Great Hikes: Pipiwai Trail

Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4 miles roundtrip, elevation gain of 650ft
Location: Haleakala National Park, Maui, near the Kipahulu Entrance
Park at the ranger station just inside the entrance; the trailhead is across the street.

Waimoku Falls

Standing at the base of Waimoku Falls

Driving the Road to Hana is one of the top things to do during a visit to Maui. The 52-mile stretch of road from Kahului to Hana wraps tightly around the ragged coastline. With around 620 curves, complete with 46 one-lane bridges, many of which are at the point of blind curves, the drive to the tiny town of Hana is an experience in and of itself. Add the many scenic overlooks, roadside farm stands, and marked (and unmarked) trails that lead to hidden waterfalls, and you can easily spend the whole day on the road.

We made the drive in two and a half hours.

Not that we weren’t interested in stopping for a looksee. We were. But we had a priority: Get to the Pipiwai Trail by 8am.

Drive thirty minutes past the town of Hana and you’ll come to the Kipahulu area of Haleakala National Park. In contrast to the grey and black cinder cones that you’ll see in the rest of the park, the Kipahulu area is all rainforest. The Pipiwai Trail is a fairly easy trek into this rainforest and it terminates at Waimoku Falls, a 400-ft high waterfall that feeds a placid pool of water in which hikers are free to take a swim.

Enroute to the falls, hikers are treated to a surprising variety of scenery and none of it seems Earthly. Early into the hike, you’ll come upon the massive banyan tree, with roots that stretch from the tree limbs to the ground, creating a weird web.


Flowers litter the trail.

Soon you’ll cross a bridge that deposits you directly into a bamboo forest. A narrow path guides you through the dense stalks of bamboo that grow so close together that they clack against one another in the breeze. A boardwalk along this section protects the surrounding plants from damage and takes some work out of the hike—a welcome reprieve from the steeper and rockier sections of the trail.

Along this part of the trail we found a few Hawaiian men sitting along the boardwalk, using large, sharp knives to harvest young bamboo plants, which are used in cooking. This struck me as uniquely Hawaiian—the recognition by the government that these lands, while protected by law, are still a source of income for the Hawaiian people.

Just before you reach your final destination, you’ll have to boulder-hop across Pipiwai Stream (or wade across if you have water shoes). Not far from the crossing is Waimoku Falls, as worthy a destination as I’ve ever seen. Take a break, go for a swim if you can handle the cold water, and have some lunch before hiking back out the way you came.

A few things to note.

  1. The Kipahulu section is on the rainy side of the island (hence, the rainforests), so if you’re in Maui during the rainy season, expect the trail to be muddy. And if you’re in Maui during the dry season, don’t expect the trail to be dry—it rains a lot, even in the drier summer months. Just plan on cleaning your boots when you get back to the car.
  2. Be prepared for a crowded trail. Unless you leave your hotel room or condo at 6am (assuming you stay on the west or south shore like most visitors to) or unless you spend a night in Hana and get an early start, you will be hiking with lots of other people. We made the decision to make no stops on the Road to Hana, and it was worthwhile—we had the trail largely to ourselves on the way up to the falls.
  3. Don’t drink any water without filtering it. You don’t want to get Giardia. Don’t swim in any stagnant pools. If there’s no water flowing in or out, you’re putting yourself at risk for Leptosirosis.
  4. If you swim under a waterfall, just know that rocks tumble over the edge occasionally.

After your hike, head back across the street and follow the path to Oheo Gulch, a series of natural pools that step down to the ocean. And then pat yourself on the back because the hike you just did is way cooler.