Maui's Hiking Trails Are the Island's Best Kept Secret

December 9, 2019

Towering high above Maui’s famous white sand beaches, above the island’s dense and tangled jungle, deep in the hear of Haleakala National Park, lies a red, cinder-coned crater that is, possibly, the quietest spot on Earth. To reach this crater, runners (and hikers, of which there are arguably more) must first drive through the park’s entrance and navigate a series of switchbacks to the Ke- onehe’ehe’e Trailhead (elevation 9,740 feet). The trail is barely visible on the scoured surface of ancient volcanic lava, long cooled and broken into gravelly cinder. It climbs about 300 feet before descending into the crater. Run it, says Ben Auerbach, a Kaanapali, Maui-based fitness concierge who creates custom training plans for locals and visitors, and the experience will change your life.

“When you look all around, it’s blue skies and sun, and you’re surrounded by brownish-reddish dirt gravel that insulates you from sound, and also by silversword plants, which are unique to Maui. It doesn’t feel like you’re on Earth, really.”

Hiking Hana Maui Hawaii

Otherworldly is a word that comes up often in regards to the trails on Maui, the “Valley Isle” of the Hawaiian chain. Roughly 728 square miles, Maui has Haleakalā on its eastern side; the West Maui Mountains are on its western half. This geographical uplift contributes to an extensive diversity of microclimates and an eclectic combination of beaches and jungles, rainforests, waterfalls and redwoods. And that, according to the island’s runners, is what makes Maui a trail runner’s—and hiker’s—paradise.

“Nothing can compare to Maui,” says native Reid Hunter, 24. “It’s one of the most diverse islands, is beautiful year-round and has amazing views everywhere. You can start at sea level, climb up a mountain, turn around and all you see is crystal blue ocean and red dirt fields.”

Hunter, an elite runner who logs 80 miles a week and dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Marathon, briefly left Maui for university in New Zealand, where he ran with some of that country’s top coaches. Upon graduating in 2012, he heeded Maui’s siren song, returned home and began training in ear- nest. Although Maui doesn’t draw a cadre of elite runners in the same way that California’s High Sierra or Colorado’s Rocky Mountains do, Hunter says the island’s got plenty of challenging long-distance trails on which both runners and hikers can strengthen and train.

Chief among them are the West Maui Mountains’ Village Trails, a steep and tangled network that snakes through an abandoned golf course. So rugged are these that, last October, they were home to the 2014 XTerra World Championship 5-kilometer race. Hunter not only won this notorious sufferfest, but also broke the course record by 42 seconds. 

But it’s not all rigorous and rough when it comes to Maui trails, says island native Matt Holton of Mauirunner.com. There are also mellow(ish) trails that seem to lead into magical worlds bursting with color, vegetation and views you never imagined existed (Thompson Road, Waihee Ridge and Sugar Beach on map below).

“There’s a timelessness to the trails here,” says Holton. Other trails are vibrant with color—purples and reds from the minerals and rocks (Skyline Trail). Still others are loaded with guava fruit and wild raspberries. “There is so much diversity,” says Holton. “The running here never gets boring.”

Where to go?

The hardest thing about running or hiking on Maui is deciding where to go. Here are some of the island’s most scenic and superlative trails.

Haleakalā Crater: Located at 10,000 feet within Haleakalā National Park, the crater sits among a network of trails that are mainly “out and backs,” allowing runners and hikers to pick their distance. With no shade, high altitude and variable temperatures, don’t forget sunscreen, layers and water.

Kapalua Maui Woman Waterfall

Pipiwai Trail to Waimoku Falls: A 4-mile round-trip route, the Pipiwai Trail forges through lush bamboo forest, climbs a total of 600 feet and leads to the 400-foot Waimoku Falls, which plunge through verdant cliffs to a pool.

Kahakapao Trail System: This extensive trail system located in the Makawao Forest, a state preserve near the town of Haiku, offers miles of single track through thick evergreen forests. It’s also a popular mountain biking area.

Kapalua Coastal Trail: This northwest Maui beach run offers beautiful, picturesque views of the coastline. “Think Big Sur with warm water,” says Ben Auerbach, who leads guided runs and hikes on the trail. An added bonus: The trail, which is about 3 miles, also leads to a traditional Hawaiian burial ground and labyrinth.