Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Waihee Ridge

Waihee Ridge Trail amidst the West Maui Mountains
4.5 miles round trip, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, steep and muddy in places
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no parking fee necessary

Hawaii's Waihee Ridge offers views both deep into the lush rainforests of the West Maui Mountains and out into the Pacific Ocean. This lovely half-day hike is one of the best ways to experience the tropical forests and mountains of West Maui and is just a short drive from the island's main population center. 

This hike is best done early in the morning. Why, you might ask, should you have to wake up at an ungodly early hour when you're on vacation on Maui? First, clouds build on the windward side of the West Maui Mountains throughout the day, so early morning is your best shot at actually seeing the summits of this range and having clear views on the trail. Secondly, this is a popular hike: the main parking lot for this hike often fills by around 9 AM and latecomers will have to walk another mile each way from the overflow parking lot with 400 feet of additional elevation gain. 

Additionally, this is a real hike- so come prepared for one! Expect to encounter mud, steep slopes, bugs, and other natural obstacles that you would encounter in a precipitation-heavy mountain range. I was surprised by the extraordinary number of unprepared hikers on this trail: just because this is Hawaii doesn't mean you can hit the trail in sandals and carry no water. Hiking poles really help on this trail in the steep and muddy stretches.

The trailhead is a short drive from Kahului, the largest town on Maui. Visitors staying in Lahaina, Kaanapali, or Kapalua might look at a map and think that the shortest way to this trailhead is over the northwest coast of the island on the Kahekili Highway, but you should avoid this route unless you have a stomach for adventure and excellent driving skills, as the Kahekili Highway is one of the most difficult and dangerous driving experiences on Maui and will take a few hours to drive.

From Kahului, we followed the Kahului Beach Road north from the center of town and then turned right onto Waiehu Beach Road, which we followed for just over a mile before turning right again onto Highway 340 north, the Kahekili Highway. We followed the Kahekili Highway north from Kahului/Wailuku until the yellow dividing line ended at Mendes Ranch; here, just as the road narrowed, we immediately turned left. There was a sign on the left side of the Kahekili Highway that indicated that the turnoff was for the Waihee Ridge Trail but it's easy to miss. The lower parking lot for the hike was here right after the turnoff, in a gravel lot to the right of the road heading up to the Waihee Ridge Trailhead; if you arrive late in the morning, you'll have to park down here. As we came fairly early, we continued driving uphill on this road for a mile to the Waihee Ridge Trailhead, where there was parking for about 50 cars. The final mile of driving was on a windy and narrow road with only enough room for one way traffic, but there are pull outs and there's not much traffic here. There was still parking around 9 AM but the upper lot was full and the lower lot half full when we returned at noon.

From the trailhead, we headed up a paved concrete pathway that made its way uphill through open pastures. Grazing cows stared at us as we hiked uphill through this fairly steep stretch of trail; the paved trail ended at 0.2 miles after about 150 feet of uphill just below a large water tank. Here, a dirt path split off to the left of the paved trail; a sign indicated that we should take the dirt path to continue on the Waihee Ridge Trail. The dirt path continued a fairly aggressive ascent through the open pasture, delivering wonderful views of the grasslands below that stretched to the blue waters of the Pacific.

View through grazing fields to the Pacific Ocean near the trailhead
The trail then entered a tropical rainforest. Waihee Ridge lies on the windward side of the West Maui Mountains. As a result, clouds and moisture from the Pacific accumulate here almost every day of the year. The heart of the West Maui Mountains record up to 400 inches of rain a year; Waihee Ridge, on the edge of the range, receives less, but nonetheless gets plenty of precipitation each year. The abundant rain supports incredibly lush forests on these mountainsides.  

Hiking through tropical forests
The trail ascended steadily through the forest and reached a viewpoint at a break in the trees at 0.7 miles. Here, we had our first views of the lush, tropical slopes of the West Maui Mountains. The highest peaks of this range had already been engulfed in the day's clouds, but we were still impressed by the incredible greenery and enjoyed a nice view of Makamakaole Falls dropping down a canyon to the northwest.

Waterfall and tropical lushness in the West Maui Mountains
At 0.8 miles, the trail reached the ridgeline of Waihee Ridge and began following the crest of the ridge to the west. Soon, we reached the top of a small knob in the ridge, where we found the views for which this trail is known. To the west lay the tropical, wild heart of the West Maui Mountains, a steep and rugged mountain range that has been cut out of an extinct shield volcano. Even though Pu'u Kukui, the high summit of this range, was shrouded in clouds, the rich green ridges extending from the core of the range displaying magnificently eroded fluted ridges made this a spectacular view. Tropical forests filled the canyon of the Waihee River far below us. Looking to the southeast, we could see back to the town of Kahului, nestled along a bay between the West Maui Mountains and the sloped but imposing form of Haleakala.

Haleakala and Kahului
West Maui Mountains

Hikers looking for a short outing can turn back at this point for a hike of just about 2 miles round trip as the views remain similar over the remainder of the hike; however, hiking further is quite rewarding, especially if the weather remains nice. Choosing to continue onwards, we followed the trail west along the ridge through a flatter stretch out in the open. Here, the forest had been traded out for surroundings of dense and vividly green bushes and ferns. The farther that we hiked up the ridge, the more that views opened up: soon, we had more views out to the Pacific and could see nearby houses, farms, and coastal bluffs.

View of the Pacific from Waihee Ridge
At the 1.2 mile mark, the ridge steepened and the trail transitioned to a much more aggressive grade as well. The next 0.4 miles made up the steepest stretch of the hike. Here, the trail tackled Waihee Ridge directly, ascending the steep dirt trail along the ridge that had turned to mud in many places due to the nearly-daily precipitation. Hiking poles were quite useful here; we saw many visitors struggling with the terrain here, with some visitors who were wearing flip flops slipping in the mud. Luckily, the trail remained out in the open here and we were rewarded with more excellent views of the West Maui Mountains. 

Sunlight and clouds in the West Maui Mountains
However, those views soon came to an end for us as the steep Waihee Ridge Trail brought us into the clouds. Our continued ascent brought us into a landscape that was lush but had zero visibility. Unfortunately, we finished out the hike in these conditions. The trail flattened out briefly around the 1.7 mile mark and crossed through a boggy area where the trail was extremely muddy; it then ascended again via switchbacks for a final half mile and ended at a 2560-foot summit along the ridge. On a clear day or when cloud cover is higher, I am sure the views of the ocean, the West Maui Mountains, and Haleakala from the top are amazing, but on the day of our visit, we could only see the mist. When you visit a landscape that receives 400 inches of rain annually, the probability for cloudy weather during your visit will be quite high.

Ascending the Waihee Ridge Trail into the clouds
Although we had no mountain views, we did spot a number of large spiders that had spun huge and intricate webs along this trail. While many visitors probably won't relish these arachnids, I was impressed by both the quantity and the size of the spiders we spotted; the spiders we spotted here were far larger than the house spiders of temperate regions of the contiguous states.

No views, but a huge spider
Although we didn't get to enjoy the views from the top of the hike, I still thought that Waihee Ridge was a worthwhile hike. There aren't many official trails in the West Maui Mountains, so many visitors will find that this is the most straightforward way of exploring this lush, tropical mountain range. Come early to increase your chance of seeing the beautiful views from Waihee Ridge before the arrival of daily cloud cover.

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