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.
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.
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.
don’t ever travel to Asia.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Make sure you drive clockwise, so at least you’re on the mountain side and not the cliff side.
Don’t try, simply do not. Read very dangerous and will totally ruin your trip. I was there on my honeymoon and as a very physically fit smart 35yr old man with his senses intact I can say that this was a terrible idea. I learned to drive on the Bronx river parkway which is an insane derby loaded with Serbian lunatics racing minivans in an overflowed riverbead…the Road to Hana wasn’t even close to this. There are so many chances for you to easily just die even at 4mph. Btw the no sign thing? Just throw up a skull and cross bones and the new wife would’ve googled it right smart and it would’ve been a never happened. It was an hour of straight fear. It made whiskey have to come out in Hawaii that day
Seriously, it’s stupid that there aren’t any signs. Id sooner steal Komodo dragon eggs than moutain bike that thing
I’ll second Ryan’s thoughts. I’m really amazed this road exits at all to be honest…its rather pointless except for the very small community that dwells about halfway down this terrifying road. The more comments I’ve read make me feel blessed that I even got through this (and I had a fairly large rental jeep with squeaky brakes and a pitch black night sky to boot).
Lol!!! I’m still scared after driving this last summer!!! It was horrible and I also hyperventilated twice!!! I’m so thankful that we made it alive and the no sign thing is completely unthoughtful of them and downright mean that there was no warning and virtually no turnaround!!!! It was SCARY!!! We even saw crosses on the side of the road where people have died!!!! I’d rather pull all my hair out from the roots before driving this again
I accidentally ended up on this road with my 6 year-old twins and 78-year-old mother. We went to Lahaina and then on to the blowhole and looking at the map it seemed shorter to continue the clockwise route to get back to Kihei. My mother was holding the map and at a glance I didn’t see any reason not to do it. Then, suddenly, it is too late to change your mind – literally.
In the above-referenced Youtube video no one comes the other way. When I did it (going clockwise) I spotted a Jeep at about the 1:00 mark in that video. So I pulled over to the next shallow turnout and waited. And waited. Finally I began again and there he was, waiting (for what?) As I came up to him he actually pulled in 2 or so inches toward the mountain and waves for me to go around. No kidding, the mom, grandma, and kids. I told him to go around me and we stared at each other. Finally he began backing up the mountain, which is protocol (whoever is heading down should back up).
When we finally got to the banana bread school bus I could care less about banana bread. Turned around and headed back and was adrenaline-sick the rest of the day. Was so ridden with guilt that I had inadvertently put us in such a dangerous situation. There should be HUGE warnings before you get to the point of no return!
Michelle I don’t blame you for feeling sick. It shook us both up good the night we did it. We passed two cars (police cruiser and another pickup who stopped way before and turned his lights off – which I found odd but it made sense now, you don’t want to be blinded on this road). I agree, some people may label us as dumb tourists, but I think its misleading that the dangers of this road aren’t spelled out in big bold letters upon entering.
Sadly you have no appreciation for that area of Maui. I read your endless complaints and it really angered me. It’s all a matter of perspective and if you go in with a scaredy cat and negative attitude than you won’t experience Maui for all its beauty it offers. If you read ahead about the road to Hana, it does explain the dangers and the challenging roads. Dont go when you are going to hit nightfall either. Stop blaming the island for your lousy time sends find the respect that Maui surely deserves.
Pauline, I wrote this article awhile back so I went back to re-read it and can’t really understand what upset you. I didn’t say one negative thing about the area or the island. I love Maui! What I intended here is to describe the lesser known Kahekili road and the inherent dangers it presents to an uninformed visitor, it is not a road you would necessarily want to be on without being prepared for it, especially if you are used to driving in the mainland U.S. I personally wouldn’t want to go back on that road, but I even said that I don’t want to deter people from trying and that the area is likely quite stunning. You say “Dont go when you are going to hit nightfall” and that was my exactly my impetus for writing this, since I had no idea this was a particular stretch of road that is definitely not for night driving. Everyone knows about Hana, not many people know about Kahekili.
Wish we had seen your article before going. We had no idea and rental car company did not mention it at all. The local magazine said it is a top must see for Maui so we were on this road Aug 2019. We did not enjoy the scenic view because we were too stressed out. My husband was exhausted. We drove the 42 miles, it took us 3.5-4 hrs each way excluding the stops at the landmarks. We hurried back right before sun down otherwise it would be a trip in hell for us. Thank you for writing the article to warn others so they can plan for a safe trip. Definitely time it to not drive in the dark.
All I can say is I wish I would have read this and researched before taking the road earlier this month my first visit to Maui and coming from the island of Puerto Rico myself, I surely have driven narrow mountainous roads but this “highway” was by far not intended for the fainthearted, views are amazing but scary, the constant thought of “what will I do if a car is coming my direction” is nerve-racking.
Our Tom Tom tried to kill us tonight. After an awesome day completing the Roa to Hana loop we topped for dinner before heaing back to the Ritz Carlton. our GPS actually brought us to that godforsaken road where we drove for 21 miles on the edge of a cliff … Actually,y husband drove and I hyperventilated. I would say it was the most terrifying driving experience I’ve ever had. Darkness was actually a relief as it was harder to see the abyss that I thought we were going to tumble into!
Sounds utterly terrifying.
i remember this from 25 years ago – I was with my mom and two kids. all the sign said was ‘local traffic only’ – well I wanted to see how the real people lived. safe to say, its still a haunting image to me. not only was I running out of gas but during the treck, I saw two men that came out of the bush with backpacks and a rifle and two dogs. I thought ‘that’s it – we’re dead’. I asked them where the closest gas station was and they laughed with their toothless mouthes. insane drive – just open the drivers side door and your ready to fall off the cliff!
This road is no big deal, at least if you drive it during the day and go in the clockwise direction. The Piilani Highway is even easier. OTOH the drive into the Waipio Valley on the Big Island will get your heart racing.
You are dead right. You cannot enjoy the views because your heart is in your throat. We met a couple that took the road to give their 17 year old Daughter a drivers test experience before he test. She was crying and panicked in the car when we met face to face with our cars on a one lane, next to a cliff. With no room to pull over. I live here and never never seen anything so dumb. Bob
Bob – I’m glad you seconded my views, and from a resident no less. Makes me feel less of wimp! I couldn’t imagine taking on that road as a greenhorn driver. I don’t think I’d have ever wanted to drive after that!
We, too , came across this road by accident in 1993. At that time the sign said, pavement ends. We figured it being a state hwy that it would be a temporary thing. For those of you traveling it now, imagine it being dirt and gravel with huge ruts as you’re driving up the side of the mountain. There was a bridge across a large ravine early on in the trip that was just wooden planks. We 2 wives got out and walked and let our husbands figure out how to drive over it. It took us over 2 hours to make that trip and fortunately only met one pickup on a horseshoe (enough room there for someone to pull over) and another car that had slowed before us. It was definitely a white knuckle trip for the driver. The 2 of us couples still look back on that trip as one of the highlights of our traveling together. Having the road paved now, would make it so much easier. The vistas were spectacular.
I’d say its a “highlight” for us too, at least as far as when we talk about our most memorable travel moments (though one we wouldn’t be anxious to repeat!). Thanks so much for sharing your story Mary!
I am happy to report this highway is really improved in terms of pavement and guard rails as of a couple years ago. I drove the north loop this January (my wife has biked it many times) and while our midweek, midday trip was a wee bit hairy this heights/roads scaredy-cat kept it together.
Nighttime, though? Forget it.
ty I was on that road all the way from kahului to Kanapali ,in 1990. I thought I would die. We passedd a sign road closed. i saw a car go by the sign I decided to go on the road in my Lincoln town car rental. At one point we Drove 3/4 mile on a road the same width as my car. no guard rails, with a couple 100 ft drop to the ocean, and a cligg on my left. When we got to the North shore we found a Black lava beach , many never get to see. I must have drove every road in Maui, I put 1800 miles on the car in 1 week.
I drove this “road” back in 1984 on a sheer whim on my first day in Maui. My rental car contract specifically excluded this route so I wanted to find out why. I left in broad daylight and drove all the way through to Kahului. It was an awesome drive. In those days there were entire sections where no road existed at all. Instead I found myself driving across the tops of cliffs far above the ocean and through farmland at times. Sometimes I could see a road ahead, nothing but a dirt path really, but it was so far above me I thought that can’t be the highway. Well, it was. I will never forget that drive. I am not sure I would do it again but I enjoyed it immensely and have never regretted doing it that one time. But as many have said, start clockwise and finish in daylight.
I came across you site by accident while searching for the article about a very good friend of mine that died on this road ten years ago at night. One of the stories you linked actually mentions my friend “On April 27, 2006, a 45-year-old man from Park Ridge, Ill., driving a rented 2005 Chrysler Sebring convertible, apparently missed a curve and dropped 300 feet onto the rocks below Kahekili Highway near Kahakuloa.” and I wanted to mention to your readers that while my friend may have been a tourist, he had been to Maui many, many times and was very familiar the area and how to get around island. His last trip on this highway was certainly not his first as he had talked about this road on several occasions. Even for someone familiar with the highway it can be a very dangerous trek.
Wow, thanks for your story and I’m very sorry that you had to lose your friend this way. I very much appreciate your added background info about this. It is really the reason I wanted to spotlight that this is literally a “death” road so that I can maybe tip-off any unsuspecting tourists who happen to visit my site. It is so easy to think it is just another way around Maui and end up getting stuck on it.
As I read some of these stories I am laughing like crazy!! Only because I am sitting back at the Grand Wailea after just returning from Kahekili Highway! My wife and I were scared s#$%less. We did the Road to Hana yesterday, all the way around which was scary but great! But this was absolutely road was ridiculous!! I am still nauseous. Should definitely have many many warning signs!! On the way back was a very quite ride!!
You think you had it bad I went on it when the road was closed in 1990. Worst road I was ever on. I have been to Glacier park. Yosemite, Yellowstone pk.
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Drove it by accident this week, the day after going to Hana. We had driven to the blowhole at the start of the Kahekili, and that drive was itself sobering, but the day after Hana we were feeling venturesome and just wanted to see some more incredible views and big waves by driving all the way around the northern shore.
So glad we did it, now, after the fact, but honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if drivers can be seen DAILY outside their cars in tears after having driven it by accident. If there was cell service there and tourists were calling the local authorities every time they accidentally drove this route, there would be warning signs.
Think twice before committing the several hours this trip will take, and put sunscreen on your left arm if you go.
My husband and I did this yesterday and LOVED it. We honestly can’t understand why others don’t We are excited to take the back way to Hana on Pililani highway! Every car we encountered was respectful and we found the isolation, scenery, art gallery, road side stands and hidden farms magical!
Really happy you had a better first experience than I did Serena. Looking back I do feel going during the day with the knowledge of what the road offered would have been a far more rewarding and less harrowing experience!
Yep ! Truth !😎🌴🤙🏽
Oh wow… your post was us today… we had t looked into our route. Thank goodness we were there during the day! I was terrified!