The Back Side of Hana is the alternate route to and from Hana in Maui. It has a kind of mystical allure, partly as it is considered forbidden, partly as it seems a much quicker route back and partly as it does not require any backtracking. However, it is a journey fraught with many potential pitfalls that really could leave you stranded and deeply out of pocket.
You need to really think seriously if you are even considering this route and understand all the potential consequences of what will happen should you have an issue, and what the potential chances of an issue may be. There are a lot of myths about this road and many guidebooks and expert sites seem to poo-poo the issues. However, the issues are real and should not be taken lightly. In this article, we fully explore both the reasons you should consider the Back Road to Hana along with the reasons to avoid the backside of Hana completely.
We know many people will ignore our advice and drive the road regardless, but we hope to at least educate you about the possible implications of your choice.
What is the Back Side of Hana?
This is part three of our trilogy of articles showcasing the Road to Hana. The first part covers the Full length of the Road To Hana from Kahului to Hana. The second part is the Road Past Hana, from Hana to the Kipahulu Area of Haleakala National Park. The Final section is the road that goes around the Back Side of Hana and is what we are covering here.
For this article, we are primarily discussing the stretch of road from the Kipahulu Area of Haleakala National Park through to Kula and Upcountry Maui. You will still need to drive down from there to Kahului to the starting point of the loop. The route remains designated the HanaHighway Route 360 for a few miles after Kipahulu then becomes the Piilani Highway Route 31 until getting to Kula where it becomes the Kula Highway Route 37.
Most people visiting Hana, drive out along the Hana Highway, and then back the way they came. This is a long and arduous journey and means backtracking, which is something we personally dislike. By carrying on along the Back Side of Hana you turn your trip to Hana into a nice round route, and if you are all the way in Kipahulu, then on paper at least it looks mighty tempting to nip around the back side of the mountain back to Kula and Kahalui…However, there are some big issues with this.
Warning – Is This Route Legal? Allowed? Kapu?
Of course, it is legal. It is named the Pilani State Highway 31. It is a legal and legitimate road and is the only way to access certain settlements and locations on the island. However, there is a bigger issue at hand here.
The route is Forbidden by most rental car companies and is stated as such in the contract you signed. By signing that contract you are legally confirming you will not take the Rental Car on that section of the road. This is Legally binding, and more so leads you to a few MAJOR potential problems.
First, ANY insurance you have, whether it is from the Rental Company, your own policy, Credit Card Cover, or specific Rental car insurance, it will have a clause that you MUST obey all Rental Agreement terms. If you break a term, which you are doing by driving this road, then you have NO insurance. This is Illegal AND leaves you liable for some big claims if something bad happens. Trash the rental car and you are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars. Do worse, maybe injure a 3rd party (or worse!) and you are potentially liable for millions! It is also worth noting if you have a more serious accident, it could also void your medical and personal insurance. This gets you into a whole world of pain financially!
Second, try ringing your Rental company and asking for a tow truck out there. You will be met with either rage, laughter, or just a click! Have a breakdown out here and you are in a world of trouble. First off you are on your own, the Rental Company will simply not help, either with the cost, or find a company. You will also find it hard to find anyone willing to head all the way out there to perform a recovery in such a remote location. And anyone that will, with charge the earth! A recovery out here runs easily into several thousand Dollars.
What’s more, with the best will in the world, it’s going to take 4-5 hours or more to reach you, and then the same to be brought back to civilization, where you will be liable for the repairs as the Rental company will claim you broke the car by breaking the rental agreement! And before you think of not telling them where you broke down…the tow company will.
And of course, that’s even assuming, that on the back side of Haleakala, in the absolute middle of complete nowhere, you get anything even remotely resembling Cell Service! Spoiler… you won’t!
Some of you may be wondering what is SO great people are willing to risk all this to get to, and the final reason to not bother is, there really isn’t all that much to see, it’s a pale comparison to the Road to Hana. We go into detail on this below. But we think people mainly do it for 2 reasons, they either just don’t know, or they think it won’t happen to them.
Well, you are reading this so you most definitely know the risks, so is the payoff worth the gamble? Absolutely not. It really could happen to you and you will be in a world of pain, and for what… We talked a look below. but first, let’s have a look at any time savings.
Is the Back Side Of Hana Shorter or Quicker?
This really depends on where you are on the Road to Hana. As far as distances go the halfway point for the full loop sits around Mile Marker 47 just after the Venus Pool. Before that, it’s shorter back the way you came after that it’s shorter to carry on.
Hana – Kahului
- Via Hana Highway – 50 Miles (1hr 59)
- Via Back Side – 60 Miles (2hr 26)
- Via Hana Highway – 60 Miles (1hr 53)
- Via Back Side – 50 Miles (2hr 32)
As you can see it’s pretty close. We have also given the journey time, However, let us be clear, this is the Time Google Calculates and in reality, it’s miles off.
Even from Hana, we find the Back Side is almost always quicker for us, however, this is because the Hana Highway is just SO beautiful. We cannot just drive it with our heads down and not stop several times. Conversely, the Back side is just mostly dull. Once past Kaupo we just rive, all the way back to Kahului with very few stops along the way. We would rather take the longer route and see more than just drive a dull road with little to see…especially with all the issues listed above!
The other thing to consider is the rough section is really slow going. The surface is really bad, and to have any hope of avoiding a blowout you need to go really slow. It’s also super narrow, so cars coming the other way can be a real pain, and reversing to a passing spot can add a lot of time to your journey. Especially when you have just let a load of cars through and just as you set off again, another car appears. And then there are the large construction vehicles that use this route…You will have a lot of fun reversing to let them through…and no they won’t reverse for you!
Simply put, there is VERY little to gain by driving this way as opposed to backtracking. But maybe the sights are really worth it?…
The Backside of Hana Map
What is there to see on the Back Side of Hana?
Disclaimer – While we say Disclaimer, it’s not really apt as we are downright telling you NOT to do this section of the Highway. If you read this article and come to the conclusion that we are advising you on driving this route, then that really is on you. After visiting Oheo Gulch, Pipiwai Trail, Kipahulu, and maybe a few sights beyond that, TURN AROUND!
If you really want to see the barren highway, the towering flanks of Haleakala, Kaupo Gap, and Manawainui Gulch then you can do so safely and legitimately from the other side of the road. Drive up to Kula and Upcountry Maui and explore this section of Maui that way. Anyone driving along the rough and dangerous section between Hana and Kaupo is just asking for a Vacation nightmare.
As you leave the Kipahulu Section of Haleakala National park there are still a few miles of good roads that you can easily explore legitimately. The Kapu section starts when the road switches from Highway 360 to Highway 31 at Kapela Bridge, the actual dirt track starts a little further back at Mile Marker 39 on Highway 360, we strongly suggest you turn back before this. There are several pull-outs at Ka’apahu Beach to turn around in. If you head up the hill towards highway 36 you will get stuck doing a few miles before a turnaround
Mile Marker 41 – Charles Lindbergh’s Grave – Palapala Ho’omau Congregational Church – Kipahulu Point Park
There is not much to see here but it’s a nice little stop. The Papapala church is really quaint and sits on a beautiful headland overlooking the Ocean, there is a small park here where you could take a picnic or just relax and take in the ocean views.
This stunning location is the final resting place of Charles Lindbergh. After a lifetime of adventure, lindy ended up falling in love with the island and decide his final resting place should be here. Even when you have seen just about every place in the world, Maui is still the most stunning, and as unlikely as it is we would love to join him here one day (in the very distant future please)
Mile Marker 39 (-0.1) – Ka’apahu Beach
The final legitimate stop along the highway is Ka’apahu Beach. A rugged pebble beach with ok views and no facilities. It has a nice remote charm about it and if you get it to yourself it’s really peaceful and secluded…it’s about as remote as you can get on Maui. But it’s certainly not worth the drive out here on its own.
This is the end of the line for most people. Unless you have your own car, and then we assume you live out here or have one of the few 4wd rental cars from select companies that let you use the road. We Suggest, in the strongest possible terms you turn around. If for no other reason, then there really isn’t much else to see!
Mile Marker 39-35 – Forbidden Highway
For the next 4 miles, the highway becomes very rough, narrow, and potentially very tricky to negotiate. This is the section That the Rental Companies have forbidden you to drive their cars on. It’s not hard to see why. This section is a magnet for car damage. It’s not that it is dangerous as such. There are a couple of sections where there are fairly exposed drops, but on the whole, there is not much to worry about.
The issue is there are just SO many ways you could beat up the car here it’s just not worth the risk to the rental companies. Coupled with the huge issues of recovering any cars that are incapacitated out here, it just makes sense to stop people from coming here.
The road itself varies in quality. Some sections are a patchwork of Asphalt, some are fairly well-graded dirt roads, and in other places, it’s heavily rutted, potholed, and littered with Rocks. Some are loose and potentially damaging to the underside and bodywork, others partially lodged in the dirt and just begging to tear a tire apart.
There are large sections of exposed and poorly maintained cliff faces that rain rocks down, denting bodywork and smashing windshields.
Then there is the traffic. If it’s going your way it is liable to be crawling and flicking up rocks in its wake. Give them space and hope they pull off. The main issue comes from the traffic coming towards you.
First of all, are the tour groups and vans. These are very confident and will largely expect you to get out of their way. So you best hope there is a pull-out not too far away as you will likely have to reverse. Some tour groups are 4×4 self-drive tours where you get 5-6 Wranglers all coming along at the same time. It’s going to HAVE to be you that gives way. If it’s just a tourist coming the other way there can also be issues as they are likely timid and poor at giving you enough room.
The big issue is from Locals, however. They just know you are a tourist and will damn near drive you off the road. These can include large SUVs and pickup trucks, but also highway maintenance vehicles. They have very little patience for a tourist who probably just shouldn’t be there!
And remember these vehicles will come from nowhere on ultra-tight blind bends, or while ascending steep and loose hills, and almost always at the least opportune moment when there are no pullouts but just sheer cliff faces instead.
Put all this together and it’s almost impossible to get out intact. This is why the Rental companies just don’t want you there.
Mile Marker 39 (+0.5) – Alelele Bridge
Once across the bridge, there is a small pull-out and access to a small Black Sand and Pebble beach, It’s often deserted and offers some ok views, worth a brief stop to take in the remoteness.
Mile Marker 39 (+0.8)- Alelele Falls Viewpoint
If you stop here make it quick. The hillside here has a habit of falling down on top of you, and most notably your car. There is a near-constant fall of rocks here that will damage cars if left for too long. There used to be a trail up to Alelele Falls, but it’s now closed. The only reason to stop is some nice views up the coast. Be Brief
Mile Marker 35 – Huialoha Church
Finally, there is Huialoha Church a quaint little church set on a remote headland. There is little to do here but it’s a very picturesque setting and you can get access to a really remote pebble beach. Swimming here varies from poor to Suicidal, as is the case along much of this coast.
And this is about it for attractions on this part of the road. Instead, you are largely looking to avoid tire-shredding rocks, 4x4s barreling towards you, construction vehicles trying to barge you off the road, and anything else liable to result in an expensive and ruined vacation.
Mile Marker 35-0 – Kaupo to Kula
After Kaupo the road largely gets back to the tarmac for the remainder of the drive. If you have survived this far you are back in the territory where the Rental Car Company will deal with you. But expect some sharp questioning if you do need to call them due to an issue. The following Locations are all accessible however if you were to legally drive this section of the Highway From Kula.
One of the highlights of this part of the drive is the road itself. The ribbon of asphalt runs through some really rugged and remote landscapes and acts as a perfect contrast to the Hana Highway. The nearer to Kula you get the better the road becomes, and the final few sections really are proper petrolhead stuff. Combined with the fact the roads are pretty quiet, traffic really sporadic and law enforcement is almost absent, you really can have a bit of fun here…and there are not many places in Maui you can say that. Of course, any spirited driving needs to be within the confines of the law!
Mile Marker 35 (+0.5) – Kaupo
The Road first turns back to Asphalt at the incredibly remote settlement of Kaupo. There is practically nothing here, just a few very remote homes a village store, and a ranch. It is not that the people here are not friendly, but the reality is, you don’t live out here on one of the most remote parts of the most remote island chain in the world because you like being around people!
We tend to leave the folks of Kaupo to their business and drive through with care.
Mile Marker 35 (+0.6) – Kaupo Trail
The Kaupo trail is one of the most adventurous trails on the island. If you are driving through then this trail is not really an option. It climbs right up to the Haleakala Crater and requires at least a day to get there and then another to get out onto the summit.
It’s an amazing adventure but it requires a lot of planning and thought as it’s best done one way. The best parts of the trail are way up on the mountain and other is little point in short day hikes in the foothills. But we thought we would mention it as you will see it on the map.
Take the dirt trail in the center of Kaupo to access this trailhead. It is best hiked downhill, however. Starting at the Haleakala Summit.
Mile Marker 34 (+0.3) – St Joseph’s Church
This is an old and rustic church that has been here for 150+ years. There is not much to see here, but you can make a quick stop if quaint little churches are your thing.
Kaupo Gap – Not on the Highway
This stretch of the road offers several great views up into the mountain where you can see the Kaupo Gap. This is a huge Erosion Valley that has largely been filled back up by lava flows. All occurring over millions of years. This huge valley is clearly visible from these sections of the road and is something to really awe at. Geology in action.
When Haleakala erupted and filled the Kapau Gap, much of the Lava remained in the crater as there was a lot of volume to fill. Only a small amount of lava flow actually reached the ocean. This is one of those locations and the Nu’u Preserve is a large lava tongue that reaches out into the ocean. Nu’u Bay is the older land from before the eruption and forms a sharp join with the tongue.
There is not too much to see here and we rarely stop but it’s worth a mention for its interesting geography. There is a small saltwater pond and a large pebble beach, but stopping is difficult and swimming opportunities poor.
Mile Marker 28 – Manawainui Gulch View Sea Arch
Just before you get to Manawainui Gulch, there is a nice little Sea-Arch. The one at Wai’ānapanapa State Park is more picturesque and accessible, but you have driven all the way here and there are not many sights along this route so you might as well take in any that are along the way.
This arch reaches out into the ocean like a dragon’s tail and offers some nice pictures. The sea is usually far too rough to consider anything other than shoreline viewing. You can see the arch from the road or just pull up and hike down to the shoreline.
Mile Marker 28 (+0.2) – Manawainui Gulch
You are not going to miss this one as you are required to drive right down into it. This is a really impressive piece of road and drops you right down into to large dray watercourse. Eroded by eons of rainfall on the flanks of Haleakala this is an impressive scar on the landscape.
It is rare that you will find the Gulch in flood and if it is, we highly recommend NOT being in this part of Maui, Flash floods are Lethal here. There will be warning all over TV and radio of heavy rains and flooding so avoid traveling here on those days.
Mile Marker 27 Onward – Piilani Highway Vistas – Haleakala
After the Gulch the road heads up away from the ocean and onto the flanks of Haleakala. here the tarmac really perks up and you start to make real progress. The views here are stunning. This is one of the driest parts of Maui, and you often get fantastic views up to the summit of Haleakala. This is one of the few places from ground level where you really get to appreciate the scale of the mountain as it rises up 10,000 ft above you.
There are also stunning views down to the coast and along the highway. This really is the best art of the drive. And it’s also one of the MOST accessible from Kula. You can drive down from the center of Kula to the Gulch and back up in around 1.5 hours. Thus giving you the best of this road without the hassle and illegality of driving through from Hana.
Mile Marker 21 (+0.5) Auwahi Wind Turbines
As you head along the road you are sure to notice the Huge Wind Turbines between the road and the ocean. Whatever your take on wind power these turbines are really well placed, as far from people as possible and with near continuous wind. We are surprised there are not more here.
These turbines power up to 14,500 and really do not bother anyone. They could be considered an eyesore, but this landscape is hardly classically beautiful and we find they add an element of interest to an otherwise barren vista.
Mile Marker 18 (+0.2) Bully’s Burger – Horseback Riding
It really is a tough gig running a burger joint right out here! There is minimal traffic and getting the product in must be very challenging. At least there is no competition! Bullys is a really interesting stop along the way, it’s just about the only spot you are going to get food on this part of the Highway, but then you could hang on 25 mins and you are in Kula, 45 and you are in Kahului. But there is something very cool and rustic about this location.
The burgers are decent, you can get better, but they feel very…cowboy! These really taste great when eaten up here, with the ranch behind you and the ocean stretched out below. After a long day on the road, a rustic, tasty, and quite dirty burger really hits the spot.
You can also do Horseback riding out on the range here as well but we have never got around to this. It is certainly something you plan for not to include as part of the drive.
Mile Marker 17 (+0.5) Maui Honey Bee Sanctuary
This is a really quick stop, just to grab some of the amazing honey that the sanctuary produces to help fund the protection of this vital species. So much of humanity is dependent on these wonderful; creatures and it’s great to see people help protect them, especially all the way out here, where insect life is so precious. If being forced to eat some of the sweetest and most delicious honey we have ever tasted is the price we have to pay to help, we will make the sacrifice.
Mile Marker 16 (+0.5) Maui Wine
We definitely consider this a must-stop when on this part of the highway, infact it’s a must-stop when in Upcountry, infact it’s a must-stop when on Maui! Wine tasting here is one of life’s happy moments, where you can really relax and melt into the wonderful surroundings.
Wine Tastings a pretty light so as long as you only taste it should be fine to do whilst driving. You can read more about this wonderful location here.
Mile Marker 15 (+0.4) Ulupalakua Scenic Overlook
We have added this as our final stop, but really it’s not that important to stop at this exact location. What we want to highlight is the simply jaw-dropping scenery that you find on this elevated section of the road.
From here you get the most stunning panoramic views of the whole West side of Maui. From here you can see the Pre-historic Kanaio coastline, Kaho’olawe Island, Molokini Crater, the Ahihi-Kinau Cindercones and Lava Flows, South Maui’s Tourist zones, The Central Valley, and West Maui and its mountain beyond and even views of the Island of Lanai!
It really is a stunning location. Even if you don’t pull over, you still get some of the best vistas in Maui.
Kula, Upcountry, and back down the mountain
After this, you will arrive in the upcountry town of Kula. This is a fantastic location and well worth exploring. But this would be an article all by itself. From here it’s a short dive back down the Mountian to Kahului where you pick up where you left off on the Road to Hana, a 110+ Mile round trip…if you make it unscathed.
As we pointed out at the start of this article, there really is very little reason to actually want to drive the back route from Hana. Most people really do it due to FOMO. They think there is something special out here and they have not done the Hana Highway properly if they have not done the full loop. This is garbage. Everything good about the road to Hana is found on the Hana Highway. There are a few highlights on the back side, but on the whole, it’s a long and pretty dull drive. It’s not a patch on the REAL Hana Highway.
What’s more, the best bits are all on the Kula Side of the road. This section of the highway is perfectly legal and pretty safe to drive. Rather than risking so much driving it from Hana, it’s much better to drive in from Kula as part of a very rewarding day trip to Kula and Upcountry Maui. You can get as far as Manawainui Gulch in 45 mins and this way see the best of this stretch of road. Everything we have bothered to photograph is all on this wild and rugged portion of the highway, where the scenery is large and the asphalt black, smooth and solid!
The main Hana highway is best enjoyed by driving it one way, staying in Hana, and then driving back, picking up the bits you missed. The back route can seem like it’s a quicker option for day trippers to Hana, but in reality, it’s even worse than backtracking. You will be tired and rushing and any breakdown late in the day really could see you spending the night waiting for a tow truck. This is not the place to spend a night unprepared.
Only consider the route if you are really prepared for disaster, know that your rental company allows it, very few do, and have the supplies and provisions to overnight in a very wild and remote location on the back side of a volcano and possibly have to hike 10-20 miles to get Cell service!
Have Your Say
Have you Driven the Back Side of Hana? Were you in a rental car? Did you get away with breaking your contract? Maybe you booked a rental that DOES allow you to drive this route? Or maybe you did the sensible thing and drive it from Kula? Let us know your thoughts on this contentious topic and if you have any questions just fire away.