Pali High


Story by Ashley Stepanek | Photography by Jason Moore & Forest & Kim Starr

Pali hike MauiTo a Dance Twenty-five Miles Away
By postmaster of Lahaina Arthur Waal, 1898

Bright and early, alone and on horseback, I left Lahaina on a Friday morning, December 16, 1898, for a twenty-five-mile ride to Wailuku at the invitation of friends to attend a dance on Saturday night at the K.P. Hall. . . .

Passing the first flat and windy Olowalu plains at eight o’clock we commenced to ascend the steep and narrow mountain road. . . . From here we climbed over the ancient trail that wound snakelike up and down over the rocky precipices [in some places offering] a five-hundred-foot drop directly into the sea. Fortunately, Manuel de Rega had given me one of his best saddle horses. . . . a sure footer to carry me safely up and down these weather beaten and windswept regions. I did not know the road, but my faithful horse did. I simply followed him on his back. We never met another horseback rider, but ahead of me were several slow moving cows going my way that would not move out of the trail or cow patch to permit me to pass.

 This horse had carried the mails twice a week for a man who delivered the mails to another man on horseback at half way on the mountain between Lahaina and Wailuku. Here the mail pouches were exchanged, the Lahaina pouch to Wailuku and via verse.

At eleven o’clock we arrived at Ma‘alaea Bay, known as McGregor’s Landing. This place has a small shelter and was a station for passengers awaiting the arrival and departure of steamers. Here I gave my horse a two-hours rest, food and water. A sandwich with a layer of ham and eggs and a bottle of Wadsworth’s soda water satisfied me. We were only seven miles from Wailuku where we arrived at three o’clock. I do not know which one of us was more tired, the horse, or I. . . .

My friends when issuing the invitation did not expect that I had sufficient courage to venture a horseback ride of twenty-five miles over an old ancient, rough mountain trail just for a dance. But I did it!

Pali hike MauiIf Waal’s story is any indication, the Lahaina Pali Trail’s undulating, switchback curves and uneven, rocky slopes haven’t changed much in the last hundred years. The trail fell out of use in 1900 when prison laborers constructed a one-way dirt road for carriages along the base of the pali (cliff). Eleven years later, a three-ton truck was the first vehicle to negotiate that lower road—and met 115 scary hairpin turns along the way. The road was widened and straightened several times until 1951, when the Honoapi‘ilani Highway and tunnel were built as a permanent alternative.

But you can still experience the ol’ pali trail the same way Waal did. The only difference? Hiking instead of horseback riding. And you do it purely for fun. Looking for an adventure one Friday afternoon, some friends and I decide to suit up our hiking boots, smear on the sunscreen, and tug on our trucker hats for the trek.

“It’s interesting to think about what Native Hawaiians wore when they hiked the pali some 200 ago,” I say, driving. “I imagine they had much less on.” Clad in loose kapa (bark cloth), with only woven ti leaf sandals or their bare feet, they used the pali to travel from one ahupua‘a (land division) to the next as part of the alaloa (long road), or King’s Trail that once circled Maui. Hawaiian tradition says it was built during the time of the ali‘i (chief) Kiha-a-Pi‘ilani, who ruled the island about 400 years ago. Back then people traveled along the coast where it was passable, and swam around sea cliffs where it was not.

The pali is a monument to both the ancient Hawaiians’ and Waal’s way of life, but time and automotive technology have contributed to obscuring it, making the trail fairly hard to find unless you know where it’s at. To complicate matters, we wanted to hike it backwards, to experience the magic of an orangey sunset as we descended the slope of Kealaloloa Ridge, the southern shoulder of the West Maui Mountains.

Pali hike MauiKeeping it from total obscurity is the Na Ala Hele Statewide Trail and Access Program—a division of Forestry & Wildlife, under the Department of Land & Natural Resources. They’ve maintained the pali since 1993, when hundreds of volunteers helped survey, clear and brush the trail. Before we go, I ask Torrie Nohara, Na Ala Hele Maui program manager, what they do for upkeep. “We mostly maintain the signage,” she says, “as well as interpretive, informational, and safety elements.” They also “weed edit” and clean up the parking areas. “People mistake Ukumehame trailhead as a dump.

“Because of the historical significance of the trail, there is not a lot otherwise that we can do [to improve it]. But we have the interpretive brochure [Tales from the Trail] that corresponds to numbered markers along the way, telling you about the history and culture.” Corresponding with the brochure, the trail is marked starting from the western Ukumehame trailhead, but Nohara agrees with our decision to trek in reverse. “That’s my favorite way. Going up from Ma‘alaea you can see Kealia Pond.” She’s referring to a large inland fishpond built in the late sixteenth century by Hawaiians living along Ma‘alaea Bay. Kealia is now a wildlife refuge, home to ae‘o (Hawaiian stilts), ‘alae ke ‘oke‘o (Hawaiian coots), and ‘auku‘u (black-crowned night herons).

Why else does Nohara like the trail? “During winter, the pali is a great place for whale watching. There’s a big rock under a kiawe tree on the Lahaina side that I like to sit on, near the old road. I recommend that people go early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to avoid the midday sun. Be aware it could be over a ten-mile hike, if you go back and forth. It’s best to have two vehicles.”

At the Ma‘alaea trailhead, the excitement of arriving puts a skip in my step. Off we go over red dirt, rocks, exposed tree roots and low-lying scrub. I keep up the pace until the incline steepens, rocks turn into boulders, and the heat starts to affect me. Sweating profusely, we stop for water . . . be sure to bring a few bottles. “Man!” says Jason,
“We’re each active and fit, but this is challenging, especially in the sun.” Yes, we agree, the pali hike is strenuous by most people’s standards.

Windswept wiliwili trees stand silhouetted against an arid landscape covered mostly with sunburned, strawlike vegetation. There’s something comforting about these endangered native trees’ surviving in such a dry, exposed place. The wiliwili is of great importance to the Hawaiian culture: its light, buoyant wood was once used for surfboards, outriggers, and net floats for fishing. The flowers may provide critical food for native birds and insects, adding to Hawaiian and conservationist concerns about their major threat: the gall wasp. The tree’s brightly colored, hard shiny seeds are traditionally used for making lei huna (garlands made from seed or nuts). Other native flora on the trail are a‘ali‘i (soapberry), puakala (a poppy), ‘ilima (a blossoming vine), and dryland sandalwood.

Stopping at 1,000 feet, we take a moment to turn around . . . and see a sweeping panorama. Our eyes roam from Kahului Harbor and Kanaha Beach over fields of lush sugarcane to Ke¯alia Pond and Sugar Beach, down the honeyed southern coastline of Kihei and Wailea. Cradled in the rise of Haleakala, this view alone is worth doing the hike. Light shimmers on Ma‘alaea Bay as we see specks of surfers riding Freight Trains, one of the fastest-breaking waves in the world. Molokini, Kaho‘olawe, and the Big Island (on a clear day) are in the distance under a hazy veil.

“You’ll see mongoose and game birds such as pheasant, quails, and chukars,” says Nohara, when I ask what animals live on the pali. “Up at the top of the mountain are release pens for nene [the endangered native goose that is Hawai‘i’s state bird].” These are up past Kaheawa Wind Power, the huge white windmills now lining the ridge. “The biggest issue for putting the towers there is the chance of nene flying by.”

The trail levels off as we meander towards the 1,600-foot ridge-line, where a utility road leads to the first windmill. “People aren’t supposed to go up or down that road,” clarifies Nohara. “You need to stay on the trail.” Seeing the light start to fade, we quickly cross the road, leaving our curiosity behind . . . but not completely, as we descend through gulches, the names of which are printed on signs. Maka-huna, ‘Opu-naha, Kama-ohi, what do they mean? Here it helps to reference Tales from the Trails. (The first is “hidden point,” the second, “hidden eyes,” and third, “broken cluster.”) The gulch at marker nine is Mana-wai-nui, which means “large stream branch,” most likely because it’s the largest stream valley in the area.

At marker seven, Tales says these big, ruddy rocks are the kind robbers would hide behind during Waal’s time. They’d lie in wait for some innocent traveler to sit down and rest their feet, and then . . . whammo! Come to think of it, this wayside does feel eerie, like we’re being watched, but maybe that’s because it was getting dark. We focus extra hard on getting down the hillside carefully to avoid slipping or twisting an ankle. (I’m glad I wore hiking boots. You’re better off in boots rather than running shoes, since the latter doesn’t provide much traction on the trail.)

Down the path we see water bars, lines of boulders placed by Na Ala Hele volunteers across the trail to prevent erosion during heavy rains. Ahead is a good example of the trail’s original retaining wall, built by hand in the Hawaiian way. We stop to take a mental snapshot of this beautiful vantage point, where fierce mumuku winds can whip across the ridge, blowing soil from the trail and exposing base rock. Sometimes you can see these winds churning the ocean into white caps. But not today. The blue ocean is calm and soulful, and the hillside is bathed in golden light  . . . until the sun finally sinks down to the left of Lana‘i. It’s the perfect reward for finishing at Ukumehame.

Even more perfect? Crossing Honoapi‘ilani for a cool dip in the ocean, an act that’s refreshing and as timeless as the pali itself.

Before you hike, pick up a copy of Tales from the Trails from the Department of Land & Natural Resources office in Wailuku, located at 54 South High Street, Room 101. (It’s in the ‘70s style building at the intersection of Main and High Streets.)

Trailhead Directions

Finding the trail can be tricky, especially when you choose to take it backwards. First, we staged a car at Ukumehame to avoid doubling the distance of the hike (five miles was fine by us). The lot is located on Honoapi‘ilani (Highway 30) a quarter mile past the pali tunnel as you drive towards Lahaina. But note: you’ll need eyes like a hawk to find it since the lot is pocketed in the hillside and screened by kiawe trees.

To reach the Ma‘alaea trailhead, where we started, take Honoapi‘ilani back through the tunnel, past the harbor, the aquarium, and the gas station, and turn around after the intersection of Kuihelani (Highway 38, from Kahului). Drive south towards the harbor past a white bridge and a rusty guardrail, after which you’ll make an immediate (read: IMMEDIATE) right turn. You’ll see a teeny-weeny yellow-and-brown “Trail” sign . . . and mutter to yourself, “Ohhh, here it is.” An arrow points to a dusty road riddled with potholes. Follow it slowly. My passengers bumped their heads on the ceiling, so I suggest taking a pickup or SUV. Keep driving for about a mile until reaching a small, lava-rock-wall enclosure to your right, where you’ll park. Take a deep breath of air, stretch your legs, look around and . . . ahhh, you’re ready to move.

Sign Up to Volunteer

“We hired a new volunteer coordinator, Kevin Cooney, who is revitalizing the effort,” shares Torrie Nohara, Na Ala Hele Maui program manager.” While there were no trips scheduled as this publication was going to press, they plan to set aside one to two days a week, most likely Tuesdays and Thursdays, and one Saturday or Sunday a month, to work on the pali trail. To sign up, call Cooney at 873-3509.


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