drive north and reach Central Maui. To be specific, 3 hours of daylight.

As I mentioned earlier, due to not so ideal planning and serendipitous circumstances, it was 7pm by the time we left Hana. We drove through 3 hours of windy, twisty, drenched, tree covered roads to get back home. Let’s just say that the drive was uhm…exhilarating. We didn’t plan on driving at night, but you know, you gotta do what you gotta do.

Orange skies

Conclusion

If you have the time, I’d suggest driving both sections around Hana (clockwise approach and counterclockwise). You could either do it as a loop or make two trips to Hana and back along both directions. It’s all about timing. Needless to say, you’d want to drive during sunlight. Driving at night is not particularly fun unless you’re one of those adventurous types.

If you plan to hike the Pipiwai Trail and check out the Pools of Oheo, it’s better to take the counterclockwise route as you’d reach there earlier in the day.

Check for weather conditions. If it’s sunny, you could easily drive through the unpaved sections. If it’s windy or rainy, you might want to check local weather conditions.

Enjoyed reading this blog? Disliked reading this blog? Either way, leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Photo credits to my friends V & T who either took these pictures or their cameras were snatched from them to take these pictures.

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Srivatsan Sridharan

Srivatsan Sridharan

829 Followers

Engineering Manager. Part-time novelist. I write about travel, food, engineering, books, movies, and life.