Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Sliding Sands

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
3.5 miles round trip, 900 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate due to high elevation
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

Although Maui is well known for its lush, tropical coast, the heart of the island atop 10,023-foot Haleakala is a barren but dazzling landscape of multihued volcanic features. The Sliding Sands Trail is the crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, leading from the massive volcano’s road-accessible summit down into a spectacular crater dotted with perfectly formed cinder cones of all colors. The consistently open nature of this trail means that hikers can travel any distance along it and have a satisfying trip; however, it’s important to note that because the trail descends into the crater, hiking further along the trail means more uphill you’ll have to handle on the return trip. High altitude may make this hike challenging for many, especially as almost everyone is coming up from sea level.

The Haleakala summit sunrise has become an extremely sought-after sight on Maui. Haleakala translates to the House of the Sun in Hawaiian in local mythology is considered to be the place where the demigod Maui lassoed the sun to slow its journey across the sky. If you wish to see the sunrise or if you wish to enter Haleakala National Park before 7 AM, you’ll need to reserve a sunrise permit at; be sure to do this months in advance as spots typically fill up within the day that permits become available.

Anna and I hiked the Sliding Sands Trail during a December trip to Maui. We had initially intended to do a more extended hike along the trail that day but, rushing out of our hotel at 3:30 AM on our way to see the summit sunrise, I forgot to bring a backpack containing our lunches and my camera. Thus, rather than doing a more extended hike along the Sliding Sands Trail, we only went a short way down before to see the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone before turning back.

From Kahului, we followed the Hana Highway east from town for 3 miles and then turned right at the traffic light with the Haleakala Highway (Highway 37). We followed Haleakala Highway uphill along the volcano’s lower slopes for 8 miles and then turned left to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 377) after entering the town of Pukalani. After another 6 miles, we made another left turn to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 378) after passing Kula Lodge; we followed this road as it climbed aggressively through many switchbacks for another 19 miles, passing the park entrance and ending at the Haleakala Visitor Center. There is a large parking lot here that often fills up at sunrise, but typically starts to clear out within 20 minutes of the sun coming up, so come early but not too early.

The parking lot at the visitor center had already filled when we arrived, so we ended up watching the sun rise at the Kalahaku Overlook, which was at the end of the first switchback on the way back down the mountain. The sunrise was spectacular: slowly, we watched far-off Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island catch first light before rays fell on the rim of Haleakala Crater, gradually creeping down and illuminating the colorful wonderland of cinder cones in the crater itself. However, it was also spectacularly windy and cold: while we had prepared with plenty of clothes, packing winter coats on our trip to Maui, many other visitors were clearly underdressed for the weather.

Sunrise over the Mauna Loa and the Haleakala Crater from Kalahaku Overlook
After returning to the visitor center, we began our hike along the Sliding Sands Trail. From the visitor center, we followed the sidewalk that led along the south side of the parking lot; this sidewalk ended upon meeting a second, much smaller parking area for the Sliding Sands Trail. From here, a cinder-and-ash path paralleled a road and led south around a small prominence, which served as a welcome temporary windbreak. The trail quickly diverged from the road and soon led to a saddle above the Haleakala Crater with sweeping views into the crater below. This was a good spot to stop and take stock of the landscape we were about to enter: around ten cinder cones, each quite symmetric, dotted the crater floor below, with the great ridge of Hanakauhi rising across the crater and plains of lava and ash leading to Kaupo and Koolau Gaps, which break the crater rim. The intensely blue waters of the Pacific were visible through the gaps in the crater rim.

The colors of Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala Crater
Leaving the rim of the crater, the trail descended gradually into the colorful ash-covered wonderland inside the crater. We followed the trail downhill for about 1.75 miles from the rim for a short round-trip hike of just 3.5 miles, with 900 feet of elevation gain on the return. As we had limited water and food due to me forgetting my pack at our hotel, we didn’t journey all the way to the crater floor, although I would have loved to do so. We stopped at the end of a switchback above the Kalu’Uoka’O’O cinder cone; while we didn’t make it far down enough to look directly into the cone, we could clearly make out the bright red streaks inside the rounded mouth of the cone from our stopping point.

Kalu'Uoka'O'O and the Haleakala Crater
View out Koolau Gap
While the gaping hole atop Haleakala is commonly referred to as the volcano’s crater, its geologic origin is actually erosive. Haleakala initially formed as a shield volcano like Mauna Loa on Big Island; after volcanic activity began to calm down as the Hawaii Hot Spot shifted away from Maui, deep stream valleys eroded on the northern and eastern flanks of the mountain. Rifting across the island in more recent centuries reignited a newer episode of volcanism on Maui, which has created the plethora of cinder cones that dot the island; lava flows from this newer volcanism filled the deep stream valleys, forming the lava plains running through today’s Koolau and Kaupo Gaps.

The Sliding Sands Trail continues far beyond where we turned around, visiting a wonderland of cinder cones and other volcanic features. Hikers who continue along the trail will pass by the cinder cone Pu’u O Maui on their way to the cluster of cinder cones by Ka Moa o Pele and Pu’u Nuae, where the Sliding Sands Trail meets the Halemau’u Trail. Hikers looking for a more comfortable backcountry experience can spend the night in one of the multiple cabins in Haleakala Crater and see the cinder cones painted by morning and evening light; reservations are essential. Hikers who do choose to go farther should just remember that since this trail starts high and descends, you will have to deal with a potentially strenuous climb on the return trip and that this return ascent will be more difficult due to the higher elevation. The round trip from the visitor center to the loop around Ka Moa o Pele is 12 miles with 2700 feet of elevation gain.

Hikers already in the summit area should make the drive over from the visitor center to Red Hill, the highest point on Haleakala, either before or after their hike on the Sliding Sands Trail. From the very highest point of this great volcano, there were sweeping 360-degree views of Maui; additionally, there were a handful of ahinahina silversword, a unique plant endemic to Haleakala, meaning it is naturally found nowhere else in the world. The silversword grows for about 50 years in its spiky, ball-like form before it finally blooms for a single brilliant season and dies.

Ahinahina silversword near Red Hill
I didn't get to fully explore the Sliding Sands Trail at Haleakala, but I was very struck by the stark landscape, vivid colors, and fantastical shapes of the short stretch that I did get to see. If my future vacations include a return to Maui, then I will almost certainly return to Haleakala to see the stretches of the Sliding Sands Trail that I did not see on this trip.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge and Haleakala Crater
2.5 miles round trip, 500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Haleakala National Park entrance fee required

As Maui’s Haleakala Volcano rises over 10000 feet from the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the lush tropical forests of its lower windward slopes transition to the barren rock and colorful cinder cones of its massive crater. The short hike along the Halemau’u Trail in Haleakala National Park to Rainbow Bridge, a spectacular ridgetop viewpoint, gives hikers a great overview of this transition zone and packs in some stunning views. The name can be slightly misleading, as there’s no arch of any sort here: Rainbow Bridge refers to a narrow stretch of ridge with views to both sides. The Halemau’u Trail extends beyond Rainbow Bridge, descending into Haleakala Crater to connect up with the Sliding Sands Trail that descends from the summit, but a traverse of the crater is likely too much for most casual hikers, who will find this easy hike to Rainbow Bridge to be sufficiently rewarding.

Anna and I hiked to Halemau’u Rainbow Bridge during a December trip to Maui. We had initially intended to do a more extended hike in Haleakala Crater that day, but after rushing out of our hotel at 3:30 AM on our way to see the summit sunrise, I realized that I had failed to bring a backpack containing our lunches and my camera. Thus, rather than doing a more extended hike along the Sliding Sands Trail, we chose to do two short excursions on the Halemau’u and the Sliding Sands Trails.

From Kahului, we followed the Hana Highway east from town for 3 miles and then turned right at the traffic light with the Haleakala Highway (Highway 37). We followed Haleakala Highway uphill along the volcano’s lower slopes for 8 miles and then turned left to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 377) after entering the town of Pukalani. After another 6 miles, we made another left turn to stay on the Haleakala Highway (now Highway 378) after passing Kula Lodge; we followed this road as it climbed aggressively through many switchbacks for another 16 miles, entering Haleakala National Park and then arriving at the Halemau’u Trailhead. The trailhead is well-marked and lies at the northeastern edge of a switchback, with a parking lot on the left side of the road. The road is extremely windy and gains a lot of elevation but it is paved the entire way; however, a few bridges along the way are only wide enough for one car so slow down to yield when approaching these bridges. Additionally, reservations are required to enter Haleakala National Park before 7 AM due to the intense popularity of the summit sunrise; if you’re not coming for the sunrise, wait until after 7 to enter the park.

The forests characteristic of the lower slopes of Haleakala had faded to brush by the time we reached the Halemau’u Trailhead, so we had good, open views of the island and the Pacific Ocean from the parking lot already. A nene- an endemic Hawaiian goose that rarely flies and inhabits the upper elevations of Haleakala- was hanging out in the parking lot, enjoying the view. From the trailhead, we followed the Halemau’u Trail from the far end of the parking lot. The trail traveled through high brush as it descended gradually while it headed northeast towards the rim of Haleakala Crater. After two-thirds of a mile hiking from the trailhead and about 200 feet of descent, we came to a junction with the trail from Hosmer Grove; we stayed right at the junction to stick to the Halemau’u Trail, which continued descending as it approached the rim of the crater.

After the junction, great views opened up to the north of the heavily forested windward side of Maui. The northeast side of the island catches moisture moving across the Pacific that stalls when it meets Haleakala: the result is over 100 inches of rainfall each year, with superlative years recording up to 400 inches of rain. As expected, there were some clouds playing with the mountains on the windward north slope of the mountain, so even though we could see many of the lush ridges on the upper slopes and the Pacific Ocean in the distance, we only caught occasional glimpses of the rainforests of Koolau Gap during rare cloud breaks.

Haleakala slopes
Lush slopes of Haleakala
About a hundred meters past the junction, the trail came to its first viewpoint of Haleakala Crater. A stunning panorama of multi-layered volcanic cliffs towering above a great sloping plain dotted with colorful cinder cones opened up. Hanakauhi, a massive peak that marked the northeast rim of the crater, rose majestically on the other side of the plain. A forested ridge jutted out below and ahead of us into the crater: we could see the Halemau’u Trail’s many switchbacks down the side of the ridge to the crater floor which, luckily, we would not have to traverse on that day. Unlike the view of the crater from further up the volcano at Red Hill, the view from the Halemau’u Trail was less barren and substantially more green: grasses covered the crater floor here, making for a lusher scene than the austere landscape of ash further up the mountain.

Hanakauhi rising over the Haleakala Crater
As we descended via switchbacks, we could feel the vegetation around us begin to transition: the brushy vegetation at the trailhead, on the leeward side of the mountain, was now being replaced by ferns and other moisture-loving plants on the windward side. After just over a mile of hiking and nearly 500 feet descent from the trailhead, we came to the Rainbow Bridge stretch of the hike, where the trail followed the narrow crest of a fin-like ridge with spectacular views off both sides. This stretch of trail was thrilling without actually being dangerous. The views of the crater rim walls on our side of the crater were more impressive here as we were essentially within the crater at that point.

Halemau'u Rainbow Bridge
While some hikers may choose to head back from here, a more natural and satisfying turnaround point is just a little further down, at the prow of the fin-like ridge. We continued following the trail, which hugged the north side of the ridge with constant spectacular views down towards Koolau Gap. About a hundred meters further along, we came to the end of the ridge, where the trail made a 360-degree turn and wrapped around to the other side of the ridge to begin its long, switchbacking descent to the crater floor. A short spur trail at this turn led to a small promontory at the very end of the ridge; we walked out to this high point, which provided the most spectacular view of the hike. Hanakauhi rose across the plains of Haleakala Crater from us, while the sloping crater floor led up towards the lava-covered heart of the volcano below Red Hill. Holua Cabin was the only visible sign of human presence here, a lone hut dwarfed by volcanic cliffs and the immensity of the shield volcano landscape around it.

Rim of Haleakala Crater
This was an incredible viewpoint from which to study the ecological transition zones on Haleakala: a natural textbook was open before us. To the right of the view, we could see the alpine summit of Haleakala, where winters are cold, snow falls occasionally, and the ground is dominated by ash from the cinder cones. The Pu’u O Maui and Ka Moa o Pele cinder cones were among the most prominent with their high and agreeably asymmetric forms. From the cinder cones, black lava flows led downslope: the upper stretches of the lava flows looked entirely desolate, but at a certain point grasses began appearing and then shrubs. As the crater opened into Koolau Gap, the bushes gradually transitioned into rain forest. The lower slopes of the volcano were not visible below the clouds, but we would experience it as a waterfall-dotted rainforest later on our drive to Hana.

Looking up the Haleakala Crater to the cinder cones
Hiking the first stretch of the Halemau’u Trail was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a must-do on Maui. I’ll certainly have to return to Haleakala to visit the spectacular crater floor in the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Cape Hanamanioa

Waves break against the basalt coastline of Maui near Cape Hanamanioa
3.5 miles round trip, 75 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, flat but some very rocky terrain
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no parking fee necessary

At Maui's Cape Hanamanioa, on the southwestern corner of Haleakala, the crashing waves of the Pacific meet rugged lava flows in a dramatic landscape of basalt cliffs, cinder cones, and ancient Hawaiian villages. The half day hike to reach this corner of the island is a good place to experience an easily accessible stretch of Maui's spectacular coastline with just a fraction of the crowds found at the nearby resorts. Although this is a fairly flat coastal hike, it is important to realize that this is still a hike: the trail surfaces are very rough and rocky while traversing the lava flows, so bring your hiking boots. Also, the exposed landscape at the cape makes high winds quite common here.

Anna and I hiked to Cape Hanamanioa during our New Year's trip to Maui. The trailhead is a short and easy drive from Kahului and is especially close to the resort towns of Kihei and Wailea. From Kahului, we followed Highway 311 south; after passing the turnoff for Kihei Rd, Highway 311 became the Piilani Highway and we continued following it past the the town of Kihei. The Piilani Highway ended at a T-intersection with the Wailea Alanui Drive in Wailea; we turned left here to head south. The road narrowed as it approached Makena Beach and then lost the yellow dividing line shortly after passing Makena Beach. The road narrowed to a single lane with pullouts as it followed a scenic stretch of coast and then crossed a barren lava flow. After passing a monument to the explorer La Perouse, the road turned to the right and the pavement ended, transitioning to rough rock as it reached a parking area by the water: this was the trailhead for both the Hoapili Trail and the Cape Hanamanioa Trail.

We started off the hike by following the Hoapili Trail to the southeast from the parking area, crossing onto the lava flow as the trail followed the coast. This was a striking and extraordinary trail and there were incredible views of the azure ocean, the dark and contorted forms of frozen lava, and colorful cinder cones dotting the slopes of a broad-sloped form of Haleakala, Maui's massive shield volcano. The lava flow that we hiked on is the newest land on Maui: cinder cones erupted on the southwest slopes of Haleakala in 1790, the last period of active volcanism on the island, forming this field of rough, sharp rock. Despite traveling through unforgiving terrain, the trail here was reasonably well-maintained, with a gravel surface smoothing out the rough lava surface. Shortly after beginning the hike, we passed by a set of low rock walls to our left. These walls mark the site of a heiau, a Hawaiian temple. The area along La Perouse Bay was once a native Hawaiian village- remnants of residential areas, graves, and this heiau are collectively part of this archaeological site. Please don't disturb these rock structures, as they're both historically important and sacred to the Hawaiian people!

Heiau and cinder cone
The trail remained close to the rugged, rocky basalt shoreline of La Perouse Bay for the first third of a mile of the hike, at one point passing a small basalt arch that becomes a blowhole at high tide. Waves swept off the Pacific, constantly battering the volcanic rock of the coast. In the distance, we could see the high lava bluffs of Cape Hanamanioa, our destination, rising above the ocean.

Basalt arch
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
One-third of a mile from the trailhead, the trail left the rocky lava flow and entered the shade of a forest of kiawe trees. Over approximately the next half mile, the trail hugged the coastline while traveling under these trees, which provided a welcome respite from the hot sun. Here, the underlying basalt of the lava flow had been covered with loose, washed-up pieces of bleached coral, which in turn provided enough soil for kiawe trees to take root. While the trees helped make the scenery quite nice here, kiawe trees are actually not native to Hawaii: they're a form of mesquite bush from the Americas that European explorers brought to the islands in the nineteenth century that has since taken root in many places.

La Perouse Bay coast
Basalt coastline of La Perouse Bay
The first stretch of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa and the Hoapili Trail together follow the Kings Highway, a footpath around the island of Maui connecting the many ahupua'a, which were watershed-delineated societal units in ancient Hawaii. The Kings Highway is so named because it was established by Piilani, a king who united Maui under his rule in the sixteenth century and ordered the construction of the road. Most of the highway has since fallen into disuse or been built over; this section of the footpath is known as the Hoapili Trail as it was reconstructed during the administration of Hoapili, a governor of Maui during the nineteenth century. Hoapili was a close confidant of King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands in a single kingdom and was a prominent early convert to Christianity among Hawaiian royalty. The ancient trail and the many ruins associated with a village along La Perouse Bay here were now becoming overgrown with the branches of kiawe trees.

Hoapili Trail
Looking east across the azure sea, we could see the broad, sloping form of island of Kahoolawe. Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian Islands; it is also the only uninhabited island today. Like all the other Hawaiian Islands, Kahoolawe is formed by a shield volcano; however, it lacks the lushness of any other islands or even any fresh water altogether as it lies entirely within the rainshadow of Haleakala. This lack of water, combined with decades of its status as a target practice zone for the US military, explains Kahoolawe's unpopulated status today.

View to the island of Kahoolawe
At 0.8 miles into the hike, the kiawe forest abruptly ended and we found ourselves back on the rough terrain of a lava flow. There were more native Hawaiian stone structures here, just meters from the ocean. Here, the Cape Hanamanioa Trail split from the Hoapili Trail at an unsigned junction. The Hoapili Trail passed through a set of stone walls and headed off to the left and inland, crossing the vast lava flows ahead to the east, while the Cape Hanamanioa Trail paralleled the coast here as it also began a journey across the black lava flow. 

Hawaiian ruins and view of Cape Hanamanioa
At just over one mile into the hike, the trail briefly passed through a small grove of kiawe trees by the coast in these vast fields of lava. Here, we spotted a herd of feral goats. These feral goats are not native to Hawaii- after all, no mammals besides hoary bats inhabited these islands before the arrival of Polynesian seafarers about 1500 years ago- and were introduced by early European explorers who hoped to populate the islands with goats as a food source. Set loose on islands with no predators, the invasive feral goat population exploded and has since become problematic, as the goats are severely damaging to native vegetation. While culls to control the population are now common, complete removal of the feral goats is a controversial topic in Hawaii.

Feral goats
Leaving this final patch of trees, the trail made a brief uphill climb (the only substantial elevation gain on this hike) to reach the top of a vast lava flow. The final two-thirds of a mile of this hike was across this barren, bizarre field of broken basalt out to Cape Hanamanioa, which was at the very edge of the lava flow. It was interesting to see the various shapes that lava cooled into, but this stretch of the hike was also quite challenging as the trail itself was littered with irregularly shaped and frequently sharp rocks; hiking boots are a must here, as the flip-flops that many tourists wear around Maui would be torn to shreds here. This made the hike more challenging than its flat profile would suggest. Intense winds whipping off the Pacific Ocean also made this stretch of the trail challenging, winds made worse by pelting sands of eroded lava. This was a harsh and austere landscape, one which most people will not want to linger around.

The trail across the lava flow paralleled the coast here, but it was far enough removed from the actual shoreline- which was constantly about 50 to 100 meters away- that there were no real ocean views to speak of. Instead, we found impressive views towards the sloping form of Haleakala when we looked back to the northeast. In fact, we could see the entire volcano from ocean to summit here: the white buildings of the Haleakala Observatory near the summit stood atop the sloping, mound-like form of the mountain. The long southwest ridge of the mountain led from La Perouse Bay up to the top of Haleakala here. The lower slopes of the volcano were covered with dry forest and intermittently broken by cinder cones and lava flows, while the middle elevations of the mountain alternated between denser and more verdant forests and open grassland. Barren volcanic rock covered the highest elevations.

Haleakala rising over the lava flows at Cape Hanamanioa
The low elevation cinder cones and lava flows were one of the most remarkable parts of the view here. The clear sight lines from the lava flow that we hiked on provided a great view of Kalua o Lapa, a tiny cinder cone nearby from which emanated an expanse of dark, cooled lava. This extraordinary example of a cinder cone and its associated lava flow is actually the youngest eruption on Maui: this cinder cone was probably formed by eruptions around 1790. Visitors who have traveled to Big Island and seen the smooth pahoehoe lava flows there might be puzzled as to why the cooled lava in southwest Maui has instead taken on such rough shapes. This is a'a lava: it is more silicic than the smooth pahoehoe lava and thus had higher viscosity when flowing downhill from its erupting vent, resulting in an uneven surface littered with sharp lava fragments. The higher ratio of a'a lava found on Maui and the higher ratio of pahoehoe on Big Island reflect the stages of shield volcano life of each island's volcanoes: Kiluaea and Mauna Loa on Big Island are fed directly by low silica-content magma from the Hawaii Hot Spot, while these cinder cones on Maui are a result of rifting that brings to the surface older magma which has incorporated more silica content by melting surrounding crust.

Cinder cone on the slopes of Haleakala
At 1.4 miles from the trailhead, the trail along the lava flow finally returned to the coast. Views to the north and west from the coast were very impressive: in addition to seeing Kahoolawe across from us, I could make out the form of tiny (and very pretty!) Molokini Crater, with the sloping shield volcano of Lanai and the rugged, perpetually cloud-capped forms of the West Maui Mountains in the distance.

Lanai, Molokini, and the West Maui Mountains
After a short stretch atop the coastal lava bluffs, the trail turned slightly more inland for the final leg of the hike to Cape Hanamanioa. Here, the wind became ever stronger as we approached the far end of the lava flow, escalating to a full-on gale when I came to a junction at 1.6 miles from the trailhead. Here, the right fork led up to a local high point, while the left fork continued towards the edge of the cape: while the right fork was worth visiting, those hoping to catch a glimpse of the cape and then escape from the winds should continue on the left fork. This trail wrapped around to the left and descended sightly before coming to another spur on the right, which led out to Hanamanioa Light. We followed this trail out to the very edge of the cape.

While Hanamanioa Light is itself unnoteworthy, being nothing more than a pole with a light bulb affixed to it, the view from this point was raw and awesome. Here, massive waves swept off the Pacific and collided with the cliffs of the lava flow, sending spray soaring into the air. We caught glimpses of the southern coast of Maui, but what we could see was quite similar to what we had just experienced: a lava flow coastline with basalt battered by the elements. A beach littered with bleached coral lay just east of the cape and provided some contrast with the azures and blues of the ocean and the darkness of the basalt.

Waves pound Cape Hanamanioa
The trail continued from the light all the way down to the bleached coral beach, but we chose to turn back at the light as the wind was becoming intolerable. We picked our way through the rough basalt on our way back across the flow, wondering why we had chosen to spend our Maui vacation hiking on such rough terrain but at the same time marveling that we had managed to so thoroughly escape the crowds that are omniprescent at Wailea and Makena just a stone's throw away. This is not a relaxing hike that many might associate with a coastal Maui experience, but the scenery and variety of things to see on the way to Cape Hanamanioa make it a rewarding experience.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ohai Loop

Kahakuloa Head rises above the northwest Maui coast
1.2 miles loop, 180 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Windy paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Ohai Loop is an easy jaunt to see some beautifully lush coastal scenery on the northwest coast of Maui. Far quieter than most other corners of this well-loved island, you can experience what makes Maui so magical here with far fewer crowds.

There are two ways to reach the Ohai Loop from Kahului. On a map, it might seem that the most straightforward approach is to drive the Kahekili Highway along the northeastern coast of the West Maui Mountains to the Ohai Loop, which lies near the northern point of the island. However, past the turnoff for the Waihee Ridge Trailhead, the Kahehili Highway is one of the narrowest, windiest, and most dangerous paved roads on Maui. While a thrilling and spectacularly beautiful drive, one that I personally enjoyed greatly, the Kahekili Highway is not for most drivers. 

Instead, it is easier to reach this trailhead from Kahului by wrapping around the other side of West Maui, taking Highway 380 south and then joining Highway 30 for Lahaina. Follow Highway 30- the Honoapiilani Highway- around the entire western side of West Maui; the broad highway narrows down and becomes windy after passing Kapalua. The Honoapiilani Highway becomes the Kahekili Highway, although this stretch is not nearly as difficult driving as the stretch near Kahakuloa. The road makes many curves but retains a yellow dividing line all the way to the trailhead. The trailhead pulloff is not marked; you'll have to make note of the exact location beforehand. It is a small pulloff on the ocean side of the road with parking for just a handful of cars; if you're coming from the direction of Kapalua, you'll see a "Falling Rocks" sign immediately before arriving at the pulloff.

Two trails emanate from the trailhead: to the left, an asphalt path and to the right, a dirt trail leading downhill. We started by taking the asphalt path, which led quickly to a dead end, fenced-off viewpoint atop a coastal bluff with great coastal views, especially to the northwest of Nakalele Point, the Maui's northernmost point. Even from a distance, I was able to spot the Nakalele Blowhole erupting at intervals. The steep mountains of Molokai rose beyond Nakalele Point. 

View from the Ohai Trail towards Nakalele Blowhole
After enjoying the viewpoint, we returned to the parking area and took the dirt trail heading east to start the actual hike. Two quick turns brought us to a fork in the trail: we took the left fork, which set us on a clockwise journey through the loop. Hiking the loop clockwise allowed us to experience the close-up ocean views first. The dirt trail descended through fields of ulei and ohai- two of the plants native to the area- as it headed towards the edge of the coastal bluffs. The ulei was blooming with small white flowers, but the ohai- a plant endemic to Hawaii- was not showing off its red pea flowers during our visit. The verdant scene with the deep blue ocean as a backdrop was a balm for my soul.

Ohai Loop
Over the next half mile, the trail followed the coast, rarely venturing out directly to the edge of the basalt cliffs but keeping us close enough to see the ocean and hear the roar of the surf. Massive waves pummeled the raw, rocky coast here in a constant and rhythmic but nevertheless spectacular geological drama. Spur trails led out to more precarious vantage points, from which we could look down to see the white froth of the ocean wash over the black volcanic rock of the island.

Hiking through fields of ulei and ohai on Maui's northwest coast
Waves break against the northwest Maui Coast
The loop began to circle back at a viewpoint where we could see down the coast to magnificent Kahakuloa Head, which is surely the most distinctive landmark on the northwest Maui Coast. 

Kahakuloa Head and the coast from the turnaround point on the loop
On the return leg of the loop, we hiked slightly inland but still had good ocean views. Here, the ulei and ohai grew even denser and at times arched over the trail, creating botanical tunnels that we passed under on our way back to the trailhead. We followed the good dirt tread back to the parking lot to wrap up this short and easy but wonderfully enjoyable hike.

Ulei growing along the Ohai Loop

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.

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.