The road to Hana is without question the most famous and desired drive in all Hawai‘i, the crown jewel of driving. It’s been compared to driving through the garden of Eden: a slow, winding road through a lush paradise that you always knew existed—somewhere. Many of the communities along this stretch of east Maui still practice traditional farming and are very passionate about preserving the look, feel and character of the area. Traveling the road to Hana is like taking a step back in time. You won’t be able to see it all in one day, though that is how most visitors experience this part of the island. (We recommend staying a night or two in Hana to really appreciate it.) If you only have time for a single day, here’s five sights on the Hana Highway you should definitely check out.
One of the first big diversions off the Hana Highyway is the road into Ke‘anae Peninsula and village. The dead end road hugs the coastline for a time, and at one place there’s an excellent photo op with the ocean tearing through some jagged lava boulders. Very striking, especially at high tide. The impossibly blue water against the rich lushness of the Hana coast is a feast for the eyes. Farther ahead are some restrooms (another good reason to make this a stop) near a park. The coastline across from the restrooms is a good place to watch the waves beat up the shoreline. The land here is younger than the rest of the island, and it shows.
Also in Ke‘anae is one of the best places on the island to get homemade banana bread. Aunty Sandy has been selling her fantastic bread in Ke‘anae since the early ’80s, but since appearing on one of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s shows, her small food stand seems to have made everybody’s list of places to check out on the road to Hana. It’s a pretty simple menu: Banana bread is the star, and they often sell out around noon. They also offer a few other hearty items, such as huge hot dogs, a handful of sandwiches, and some local favorites such as chili and rice and even ramen. Drinks are usually sodas, bottled water and (very) hot coffee. They have a large, shaded picnic table, but most people take their food across the street for oceanside snacking. The prices are outrageously low considering the remote location.
Pua‘a Ka‘a State Park
One of the sights on the Hana Highway that’s hard to miss is Pua‘a Ka‘a State Park. (That’s a hard one to say.) Here you’ll find two of the most easily visited waterfalls on the road to Hana. The falls make for great photo opportunities. This is probably the best spot to get the old “me under a waterfall” shot that you’ve always wanted. The pools are shallow, the falls are often light and you don’t have to trek across slippery boulders to get to them. (It’s still slippery, just not 100 yards of awkward boulder hopping.) Though we’ve seen people jump from the top of these small falls, we don’t recommend it, especially due to how shallow the water tends to be. The park itself is pretty small, with a couple covered picnic tables and paved walkways. The one downside is the lack of parking. The only spots are across the street from the falls, next to the restrooms, and they are often full. Don’t let it deter you. If there’s no space, plan on checking something else out nearby and circling back.
This is one of the grandest sights on the Hana Highway. The sprawling grounds of Kahanu Garden are pretty impressive. As part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden family, the garden aspect is more emphasized these days and features native and Polynesian-introduced plants. These plants were essential to life in ancient Hawai‘i and across the Pacific. Some of the rock star plants are breadfruit trees, and Kahanu Garden has the world’s largest collection of these trees selected specifically for raising food crops (known as cultivars to the botanically inclined).
Even more impressive is Pi‘ilanihale Heiau. Not only is this the largest heiau (temple) in Hawai‘i, it is thought to be the largest temple in all of Polynesia. Though you can’t get very close to this massive temple, its nearly three-acre footprint still makes for a staggering sight. It is named for the first ali‘i of Maui to unite the entire island. Pi‘ilani was considered one of the greatest ruling chiefs of Maui, having spearheaded several massive public works, including the King’s Highway or Alaloa—the road that encircled the entire island and linked all its communities. The self-guided tour (no reservation required) takes around 30 minutes—more if you take the time to read all the signs and explore. There are some nice coastal views from parts of the garden, as well as some Hawaiian stone implements and tools.
Wai‘anapanapa State Park
Just as you enter Hana is the road to one of the most iconic sights on the Hana Highway— Wai‘anapanapa State Park. (Gee, that really rolls off the tongue, huh? Blew a gasket in the old spell-checker on that one. It sounds like why-a-nah-pah nah-pah.) The park is clean and well maintained. They even have cabins for rent. Other facilities include restrooms, showers, picnic tables and camping. Its main draw? It has a volcanic black sand beach. If you’ve heard of volcanic black sand beaches, you may have thought they were all on the Big Island. Au contraire. Pa‘iloa Beach here at Wai‘anapanapa State Park is 100 or so feet wide and attests to the newness of the land here.
The beach was formed when lava flowed and fountained into the sea near here, shattering on contact with the ocean. Fragments smashed against each other and formed the sand you see. (Don’t believe books that tell you that the beach was formed by cliff erosion.) Maybe Rome wasn’t built in a day, but this beach may have been, because these types of beaches are often formed in days or weeks. There’s a pretty coastal hike that leads to the source of all this sand. It’s described in our guides to Maui.
Not just one of the best sights along the Hana Highway, this is a great beach, too! Tons and tons of fine salt and pepper sand, some shade, showers, clear water and the best bodysurfing on the island make Hamoa one of the island’s primo beaches. The thickness of the sand toward the middle is so great that you don’t have to worry as much about stubbing your toe on rocks as at most north- or east-facing Hawai‘i beaches (though it’s always possible). Toward the center of the beach the sand drops abruptly a little way offshore, meaning that the waves tend to break at the same spot each time—exactly what you want for bodysurfing. If you’ve never done this before, be really careful and only do it on small waves. The ocean is unprotected here—no reef to break things up—so the waves have more power here and can drill you into the sand if you’re not cautious. An added treat is the food stand for huli huli chicken at Koki Beach just down the road.