Should You Drive the Backside of the Road to Hana?

Pretty much everybody and their dog knows about driving the Road to Hana on Maui. It’s a must do! Don’t miss it! It’s so incredible it’ll change your life! Well, you get the picture. And it truly is fabulous. I’ve written a whole slew of posts about the Road to Hana, but there’s one question I get asked more than others…should I drive the backside of the road to Hana? 

If you’ve just started your Hana research, here’s how it works: the “Road to Hana” is considered to start in Paia on the north shore of Maui. From there it’s about a two hour drive (with no stops) due east to the town of Hana. By far the majority of people turn around once they reach Hana and drive the same road back to Paia. An out and back drive if you will. 

Quite a few people continue on past Hana to the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park where you’ll find the Oheo Gulch (aka Seven Sacred Pools) and the Pipiwai Trailhead. Besides the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park, this really is the crown jewel of the Road to Hana. It’s 11 miles past Hana town and takes a little over half an hour to reach with no stops. 

People that make it all the way to Kipahulu are usually the ones that ask about turning back and retracing their path back through Hana and on to Paia or driving through (continuing clockwise around the island) the backside of the Road to Hana. If you continue on in the loop, you’ll eventually come through Ulupalakua (where Maui Wine is) and Kula in upcountry Maui and can take the highway back down towards Paia and Kahului. 

Before I go on…if you want to read my other Road to Hana posts, you can find them here: MY favorite Road to Hana itinerary, tips for driving the Road to Hana, and where to stay in Hana (in case you decide you want to spend the night).

Okay, so let’s get on with the questions…

Is driving past Hana illegal?

There’s a lot of hype about how “bad” the backside of the Road to Hana is. Mostly this stems from rumors (I like to call it an urban legend, hmm maybe I’ll call it a “jungle legend” lol) about it being illegal to take rental cars back this way. Maybe at one point that was true, but I don’t really think it is anymore. I’ve yet to see a current rental car contract that even mentions where you can or can’t take the car on Maui (and I always read the fine print!). If you ask them directly, they’ll hem and haw (they give you the strong impression that it’s forbidden) but basically what it comes down to is “they won’t come and get you if you have a problem.” 

Mmmmkay, If you think any rental car company is going to come get you if you have a problem ANYWHERE, you have more faith in them than me. It’s possible that some companies offer roadside assistance coverage that you can purchase additionally and maybe this portion of the road isn’t included in that. I carry AAA independently (plus my auto insurance and credit card cover this) so I always decline all extra insurance. Yes, it would not be fun to break down on the backside of the road to Hana or have a flat tire, but guess what? It wouldn’t be fun to do that on the front side with all the traffic and narrow winding roads!

Bottom line: read the actual fine print of your contract and know YOUR situation with your personal insurance and don’t just go on hearsay. 

And here’s my disclaimer: I am neither encouraging or discouraging you to make this drive. I’m just going to describe it as accurately as possible and relay my personal experiences so that you can make a decision that you’re comfortable with. If you go, (just like anything you do), you do so at your own risk. 

So how bad exactly is the road?

So on to the practicalities of the road itself. The 3-5 miles just past Kipahulu (the National Park, AKA Seven Sacred Pools) are the worst, but it’s not unlike the last few miles leading up to Kipahulu on the other side (past Hana coming into the National Park). There are literally signs posted telling you to honk as you go around the blind corners. It sounds a little more intense than it is. They are indeed blind corners (you can’t see if anyone is coming around the other side), but it’s not actually that scary. 

The road is narrow (a generous one lane road with plenty of spots to pull over and let someone pass) and winding and there are quite a few blind corners, but generally speaking, the road also isn’t very high up in these portions as it is on the front side. When the “drop off” is only 5-10 feet below, it’s nowhere near as intense feeling as when it’s several hundred feet along the north shore (even though it’s two lanes). 

The road is very comfortable for one car to drive on, the problem comes when you pass another car. You just have to keep your sight lines open and watch for cars coming in the other direction. In any one stretch of the road, there is a spot big enough for your car to pull over so the oncoming car can pass. So when you see a car coming, yield and pull over even if they’re a ways away. It’ll avoid the uncomfortable situation of figuring out how you’re going to squeeze past (or backing up) once you’re on them. 

And if you’re driving clockwise around the island, you will need to yield to them since they’re on the outside lane (which means you have the inside lane and it feels MUCH safer). 

I’ve written a lot here about this and I don’t want it to sound scary, but I also want you to know EXACTLY what you’re signing up for.

I grew up riding ATVs and driving on trails in Colorado (I also drive a Jeep and a 4Runner) so I consider this drive FUN and not at all scary, but I can definitely see how if you’re not a confident driver or you’ve only ever driven in the city it could be stressful. I will say though, that while I have driven this in a Jeep, I’ve also driven it in a sedan and a full size pickup. Four wheel drive is 100% NOT necessary for driving the backside of Hana. 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Here’s my best tip for driving past Hana: always try to follow a car in front of you. While a lot of the guides/apps say to try to be the first car in a line while driving through the frontside so you don’t have to watch their brake lights too closely while you’re looking around, I think the opposite is true when you’re driving past Hana. Driving in a caravan (even when you don’t know the other people) takes away a LOT of the stress of creeping around blind corners plus the lead car has to sort out all of the passing issues with other cars ; )

Okay, once you pass this portion (the first 3-5 miles past Kipahulu), the road clears up nicely into a wide open terrain. It’s mostly paved, but there are some portions that are gravel or a roughly graded cement. I will say, the paved road is still pretty narrow and even though there’s no drop off on either side, if you see a local (anyone really) coming to meet you, pull over as far as you can and stop where there’s a good place because they will come BLAZING through.

What is the terrain on the backside of Hana?

The backside road is VERY different from the front road and definitely worth experiencing. If the front side is lush and jungle-like, the backside is dry and desert-like (once you get past Kipahulu). While the frontside is super windy and you’re in and out of jungles, the backside is flat, wide open, and you can see for MILES. It has an arid quality. If you couldn’t look out and see the ocean, you’d probably think you were in parts of Texas or another western state. 

On Another Note: Trying to figure out where to stay on Maui? I’ve written a ton of posts that will help. I’d start with my 15 favorite resorts and hotels on Maui. Also, you’re going to want to decide between staying on the south side or the west side so this post about Wailea vs Ka’anapali is golden. Read about my favorite luxury resorts, boutique hotels, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, and condos (many under $100/night!). If you’ve narrowed down the area of the island you want to stay, but need help picking a specific hotel, read these posts about where to stay in Wailea, Kihei, Ka’anapali, Lahaina and Kapalua, and Hana. And if you just want more details (more! More! more!), read my reviews of staying at the Four Seasons and the Fairmont Kea Lani.

Where to Stop along the Backside of Road to Hana

Once you leave the National Park, there’s not really a ton of places I recommend to stop. There are some spots that are popular with locals for camping and fishing, but I think those are best left unexplored by visitors unless you’re taken there as a guest. 

The next and last stop until you get to Ulupalakua (Maui Wine and the Ranch Store) is the Kaupo Store. It’s the quintessential Hawaiian mom and pop shop and it’s a great place to grab a cold drink and use the restroom. If they’re open ; ) I’ll note here that the National Park does NOT have water or snacks for sale so since the Kaupo Store is undependable, make sure you have everything you need once you leave Hana.

The Final Verdict

I say if you’re brave enough to get to Hana and Kipahulu, you might as well go the whole way around! It’s a completely different adventure than driving the front side. Also, once you’re at the National Park, it’s quicker to drive the back way instead of backtracking through Hana and around with all the traffic. Once you leave the National Park, it’s less than an hour and a half drive to Kula (back to civilization). I personally don’t like to be on the road after dark at all, but once I make it to Kula (really even Ulupalakau), it’s fine driving back in the dark. 

And to finish with my most solid argument…if a big tour bus can drive the backroad to Hana, so can you ; )

ALL OF THIS BEING SAID…if this makes you nervous, if you’re not an easy driver, if you’re not used to trail driving or driving outside of a city, if you have an overwhelming fear of heights or significant anxiety, or if you question the safety for ANY reason, it’s always best not to go!

One Last Question: What about driving the Road to Hana in REVERSE?

Ahhh, the backwards Road to Hana. Who thinks of these things? I guess the Internet has opened up so much more information and opinions (hello blog!) that people are always looking for a headstart or a leg up. And yes, I have driven the Road to Hana in reverse, but really only because I used to live upcountry in Kula and it was the quicker way to get to Hana from my house. 

So here’s the scenario: people read about long lines of cars, limited parking spaces, and crowded hikes, waterfalls, etc. at stops along the Road to Hana and they wonder if they start in Kula and do a reverse loop around the island if they’ll run into fewer crowds and get a head start on their must see list. I guess depending on what you’re most interested in seeing/doing you could try this, but here are my thoughts:

I strongly recommend driving the Road to Hana the “right” way or clockwise from Paia for a couple of reasons: 1) you’ll be on the inside lane the whole way around (no hugging the tight shoulder where there’s a 200 foot drop off mere feet away from your tire) which is a bigger deal when you’re driving on the road past Hana. 2) You’ll experience the best part of the drive (what you’re most expecting to see…crazy lush vegetation, wild jungles, waterfalls, etc) early in the day when you’re still fresh and excited (and not 6-8 hours in when you’re starting to run on fumes energy wise). 

Besides that, I just don’t think you’re going to make that much of a difference on the crowd levels at each stop by doing it in reverse. 

How to Avoid Crowds along the Road to Hana

The Road to Hana is not undiscovered anymore and there are just people everywhere. But here’s the thing…it’s still not really unpleasant unless you know what it used to be like before there was the surge in tourists. The average visitor is not going to think twice about the number of people they encounter along this road unless they were truly thinking they would be the ONLY ones driving to Hana. So just drive the route that’s going to give you the best overall experience and don’t be worried about trying to be too strategic.

I’ve also had a few people recently ask me about starting in Paia and driving ALL the way to Hana without stopping and then turning around and doing their stops on the way back. Their reasoning is that the popular sites closer to Hana would be less crowded by getting there earlier and then I guess they think that the crowds at the stops closer to Paia will have moved on towards Hana so by the time they retrace their steps they’ll have all the popular spots to themselves. 

Here’s the thing…this isn’t Disney World. You don’t really need a touring plan for the order of how to hit all your must see spots. Yes, if you drive straight from Paia to Hana, you might see less people at the spots near Hana, but by the time you start working your way back to Paia those spots are still going to “crowded.” So many people don’t really plan their trip to Hana and end up starting out late in the day and just stopping wherever they see cars so those stops along the north shore are still going to have visitors all day long. 

The #1 best thing you can do to avoid crowds along the Road to Hana BY FAR is just getting an early start. If you leave Paia by 8AM (and hey earlier is even better), I promise you that you’ll be ahead of 90% of the people planning to drive to Hana that day. If you have a solid plan for where you want to stop and you just keep moving along, you’ll stay in front of the “crowds” all day and you’ll have a great time.

P.S. Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Maui: my Maui favorites, the best Maui itinerary, how many days to spend on Maui, Maui vs Kauai, where to see turtles on Maui, my favorite road to Hana itinerary, guide for sunrise at Haleakala National Park, how to bike down Maui’s volcano, my review of the Maui Pineapple Tour, 20 of the best adventure activities on Maui, 5 Maui day trips, and the best things to do on a Maui honeymoon.