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Hiking Lahaina Pali Trail

Hiking Lahaina Pali Trail

My New Year’s Resolution for 2019 was to go on more hikes. (Okay, to at least go on 1 hike.) You’d think this wouldn’t be a problem with all the outdoor opportunities afforded to me as a Maui local, but as someone who spends most of his waking hours typing on a laptop, the concept of hiking is its own mountain to climb. So when my friends pitched me to go with them on the Lahaina Pali Trail – which takes you up the very steep base of the West Maui Mountains – it was both the most nauseating and breathtaking experience I’ve had so far this year, and that was just getting out of the car.

It’s part of human nature to liken obstacles to mountains. The West Maui Mountains, then, are a giant headache of an obstacle. Our lives on the island revolve in some way around Lahaina from time to time – whether it be a job, an accommodation, or the bustle of Kaanapali – and requires passing the pali (or cliffs) of Honoapiilani’s one-lane highway.

Trips to Lahaina elicit as much excitement as it does groans. It’s a 40-minute drive and that’s if there’s no traffic. Forty minutes might seem like a casual drive for mainland visitors, but for locals, it’s an eternity. A virtue of living on an island is that you’re never on the road for more than 10-15 minutes. If there’s a jam, the drive to Lahaina can easily become a 2-3-hour trip. It wasn’t until I hiked the remnants of the old pali highway that I realized how lucky we are to be able to drive to Lahaina at all.

Gearing Up for Lahaina Pali Trail

There are 2 ways to start the trail: at the east trailhead which takes you around the mountain and then onto the old pali highway OR at the west trailhead in reverse. There’s no right or wrong way, only preference.

Welcome marker on the east end of Lahaina Pali Trail
Welcome marker on the east end of Lahaina Pali Trail

Lahaina Pali Trail in total is 5 miles going from one end to the other, but that’s recommended for the most experienced hikers. My friends and I – who were never the types that aced the PT test in school – decided on the abridged 2.5-mile version, where you hike to the first windmill turbine at the mountain’s base and then march it back down to where you started.

A checklist of things you’ll need before you embark on this journey:

  • Double the amount of water you think you’ll need
  • Snacks and Cliff bars (though I personally recommend homemade turkey or tuna sandwiches)
  • Trail shoes
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat or visor
  • Sunglasses
  • Light, airy clothing

For our purposes (and fitness level), we started at the West trailhead because we wanted to hike it back down facing the sunset. Already we made a crucial error – hiking in the afternoon when the heat was at its most blistering.

Reading the dashboard at 85 degrees, I wondered why we didn’t book an Escape Room instead, or just walk across the road and relax at the beach.

The west trailhead lies just off the Pali Highway. As you’re making those winding turns past Maalaea, slow down as you reach the end of the roadside cliffs and you’ll see a tree alcove on the right. Blink or go too fast and you’ll miss it.

The view looking up from the lot made it seem like the hike wasn’t so bad. Don’t fall for it. Looking at an incline is one thing, hiking it is another. After a quick stretch (a bout of nausea, and some stalling on my part to do literally anything else), we were off.

The kiawe trees cleared away fast and it was all rock, sun, dirt, and an upward trajectory. Snaking up the first level, you’ll find yourself on the old pali highway, sitting above and adjacent the current highway. The blacktop isn’t quite as dark anymore— sun blasted like the lay of the land. Despite the barrenness, the culverts and bridges were well kept along with the tiny rock terrace, which was the only thing keeping you from plunging off the side.

The old pali highway, West Maui

We estimated it was about 1-1/2 cars wide, perfect for riders on horseback and pre-1951 automobiles when the new highway was built. The old one was partly constructed by prison laborers around the year 1900. Later, a 3-ton truck paved the pre-modern path, negotiating those perilous hairpin turns, but only made the steep drop off feel that much steeper.

We imagined what it was like to travel then, tipping your hat to fellow horse-riders or smiling at each other from the safety of your buggies as you went. Was this road busy at all, I wondered, or was it empty as it sat now? That we wished we could experience firsthand – a traffic and stress-free commute to Lahaina.

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A Mountain to Climb

The rest of the old pali highway is blocked off and the path is marked with red arrows to keep you on track. A good rule of thumb, in any case, is that if you’re not constantly climbing upward, then you’re heading the wrong way.

Past the new and old highway lies the Lahaina Pali Trail zig-zagging past gulches. You might get dizzy just trying to make out the trail ahead. It’s gulch after gulch, and gulp of water after another gulp of water.

Those pebbles we saw at the tree lot were replaced by boulders, and our only company besides each other and the punishing Hawaiian sun were the lone wiliwili “trees” we encountered during this grueling middle stretch. I say “trees” because normally trees provide you shade. The wiwili trees, like the windswept and sunburnt grass, were just as barren.

Wiliwili tree near one of gulches along the Lahaina Pali Trail

We stopped for breaks frequently, stretching and resting wherever we felt like due to the absence of shade. Our New Year’s resolutions came out in full swing.

“This right here’s a wake-up call,” one friend said, panting, and vowed to make good on his promise to quit smoking.

“I promise I’m never leaving my house again,” said another.

Our friend who had proposed the trail tried to lift our spirits: “They say the beginning of the hike is the hardest part.”

“I heard everything is the hardest part,” I said.

Another thing you ought to have packed: a sense of humor. I took comfort being among friends on this journey, truly.

The Pacific Ocean – a sight we all grew up with in close proximity – seemed the furthest it had ever been when we wanted it most, the deep blue teasing us each time we looked back. It was hard not to. As grueling as the Lahaina Pali Trail felt, the sweeping panoramas were somehow the reason to keep going. As if we had embarked on this hike not to prove something to ourselves, but to find the perfect view.

Lookout along the Lahaina Pali Trail

Everything felt like its own mini-uphill battle. We chose the most beautiful/brutal part of day. The sweat (or was it tears?) ran down in waves so it looked like we had just taken a dip, and there was no wind at all. Even the clouds seemed to stay out of the sun’s way so the heat could bear down on us fully with its might. I didn’t want to think about the killer shirt tan-line I’d have afterward.

A Little Perspective Goes a Long Way

I reminded myself that this was the only way for locals back then to get across island. Hawaiians completed this trek in nothing but a cloth around their waist, and did so BAREFOOT. And here we are in the present complaining about foot cramps and traffic.

For the first time, I found myself appreciating the accessibility that Honoapiilani highway provides. We are so fortunate to make the trip to West Maui and back in the same day.

We have cars. If locals were lucky back then, they had a horse to cart their cargo (not for them to ride on). Unlucky, they carried the cargo themselves. Before the highway and the Lahaina Pali Trail was even constructed, Hawaiians marched along the coast, walking where they could, and swimming where they couldn’t. It was an actual journey to make. And to think, we were hiking this trail “for fun”.

Again, we have cars. Trunk space. Radio. Air-conditioning. We somehow forget this sitting in 2-hour traffic: we are so lucky to live in Hawaii. Traffic is maddening no matter how you look at it, but 1,000 feet higher above my tiny grievances at sea-level, I realized if I were to be stuck in traffic anywhere, I’d rather it be on Maui’s coastline.

Soon we caught sight of the first windmill turbine of the Kaheawa Wind Farm, which, to our sweat-drenched clothes and half empty water jugs, looked like a giant fan. I tried not to think about it as a halfway point, seeing as we still had to come back down. The wind farm seemed like a solid finish line marking the epic lunch break we were about to have. I had never wanted a tuna sandwich so deeply in my life.

Kaheawa Wind Farm - one of the largest in Hawaii - as seen from the Lahaina Pali Trail

What surprised me the most was the release I felt reaching the trail’s apex. To peel my eyes away from the seemingly forever dirt paths and footprints and gaze upon the magnificent view of Maui that was always with us every step of the way. We hadn’t earned it like this before, or ever. Too often we take this place for granted. My eyes swept across Maalaea, the central valley, and the Haleakala volcano which we sat opposite. I can’t speak for those that walked this path and gazed upon the same view centuries before, but I’d like to think they felt lucky living here too.

View towards Maalaea harbor, Haleakala and South Maui from the Lahaina Pali Trail

I looked at the clouds resembling the massive gulps of air we were taking in. One formation did us a solid and eclipsed the sun temporarily, providing the first bit of shade we’d had since we brushed past the trees at the start. The shade wouldn’t last like we knew this break wouldn’t last. We still had a ways to go, but it was there from on high that I saw it – a silver lining: I completed a New Year’s resolution.

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