I’ve done a lot of stupid things in life, but few are as stunningly foolish as our recent adventure across the Kahekili Highway, also known as the Death Highway of Maui.
Stretching across the North end of the island, Kahekili Highway is a scenic journey across treacherous one-lane roads that grip the side of a mountain with hardly a barricade or guardrail in sight. Our journey began on a warm early-November afternoon. We had just finished exploring most of the Eastern side of Maui and stopped at Tasty Crust, an amazing dive diner that would fit in perfectly in New Jersey. We already visited the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum and photographed the King Kamehameha Golf Club that morning, and were looking for new areas to explore on our way back around the island.
On my must-see list were Turnbull Studios & Sculpture Garden and the Kaukini Gallery, nestled at the start and midway of Kahekili Highway, respectively. Our plan was simple — drive the full length of the highway from Wailuku to Slaughterhouse Beach and make it back to Makena by sunset. I mean, Kahekili Highway is a county route. How hard could it really be? Stupid last words.
Don’t Be Dumb
I’m not completely ignorant, I had read about the lack of gas stations on the North end of the island and filled our late-model Passat up before beginning our adventure. The car handles like garbage, but at least it was fuel efficient. We had a map and our trusty Lonely Planet guide, and I had my lovely wife Allison to keep me entertained. I knew that I might not want to be out on the road after dark, so we had a solid four hours to get through the ride and hit some tourist spots along the way.
Now here’s were I made a huge error. I didn’t realize that there was a right and wrong way to drive on the Death Highway of Maui. While there aren’t any one-way signs, per se, it is highly recommended that all cars travel from West to East. In other words, not only were we about to drive on one of the world’s most frightening roads, but we were about to do it backwards.The entire highway is about 20-miles long, but nearly 10 of those miles are on single-lane road with one side facing the side of a massive mountain with loose rocks and the other overlooking a straight drop into the ocean. Peer over the side and you can see the unfortunate vehicles that didn’t make the trip. Luckily, there’s a bright side — we had no cars behind us trying to move our slow asses out of the way.
First Stop: Turnbull Studios
The drive to Turnbull Studios & Sculpture Garden was fairly uneventful. The road still had two lanes and the views were mostly of tall grass. You can easily find the gallery by the giant metal giraffe parked in front of the entrance to a very steep driveway. Inside, dozens of local painters and sculptors produce and sell an eclectic array of art, much of which was too large to stow in my carry-on luggage. The actual sculpture garden wasn’t huge, but it was cool to see the artists honing their craft in the back part of the gallery. It’s also nice to see “local art” that isn’t made in China and hawked at every stand along the road.
White Knuckle Junction
Turnbull is basically the point of no return. Once the gallery faded from our rearview, we began hitting dozens of switchbacks around turns that were nearly impossible to see around. Eventually, the second lane disappeared and we began driving on shoulderless roads with regular traffic veering at us from blind turns that were impossible to negotiate. I sucked in my manliness and began honking around every embankment.
Since oncoming traffic wasn’t expecting a car coming the opposite way (because who would be dumb enough to drive the wrong way?), we received zero return notifications and almost plowed head-on into into half a dozen Comaros and Wranglers. I don’t think I ever got my speedometer above 10 miles-per-hour, but that didn’t stop cars from flying past us as if there wasn’t a 300-foot cliff two feet next to us.
I don’t want to be all negative. For one, the Kahekili Highway is paved from start to finish. Also, the views are simply spectacular — for your passenger. I don’t remember much from that day. Maui is known for being one of Hawaii’s more populated islands and it definitely offers a heavy dose of Beverley Hills culture in certain towns, but so much of the island is untouched. The Southern portion is awash with frozen black lava that looks like a sea of tilled dirt, until you touch it and realize that it is petrified volcanic rock. The North end is just cliffs and ocean for as far as the eye can see. The sky never looked so big and the waves crash down on the rocks with a fury that makes you realize how dangerous nature can be.
Second Stop: Kaukini Gallery
We hit a pseudo halfway point when we reached Kaukini Gallery. The break was much needed and the place had toilets to check and see if I soiled myself. The gallery features an assortment of locally-sourced jewelry, artwork and accessories. Most of the items are targeted at tourists looking for something a little different to take home to the kids; not exactly the Tiki sculptures I was looking for, but we still picked up a hula girl towel and kitty cat hot plate to make the journey appear worthwhile.
The final stretch was worst than the initial drive. At one point, we ran into a couple in a massive SUV that were too afraid to pull over onto the side of the road to let me pass, even though they had plenty of room. I ended up having to put the VW in reverse and back up a quarter of a mile along a monstrous ridge until I hit a wider pull-off. Towards the end, we came across a 50-person scooter gang that ripped past us at 35 miles-per-hour, around a series of hairpin turns. I just sat and waited until I thought we let them all pass, took the corner, and almost careened into another dozen scooterists.
You have never heard a man squeal until you’ve heard me hit two-lane traffic and realized that we finally made it to the Honoapiilani Highway. Needless to say, we never bothered to see the sunset, instead opting to drowning the day’s nightmare in a sea of Mai Tais at Monkey Pod.
Tips for Driving on Death Highway of Maui
While I don’t plan on ever revisiting this journey, I don’t think that should stop others from doing it. Just keep the following things in mind:
- Make sure you do the trip from West to East.
- Attempt the drive in the off season (October to early December). There will be far fewer people on the road to get in your way.
- Bring snacks
- Make sure you have plenty of sunlight. There are no lights on the Kahekili Highway.
- While an SUV might sound like a good idea, it just means you have less room to maneuver when you need to get around an oncoming car.
- Fill up your gas tank before heading out.
- Check with your rental company to make sure you are allowed on the Kahekili Highway and ignore them if they say you aren’t. It’s a paved road, suck it.
- This is not a shortcut. I repeat: THIS IS NOT A SHORTCUT!
- Bring a camera and remember to stop every now and then to take in the views.
Good luck and may the Tiki gods watch over you.
My biggest regret of this trip was not stopping to take more photos and videos. Check out this guy’s clip collection of his drive on the Death Highway of Maui.