All the best ways to see Maui

We have become far more seasoned and experienced travellers since our last visit to Maui back in 2012. That was a total beach vacation, with a trip down the road to Hana, and some coastal drives to vary it up so we didn’t bake ourselves on the beach. Fast forward to 2019, and our style of travel has changed enough that spending half of a trip camping and living out of a vehicle seems equally as relaxing, if not more so at times. We feel we struck the perfect balance on this trip. Hike and backpack and see as much cool nature and outdoors-y stuff as possible over the first half, then spend the last half melting away our sore legs on the heat of a good beach and rinsing off those days worth of dirt and sweat in the ocean.

The road to Hana.

How to do the road to Hana without stressing out

Most people do the road to Hana in one day, which is not surprising considering time is precious on the island, and there isn’t much tourist infrastructure along the road. This is part of what makes it special. But, it can be a stressful day. Slow driving though all the bridges and hairpin turns, each one revealing a new beautiful spot that begs you to stop, is incredible, or nausea inducing depending on who you are. But, this means it can take at least a half day, if not more, to drive the 50 or so miles from Kahalui out to the sleepy village of Hana. Our first time on Maui, we did the road to Hana in a day, and you end up driving much of the twisty road in the dark on the way back.

The black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park.

This time around, with our camping gear in tow, we decided to take our time driving out, and camp at Waianapanapa State Park. This is home to Maui’s only accessible black sand beach. The location is a stunner; especially in the morning when you can watch the sun rise right out of the ocean. Another perk of staying overnight along the northeast part of the island. Be advised it isn’t a real campground – your permit allows you to stay with other campers on a wide stretch of grass, but there are no sites, in the classic sense. So, be aware of the lack of privacy, but we didn’t find it to be an issue as everyone was respectful.

Staying overnight allowed us to have a full afternoon to check out the less visited Kipahulu side of Haleakala National Park and hike the gorgeous Pipiwai Trail. This trail runs from the ocean and the Ohe’o Gultch, through some wondrous bamboo and rain forest, out to the 400 foot high Waimoku Falls. Round trip, it took us about 4 hours, which got us to our campsite just in time to make dinner as the sun was setting. The next morning, we woke up early, did a nice shoreline trail walk as the sun came up, then drove the road back from Hana early in the morning. Avoiding much of the traffic and the stress that comes with it, we were able to just enjoy what is one of the best drives in the world from a new perspective driving back in the other direction in the morning. So, in short, bring your camping gear, or rent it, and give yourself the freedom and the time to really enjoy this unique part of Maui.

48 hours exploring the Haleakala Crater

Driving back to the center of the island from Hana, we drove straight up the Haleakala volcano to try and score a first come, first serve (FREE! with national park pass) campsite at Hosmer Grove in the national park. Even though it was spring break, we had no problem securing a site. This is not a very popular campground because the elevation means it gets quite cold at night – between 5-8 C – but with good gear and some warm base layers, we had a comfortable nights sleep. Our main reason for staying here was to shorten our drive to the peak for Heleakala’s famous sunrise the next morning. If you were driving from one of the coastal towns, you would need to wake up in the middle of the night to drive the couple of hours it takes to get up to the peak by 6am. By camping up the mountain, we had a relatively short half hour drive awaiting us the morning, and therefore a much more civilized 5am wake up. Staying halfway up the mountain also allowed us to check out the crater during sunset, which was equally as stunning. It is almost a surreal experience watching the sun set from above the clouds. Views most only ever see from airplanes.

Sunset atop Haleakala.

Yet, the hype is all around sunrise, and for good reason. Watching the sun break through the clouds and shine into the crater is life-affirming. The colours that you get for those brief moments are unlike anything we’ve seen on this planet. You could easily say you were on another planet entirely.

Sunrise over the Haleakala crater

The popularity has lead to the national park requiring reservations, as there’s only so much room and parking at the top. So, making a reservation was one of the first things we did when planning this trip.

Once the sun had risen, and our extremities had warmed up, we parked the car, put on our packs, and made our way to the Keonehe’ehe’e (Sliding Sands) trailhead for our decent down into the crater. The colours within the crater only get more intense as you get closer to the bottom. The smaller craters now look like massive hills in their own right, and the vegetation is sparse. The silversword plants are so strange. Weather makes its way up the slopes and rains down on select cliffsides, while the others remain dry for most of the year. The trail stretches for 10 miles before reaching the other side of the crater, the tip of the rainforest that stretches down to the ocean. This is the the Paliku campsite. Lush, green rainforest drapes over steep cliffs. This is as stunning a campsite as we’ve ever experienced. At this elevation (6,600 ft), the nights are clear and the stars plentiful.

Our backcountry campsite at Paliku, Haleakala National Park

The next day, we wake at 6am and decide over coffee to hike back to the trailhead at Halemmau’u. This will make a nice loop and allow us to see a new section of the crater. The trick is our car is at the Visitor Centre at the summit, but we’ve been assured hitchhiking back up is very common. They even have a hitchhiker waiting area. So, we feel good about our chances, and wow, are we glad we made that decision. Some of the coolest parts of the entire two-day hike are the rainbow-like rock around the Pu’u Nole, Pu’u Naue, and Halali’i. We would’ve missed it entirely if we had retraced our steps from the day before.

Colours within the crater are extraordinary.

It is just surreal to watch the clouds moving into the valley and evaporating (or lingering, depending on our timing). You really feel weather constantly being made around you, and it further adds to the strange landscapes. The final stretch up the switchbacks to the trailhead parking lot were not too bad – well graded and safely wide enough.

Before we knew it, we were back at the trailhead parking lot and trying to flag down a ride back to the top. Luckily, a couple we had met along the trail had finished not long before, and offered to give us a ride. The hiking community is awesome.

After all the camping and activity the first half of the trip, the last few days were deliberately low-key. An AirBnB in Kihei, rum drinks, beach times and some beautiful drives along the rest of the Maui coast.

Oh, and whale watching.

One last hike on the Waihee Ridge Trail to tire us out before our overnight flight back to Vancouver.

We really believe we got the full Maui experience this time around. The island has seemingly more ecological diversity then any of the other Hawaiian islands we’ve visited. It really took us getting away from the resort towns on the coast to see a new side of the island, one that we feel privileged that we could see while we’re relatively young and in good health. Camping and backcountry hiking isn’t everyone’s idea of a relaxing vacation, but for us, it allowed us to get away from the crowds and see so much of what makes the island unique. We’d love to do something similar now on future trips!

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