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Maui: The Old Pali Road

If you have ever visited Maui, you probably have driven the Pali Road (technically the Honoapiilani Highway) to get to Lahaina. It is only two lanes but wide enough with good shoulders so it is quite safe while providing wonderful views of South Maui, Molokini, Kaho`olawe and Lana`i — not to mention the occasional Humpback whale during the winter months. Well, have you ever noticed the old road that runs above, across and below the new road? Below is one of those points where the old road crosses the new although it now looks like just a turnoff. This original stretch of road along these cliffs was four miles long and had 115 sharp curves. The road was built by prison laborers around 1900 to replace the The Lahaina Pali Trail which now is an historic trail that is still hiked today.

Views like this intrigued me — views that I would glimpse quickly as I was driving the new road. The tunnel along the new road has a date of 1951 so I presume the entire road dates to that time. For many years now, I have been promising myself that I would hike it.

Such an attempt did require a bit of planning because the Pali section of the road is posted "Emergency Stopping Only" — meaning that I could not park on the shoulders. Fortunately, there is a parking area at a scenic overlook where many folks stop to view Ma`alaea Bay. Across the road from one end of the parking lot is reasonable access — a spot where there is no barbed wire and a short easy climb to the old road.

The biggest surprise I encountered was that the asphalt was still in very good shape in spots, as seen in this photo. I would have thought that with the passage of 60+ years of weathering and no maintenance that it would have exhibited more deterioration.

By the way, it appeared to me that most of the roadway was about one and one half car widths wide. That meant if you met an oncoming vehicle, one of you would have to back up to a wider spot to let the other vehicle pass.

Interestingly, I remember when the road to Hana was like that. Fortunately, that road has been widened so two vehicles can pass except for on the bridges. It also has improved guardrails.

In other segments of the Pali Road, the asphalt is yielding to grasses and small shrubs as Madame Pele, the Goddess of the Volcanoes, seeks to reclaim this man-made scar on her sacred hillsides.

There were also a number of spots where the road was blocked by kiawe trees (known as mesquite on the mainland). In fact, some of these trees actually poked holes in the asphalt and grew from the middle of the road.

Since the roadway is not maintained at all, there were a lot of kiawe twigs strewn about — and it was impossible not to walk on them. As I have experienced before, these twigs will stick their sharp thorns into the soles of your shoes. Fortunately, I remembered to bring my Leatherman tool with me to Maui so I could remove the thorns once I returned to my condo.

I eventually had to turn back because of the kiawe trees blocking my passage. I did not want to get scratched by the thorns nor risk falling down the hill trying to avoid them. For anyone else planning to follow in my footsteps, I would recommend carrying a sharp machete to clear a safe pathway.

Most modern roadways that have drop-offs along one edge will use some form of a guardrail. Here is the old Maui version of the same thing. They obviously used the rocks they found on the hillside.

Along other stretches were branches embedded in the ground strung with barbed wire. I speculate that these was not intended as a barrier for the wayward auto but was actually used to keep cattle from going over the cliff. Much of old Maui was used for cattle ranching — this area probably served the same purpose.

This stretch (looking back toward South Maui), exemplifies the places where the asphalt has completely surrendered to the aggressive grasses. But it also shows what awaited the inattentive driver as they rounded this bend. And this was one of the less dangerous drop-offs.

There are numerous natural gullies at various spots along the roadway where culverts or bridges were constructed to keep the road from washing away during heavy rains and flash floods. This one has obviously deteriorated — with rebar showing, leading to more rusting and more deterioration, etc., etc.

Imagining when the road was in use, any driver could not help but admire the views — this one looking toward Kihei which would have greeted the driver returning from Lahaina.

By the time that the driver heading toward Ma`alaea spotted the McGregor Point navigation light, he or she would breathe a sigh of relief — knowing they had survived another passage of this dangerous stretch of roadway.

[B. David's Editorial] The locals who remember when this was "the road to Lahaina" are getting older — many have died off already — the rest will follow in the next decade or so. But this roadway is part of Maui's past and should not be forgotten. I call on Maui County to restore the roadway for use by hikers. Of course that requires cutting back kiawe trees and trimming the tall grasses. And it will also require some thought about how to handle the spots where the two roadways cross — but it will be worthwhile to preserve this little piece of Maui's history.

More Maui next week.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com