If you're visiting Maui from a big city, you’ll find the roads quite quaint and often flowing well. If you’re from a small town, it can be a bit frustrating along Maui’s major highways and narrow side streets. The speed limits will seem unnecessarily slow, with local drivers ignoring it while visitors try to follow the rules. You may also encounter that the passing lane is not always passable as slower drivers may use it for miles on end. The most important thing to remember is to go with the flow and don’t get frustrated. You're on vacation - relax!
Mapping apps are notoriously off on Maui. They gauge it by the known speed limit, but travel times are mostly affected by the time of day and where you are heading. Weekday morning rush hour can clog many roads between 7 am, and 9 am in most towns and highways. You’ll be lucky to go the speed limit during these times, making for a late boat tour or activity arrival if you’re not careful. The evenings are about the same between 4 pm and 6 pm. There have been some improvements in the last few years with new roads and bypasses in both Kahului and Lahaina. Which helps keep the flow moving more than in the past.
What to Keep in Your Car
If you get stuck in rush hour traffic, you can end up enjoying it if you pull over at a beach and wait it out. Just keep a towel, swimwear, and water or beverages in your car, and you’ll be ready at any time to pull over and “hang loose” for an hour or so. If you have to be somewhere like a luau or dinner cruise, get to the location or nearby early and then hit the beach or bar. It will go a long way to reducing your driving stress while on vacation on this stunningly beautiful island!
West Side Driving - Bypass
Driving from Kihei or the airport in Kahului to the resorts of West Maui can be notoriously slow, depending on the time of day and season. The part of the road that skirts the hillsides and cliffs is called the “Pali” and can come to a crawl during rush hour. Whale season can also slow this traffic flow as there is an overlook on the Pali that can clog with cars pulling in and out across traffic here.
After you make it past this part of the road, things can move quite smoothly with Lahaina’s new bypass road, which is wide and smooth. Still, be prepared for delays and even closures at any time with frequent wrecks or a grass fires stopping traffic for hours. Midday after 10 am and before 2 pm is the best time to drive to the west side.
Driving to Kihei from Kahului is easy now that a 4-lane highway finished in 2011. Staying on Piilani Highway will get you to Wailea pretty smoothly with some rush-hour delays, but it’s not bad. Driving along the shoreline of South Kihei Road is a different matter. All the restaurants, stores, and beaches are along this road, and the traffic crawls along most of the day. Try to stay on the upper highway as long as you can and drop down to the lower road to reach your destination as needed.
Maui’s north shore is a surfer’s paradise, but there are mainly two roads to it - Hana Highway along the coast and Baldwin Avenue coming from Makawao town. Hana Highway is always busy and can become fully clogged during rush hours. The closer to Paia town, the more the traffic slows, but there is a bypass road on the right just before town that cuts over to Baldwin Avenue above town if your headed upcountry. Also, just before Paia town on the left is Baldwin Beach Park. It’s popular with residents and visitors alike with plenty of parking. Not much surf here, but the beach is large with some fun shore break if you know what you're doing. Undertow and rip currents can be powerful here during large ocean swells, so be careful!
Baldwin Avenue is a winding road that traverses pretty much straight down the mountain to Paia from Makawao and usually has a pretty good flow. If you're in the upcountry area, this is a great scenic drive past pineapple fields, beautiful estates (check out Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center), and historic churches.
Just past Paia town is Hookipa Bay, one of Maui’s top surf spots on the north shore. It has a small beach parking lot that can fill up pretty quickly, and on the weekends, it can become fully clogged with cars along the sides of the road, making it a tight single lane in and out. An overlook at the entrance has a much larger parking area with a beautiful view of the entire bay. It’s a great place to check out the sets rolling in and gets you quite a bit closer to the wave action outside for photos.
Haleakala and Upcountry
Haleakala is Maui’s 10,000 ft high volcano that makes up the majority of the island’s landmass. The west-facing slope of the mountain some of the northwestern side (upper Haiku) is known as upcountry. It includes a vast swath of the mountain slopes starting at around 1300’ elevation to about 4000’ and some 16 miles across from Ulupalakua Ranch to Makawao town. It is a widely diverse area of farms and ranches mixed in with residential neighborhoods.
There are two main highways upcountry with Haleakala Highway, bringing you to the area from Kahului to Pukalani. At Pukalani, this highway continues up the mountain to crater road, which leads to the summit of Haleakala. Kula Highway continues past Pukalani parallel to the slope and runs 16 miles to Ulupalakua and Maui’s winery. Following this road past the ranchlands and you’ll traverse the barren “backside” of the island ending up in Hana.
At Pukalani, you can also head towards Makawao town on Makawao Avenue. It’s a cute little paniolo (cowboy) town with hip boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants. It’s worth a stop as you can walk the entire town in about 15 minutes. Grab some goodies at the bakery or a bite to eat at Casanova's cafe or do some fine dining at their main restaurant next door. Sunday afternoons have some excellent local musicians playing at the restaurant’s large stage.
If you're heading to the summit of Haleakala at 10,000 ft, be ready for lots of switchbacks and significant elevation and temperature changes. Bring warm clothes and plenty of water. The entrance fee into this National Park is $25 per car and lasts for three days. It is also for use to get into the Pools of Oheo past Hana in the Kipahulu District of Haleakala National Park.
Crater Road winds its way up the mountain with many hairpin turns, and you’ll rarely be able to go faster than 35 MPH, so consider using a bit lower gear than drive to avoid constant shifting. Sunrise at the summit is popular and requires a reservation through the National Park Service website unless you're on a van tour. If you do go on your own, be prepared for traffic in the dark and a top speed of 25 MPH.
If sunrise is at 5:45 am, you should be at the summit at least 45 minutes before to get a great viewing spot at the Visitor Center. Check the Maui drive times chart for your area and then add 20 minutes for slow morning traffic. When coming back down, use the gears to slow your descent, or you can burn up the brakes. A tow truck off the mountain can cost upwards of $400! Also, watch out for cows and cycling tours coming down the switchbacks. They can even slow traffic.
The Road to Hana
This road is one of the top five scenic drives in the world. It is also known as the “highway to hell’ with over 600 hairpin turns (most of them blind) and nearly 60 one-lane bridges to cross. Whether you go halfway to Hana (Keanae Peninsula) and back, out to Hana town and back, out to the Pools of Oheo and back or all the way around, it’s a full day that can range from 8 to 12 hours. The road past Hana is the roughest part. It often becomes a one-lane dirt road or pavement loaded with potholes. The road can also wash out during stormy days, making it impassable. Many rental car companies restrict driving in this area, so check your rental car agreement before traveling down this part of the road.
The road to Hana is challenging as it takes intense focus for the driver - which means whoever is driving won’t get to see much. However, there are dozens of places to stop, with the top ones being Keanae Peninsula, the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park, and the Pools of Oheo, which is part of Haleakala National Park. (The Pools of Oheo frequently are not open for swimming, but the trails around the pools are, usually.)
Along the way, there are numerous waterfalls, fruit stands, food trucks, and hiking or walking trails. Bring plenty of water as this is a hot and humid rainforest. It’s also important to know the driving etiquette of the road to Hana. This road is the lifeline to the residents who live on the Hana side, and while you’re on vacation, they are trying to get to work, the store, or to doctor appointments. Here are the main driving etiquette rules for the road to Hana...
#1 - Always pull over if you see local traffic behind you and let them pass. It might seem like they’re driving aggressively, but they’ve been traveling this road their whole life and know all the turns.
#2 - Never stop on a bridge. It clogs the entire flow of traffic. Pull over before or after the bridge (if there’s room) and walk back for a photo.
#3 - Spread the Aloha and wave if someone lets you pass or stops for you on the other side of a one-lane bridge. You’ll get lots of waves and smiles all day long!
Well, there you have it. This story covers most of the main roads you’ll be traveling in Maui, but there are many other roads to explore as you get to know the island. Just remember to be careful, go with the flow, and spread the Aloha!
Aloha Nui Loa, and enjoy!