DEATH ROAD OF MAUI

Kahekili Highway

I finally crossed Hawai’i off my list of states this past week and while you don’t just go to Hawai’i to cross it off one’s travel list (I would love to go back sometime, especially to visit the other islands), I have no intention of ever re-visiting Maui’s Kahekili Highway – despite the wild and (at times) stunningly beautiful scenery. Of course, I wouldn’t know about the attractions dotted about this wild stretch of road since I was driving at night. Oh, let me tell you…

(Highlighted above is the most dangerous stretch of the Kahekili Highway – 4.5 miles of what amounts to barely more than a golf cart-sized lane etched into the side of a cliff)

So the idea started in the old capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Lahaina, otherwise known as a cozy little tourist town along the western shore of Maui. My girlfriend. Breeah, and I had just finished off a couple of shave ice’s from Ululani’s famous shop (can’t go wrong with the passion fruit flavor with coconut ice cream on the bottom). It was about 6 p.m. and I thought we’d take the northern route back to our hotel in Kahului (we had taken the main southern vein of the Honoapiilani Highway to get into Lahaina). Now – before you experienced Mauians call me a stupid tourist (and I’m sure some will), I knew the northern route was a zigzag affair. I referenced Google maps street view (at least before they reached the town of Kahakuloa) and the two-lane roads (albeit narrow and cliff hugging) didn’t appear too dangerous. Unfortunately, I filled in the gap from Kahakuloa back to Kahului as more of the same. Heck, I really didn’t even think about it.

Still in the relatively safe two-lan confines of Hono Lua Bay

Still in the relatively safe two-lan confines of Hono Lua Bay

I guess my initial idea was to get some cool twilight shots of featuring the rugged coast and the island of Molo’kai. This lasted all of about 4-5 dimly lit photos as the sky quickly grew dark. The GPS couldn’t understand why I wanted to go this way to Kahului as it constantly re-calculated a route back through all of Route 30. Once it finally caught up to my plan, the highlighted route was filled with hairpin switchbacks the likes of which I’ve never driven on before (good thing I had a Jeep!). Now, it was still paved here and I was feeling fine even though Breeah was understandably annoyed (and a bit motion sick) with our new route.

Then comes the little town of Kahakuloa and a funny thing happens. State Route 30 changes into County Route 340. There is a sign that points this out, but I’ve been zig-zagging so long that I probably didn’t care who actually owned and managed the road. Well, the road quickly changes to a mostly one-lane “casually paved” road that hugged the rocky outcrops. Gone was most of the guard rails from Route 30 and now we were introduced to completely blind cliff-side turns (taken at 5 mph, tops) and no room for two-lane traffic (despite its allowance). If you’re familiar with Bolivia’s Yungas Road (the fabled “death road” profiled in BBC’s Top Gear and History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers: Deadliest Roads and Modern Marvels) you’re aware then of the extreme challenges these roads offer two passing cars. The Kahekili Highway is no different in this respect, giving very little room for two cars and if you see a car coming the other direction, even if it has a ways to go yet, it’s best to just pull over as soon as you find some wider spots and just sit there.

The last picture I took that night; dark, grainy, raw and unedited. This is from the lookout at Punalau Beach about three miles from Maui's northernmost point.

The last picture I took that night; dark, raw and unedited. This is from the lookout at Punalau Beach about three miles from Maui’s northernmost point. A fairly pointless shot really, but it was our last chance to actually see anything of the northwest coast. 

I saw two police cars winding their way through the road about half-a-mile out and it freaked us both out. Breeah and I – already stunned with the situation we found ourselves in – were sure we were now probably breaking some local ordinance about driving this road at night. We sat and waited at the soonest opportunity and the cop cars came and went with no fuss. I breathed a sigh of relief and moved on. I didn’t fear the road so much as the “unknown” variables I had to deal with, those being: (1) Would the road just stop at some point and/or be completely impassable? (2) Other vehicles. Any other vehicle… (3) Animals (we saw a dog, a cat and an owl). (4) Just hoping these rental car breaks hold up.

Thankfully, we met only a couple other vehicles at slightly wider points and were able to maneuver ourselves out of trouble. My absolute biggest fear was being forced into a situation of backing up on a sizable chunk of this daunting road. I hear the inside traffic has the right-of-way (and so it seemed, as the rare passing vehicle stopped for us, despite us being stopped as well). Eventually we made our way out of this mess and somehow had enough of an appetite to stomach the local Jack-in-the-Box at 8:10 p.m.

Real quotes from reviewers on TripAdvisor

  • “Beautiful views but you cannot enjoy them because your heart is in your throat!”
  • “Spectacular views, but the scariest and most dangerous drive you will likely ever do. Think VERY seriously before you subject yourself and family to this terrifying drive”
  • “The U.S. version of the Bolivian Highway to Hell…once you are in, it is almost impossible to change your minds and head back, as there is simply no space to do so.”
  • “While the road to Hana is certainly an experience with the one lane bridges (that have warning signs) and many sharp turns, it is no where near as intense as a journey around Maui’s West coast on the Kahekili Hwy.”

Want some visual evidence. A brave Youtuber was filming from the passenger seat and uploaded a nice quality video of their ordeal. Not too much action here, but I do remember the part from 1:00-2:00 being one of the most hair-raising portions (and remember, I drove at night).

Oh, and just last August, two people (driving at 2 a.m.) drove their car right off a cliff. They were fortunate to escape serious injury despite dropping at least 100-feet. Various other accidents and incidents over the last decade are detailed in another writeup here. The route is also featured on dangerousroads.org.

Now, I don’t want to completely deter people from taking this road. There have been a few dumb accidents over the years that could have been avoided with much careful driving. But the Kahekili Highway is no joke and the margin for error is much slimmer than almost 99.99% of the roads in the U.S – most people say the gorgeous (and notoriously tricky) Hana Highway on Maui is easy by comparison (though the southern route of the Hana, the lesser known Piilani Highway, seems to be about as demanding as the Kahekili). I wouldn’t know – after driving the Kahekili at night we decided against the Hana this time, our stomachs couldn’t handle another white knuckle drive!

For now, I’ll put a feather in my cap for tackling one of the country’s toughest roads (at night no less), but it was a situation I certainly would have avoided if I knew what I was getting into! The lack of warning signs is strange, considering the number of visitors driving around the island for the first time and ESPECIALLY considering the fact that once you enter, you’re pretty much committed. That said, despite some higher than normal blood pressure, I never felt like we were in danger (despite Breeah’s many audible and credible concerns). I was in control and driving slow and safe – the only way I could imagine anyone tackling this road. Take great care if you dare venture out on the Kahekili.

 

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5 thoughts on “DEATH ROAD OF MAUI

  1. Nice narrative–thank you. I drove this road on January 26, 2014 and we also traveled north from Lahaina area and around to Kahului. It’s absolutely gorgeous–I wasn’t afraid at all and would love to drive it again.

  2. Drove it last week in my pimped out mini-van and kiddos in car seats. Very exciting drive but not terrifying by any means (though night time would be pretty intense). New pavement on 90% of road made it easier too.

  3. I drove this last week and it was absolutely terrifying!!!!!!!!! I regret it so much because i actually had to pul over and deep breath after hyperventilating. we had to back up on a steep one lane mountain because another car was comibng toward us. never again!

  4. I did this drive twice and will never do it again. It’s not the road itself because you can go as fast as you are comfortable with. The scary part for me were the oncoming locas who speed like crazy around the turns constantly coming into the opposite lane. Also, the local tourist companies big vans drive way to fast.

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