Hiking the Pipiwai Trail

Oheo Gulch waterfalls

Tourists who come to Hawaii’s Maui island invariably drive the infamous/wondrous Road to Hana at some point during their stay. This 50-mile route winds, twists and hair-pin turns over dozens of narrow, one-car bridges as it treats visitors with drop-dead gorgeous ocean vistas, cascading waterfalls and lush jungles. The road is almost always listed as one of the top ten scenic drives in the world.

About 30 minutes past Hana (the speed limit here is 10-15 MPH), one arrives at the back side of Haleakala National Park, in what is known as the Oheo Gulch area. On the ocean side of the road, a series of cascading waterfalls creates lush pools of water that beckon waders, swimmers and photographers.

But on the mountain, or mauka, side of the road lies one of the most visited trails in the park system, and rightfully so. The Pipiwai Trail ascends two miles to the famed Waimoku waterfall, a 400-foot wonder that makes the arduous uphill trek more than worth it. Waimoku is the tallest waterfall on Maui.

A Varied Trail Experience, but…

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The trail itself is a marvelous, varied and potentially dangerous experience, as this mixed-message welcome signs attests. But, it’s better to be prepared and safe, so you can thoroughly enjoy what is ahead.

As you begin you walk through a shrubby path, until you enter the tree root-lined section that climbs fairly quickly through rises and steps. Twice along the path you will cross a small waterfall and the rushing Pipiwai Stream.

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Along the way you will encounter signs like these. Please do not tempt the fates. Several fatalities have occurred over the years. I would also keep any children close at hand because the drop-offs happen suddenly. One second you might be hiking an inviting spur trail and the next instant you are on the edge of a 200-foot precipice.

Finally, more than half-way through your climb, you enter what could rightfully be called a fantasy land, a spiritual section known as The Bamboo Forest. This magical part of the trail winds through and up a thick stand of trees that seems to go on and on. If you can hike this in the early morning, when almost no one is around, you will be stunned by its Zen-like, calming influence.

Once beyond the Bamboo Forest, the end of the trail is within reach… so long as it has not rained too much recently. If it has rained, be careful and be glad you brought along your water shoes. You may have a strong stream to ford before you cross to Waimoku.

But, once you attain the waterfall’s peak experience, the walk back is easy. Not only is it downhill, but you will have with you the memories of Waimoku and the Bamboo Forest.

Be Prepared

If you intend to hike the trail, be sure to take the proper clothing. I see countless young people wearing flip-flops; not a good idea. Just ask a Park Ranger how many incidents happen with people wearing flip-flops. You’ll want to wear hiking shoes (not boots) and pack a pair of water sandals in your day pack in case the streams are high and you have to ford them. I also find a pair of good Keen water sandals works well for the entire hike.

There are times when you will need insect repellent. You should always wear sunscreen at these latitudes.

And while energy bars are an option, water is not. Take my word for it, pack more than you think you will need.

What Photo Gear to Take If You Go

Most of the shots you will take will be from close to medium distance, so you can leave your tele lens back at the hotel (in the safe, of course!). When you get to the falls, you emerge so close to it that, again, a tele will be useless. Of course, if you plan to try recording some panoramics, then by all means bring your tele. Whatever lenses you bring, be patient. There can be lots of people in your field of view.

As far as photo gear goes, here is what I recommend:

Sturdy tripod, DSLR of your choice, wide-angle lens (at least 24mm) or a wide zoom (perhaps 24-70mm), the usual accessories (extra memory card, lens wipes, extra battery, cable release, etc). If the falls is really full it may spew a lot of mist, so a microfiber cloth is a good idea.

Whatever you do, relax and enjoy every delicious moment of this memorable hike.


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