Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Pipiwai Trail

Bamboo forest on the Pipiwai Trail
4 miles round trip, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Narrow, winding paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

The Pipiwai Trail delves through the rainforest and bamboo groves of the Kipahulu District of Maui's Haleakala National Park to reach two high waterfalls. Although it is at what is perhaps the most remote corner of Maui, about as far away as you can get from the services at Kahului, this hike is extremely popular. Tourists come to see the lush tropical environs on the trail, which cannot be seen anywhere in the mainland United States. It's certainly a lovely and interesting hike; but if you choose to do it, you may want to time it to avoid the worst of the crowds.

While the hike was nice, I must say that it failed to live up to my expectations. The Pipiwai Trail is extremely crowded now as its one of the primary activities for tourists driving the Road to Hana. This meant parking in a massive lot and constantly passing other tourists over the short course of this hike. The waterfall views on this hike left a little to be desired and the hike itself was warm and humid with plenty of mosquitoes. However, the lushness of this hike was still quite enjoyable. While some visitors do this hike on the same day that they attempt the full length of the Road to Hana, I suggest that you stay overnight in Hana for a night (or preferably two) so that you can explore the Kipahulu coast and the Pipiwai Trail at a more leisurely pace and drive slowly on the region's ridiculously narrow and windy roads.

To reach the trailhead for the Pipiwai Trail from Kahului, the principal town on Maui, we had to first drive the Road to Hana. A couple notes about the Road to Hana: it's certainly more challenging than a drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway or a similar scenic parkway on the mainland, but it's also certainly not impossible to drive. Understand that the road was designed by engineers who expected the road to receive far less traffic than it receives today. There are clearly defined lanes for each direction for most of the route, although the lanes are often quite narrow and every bridge along the road is a single-lane affair where cars must yield. This may not sound too bad, but there are 59 bridges along the way along with over 600 curves. From Hana to Kipahulu, the road was particularly narrow and windy. As long as you take your time and drive safely and slowly, you'll be fine. There are plenty of coastal views and waterfalls worth stopping at along the way, although we did not find the Road to Hana to be nearly as scenic (or difficult to drive) as the Kahekili Highway on Maui's northwest coast. 

From Hana, we took the Hana Highway south for 10 miles to the Kipahulu Visitor Center. It was clear that Kipahulu was becoming increasingly popular with Maui tourists: in addition to the main, paved parking lot, which already had room for about a hundred cars, a grassy field nearby had been converted to an even larger overflow parking lot.

We started the hike at the Kipahulu Visitor Center. From here, we took the path heading off to the left, which quickly came to an intersection where the Pipiwai Trail branched off from the loop trail for the Pools of Oheo. Here, we took the left fork again for the Pipiwai Trail. We passed by a reconstructed hale halawai, a structure used as a meeting place by Native Hawaiians. The trail crossed the Hana Highway 200 meters after leaving the visitor center and then began climbing uphill along the fairly gentle shield volcano slopes of Haleakala, passing through a mix of clearings and forest. 

The mix of clearings and forest along the trail are a reminder of human history in Hawaii and human use of natural resources in the Kipahulu area. Native Hawaiians once relied on a land division system known as ahupua'a that demarcated community boundaries by watershed boundaries. In this system, each ahupua'a would consist of a full watershed from its headwaters on a volcano down to where the stream meets the sea. This sort of division would give each community a cross-section of the island's resources, allowing each community to individually practice multiple different types of agriculture. Kipahulu represents one such ahupua'a and would have consisted of all the land along Palikea and Pipiwai Streams from Haleakala down to the Pools of Oheo. This land division system was eventually abandoned in the Great Mahele in 1848, when the Hawaiian government split up the ahupua'a as it moved towards a more European style of land ownership.

We came to a decent viewpoint over Mahahiku Falls at a half mile into the hike. While the scenery at this viewpoint was quite nice- the forest and cliff walls of the canyon were overwhelming lush and it was nice to look back east and catch a glimpse of the ocean- the view of the waterfall itself left much to be desired, as only the very top of this nearly 200-foot tall waterfall was visible, its lower portion obscured by vegetation growing just below the viewpoint area.

Mahahiku Falls
Lush forest and ocean from the Mahahiku Falls overlook
After leaving the Mahahiku Falls overlook, the trail delved into humid, tropical rainforest characteristic of this part of Maui, still ascending but at a gentle grade. Kipahulu and the Pipiwai Trail remain on the windward side of Haleakala, receiving around a hundred inches of rain on average each year, with rain falling on over half of the days each year; areas upslope on Haleakala may receive up to 400 inches of rain a year. Hawaii's volcanoes are responsible for the extraordinary rainfall totals on the windward side of each of the islands; highlands on Kauai average around 460 inches of rain annually. All of this rain creates exceedingly lush forests from the treeline on the volcanoes down to the sea. 

At 0.8 miles into the hike, we came to a massive banyan tree, which extended far reaching branches from its massive trunk and dropped new roots from its far-flung branches. The tree was extraordinarily impressive in size: even more impressive was the tree's rate of growth, as this particular banyan tree could be no more than 150 years old at the time of our visit. Banyan trees are an introduced species in Hawaii; a species of fig, they are native to the Indian subcontinent. The first banyan tree introduced to Maui was in 1873 in central Lahaina and has grown within a century and a half to sport a canopy that extends over an acre. This particular banyan was somewhat smaller than the one in Lahaina.

Giant banyan tree
The trail continued through the forest and remained fairly flat until we made two successive bridge crossings over Pipiwai Stream at 1.2 miles from the trailhead. The bridges gave us scenic views of the stream tumbling down pretty drops into pools amidst the lush greenery of the tropical forest. Here, we also encountered a transition in the vegetation: the first bamboo forest of the trail started immediately after we crossed the first bridge.

Waterfalls and pools along the trail
After crossing the second bridge over Pipiwai Stream, we entered a dense bamboo forest. Like the banyan tree encountered earlier, bamboo is not native to Hawaii, originating in Asia. However, these extremely fast-growing plants have found a suitable home in many parts of Hawaii and are now quite common on the islands. Although the species is not native to Hawaii, the walk through the bamboo forest with the dense, soaring green stalks surrounding the trail was quite beautiful. The trail transitioned to a boardwalk as it crossed through this stretch of bamboo forest, ascending more aggressively for a stretch before leveling out again as the trail followed Pipiwai Stream. 

Bamboo forest
The Pipiwai Trail continued through bamboo forest until it began to approach the head of a cliff-ringed basin. The trail surroundings cleared up a bit as we reached the end of the official, maintained trail. Here, at the trail's end, we had a nice of Waimoku Falls, an impressive, 400-foot tall drop. An unofficial trail continued from here to the very base of the falls, although the National Park Service warns against taking this unmaintained trail due to the risk of falling rock. Waimoku Falls has a fairly small upstream drainage basin, so it lacks impressive flow when there has not been heavy recent rains.

Waimoku Falls
We enjoyed Waimoku Falls for a bit and then backtracked to Kipahulu, visiting the pools and waterfalls of Oheo Gulch before we returned to Hana. This was a nice spot to experience some incredibly lush rainforest and other interesting vegetation, but I was only somewhat impressed by the waterfalls along the hike and I was not certain that the long drive to this hike from Kahului would have been worth it if we hadn't been staying in Hana. Ultimately, I'd still recommend this hike if you have a week or more on Maui, but this shouldn't be a top priority for visitors with limited time.

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