Towering volcanic cliffs that meet the pounding Pacific Ocean create picturesque coastlines dotted with black and white sandy beaches. Home for migrating whales and expert surfers, Maui’s rugged west coast is a beautiful and sometimes hair-raising drive. When visiting Maui, you need to spend a day exploring the island’s unique landscape features like the Nakalele Blowhole, ‘Īao Valley State Monument, Honolua Bay, and many more gorgeous outdoor playgrounds.
Be prepared for a drive that, although on paved roads, loops through Mauna Kahālāwai — the West Maui Mountains — where switchbacks, hairpin turns, and one-lane roads add a sense of adventure to your trip. Some say the West Maui Mountains drive is more white knuckling than the Road to Hana. Why not give both a try and cast your vote for Maui’s most intrepid drive.
This drive along the northwest mountains is presented in a loop format. You can start anywhere on the loop, but set out early in the day. There are no street lights so driving without daylight is tricky even for the most experienced locals.
Olowalu, also known as Turtle Reef, is home to hundreds of manta rays, one of the largest populations in the world. It is also home to the black tip reef shark’s nursery where the sharks return year after year to give birth. Scuba diving and snorkeling is popular in the reef area because of the abundance of marine life. The Pride of Maui offers fun snorkeling tours perfect for the whole family.
The Olowalu petroglyphs hike is an easy 1-mile out-and-back walk where you can see some early native drawings. There are more extensive sites on the Big Island, but if you are on Maui’s west coast, this is a good spot for viewing. Grab something cold to sip on at the Olowalu General Store, then take a short walk to the stone drawings.
Lahaina is a great spot to take a whale watch tour with Sail Trilogy. In the winter, when the whales are in the bays birthing and nurturing their new calves, you will be enchanted by these amazing animals. Don’t be surprised if one saddles up close to your catamaran for a “whale mugging.” Muggings occur when a curious whale comes close to your vessel, often tilting their body to one side and looking at you. This “spyhopping” behavior presents a curious question — who is actually doing the watching?
Lahaina is home to a giant Banyan Tree. Dominating the town center with its spreading branches covering an entire park, the tree is 60 feet high. It is a lovely spot to sit and meditate or enjoy a picnic lunch.
Shopping at the Whalers Village is perfect for finding just the right Tommy Bahama shirt, strolling the pretty shops, and enjoying an al fresco meal.
The first resort area and still one of the most desirable locations on Maui, Ka’anapali is a major tourist destination. One of Maui’s most gorgeous beaches, Ka’anapali Beach is picture perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and snorkeling.
Fun things to keep you occupied in Ka’anapali include watching the youthful divers jump from Black Rock, viewing humpback whales from the beach in winter, and snorkeling in the summer.
This is a wonderful spot to grab your sweetie, find the perfect spot on Ka’anapali Beach, and watch the sunset over the island of Lanai. Be sure to watch for the elusive green flash as the sun sets over the horizon.
Kapalua is one of Maui’s most recognizable areas. Stunning resorts dot the coastline overlooking crystal clear waters and soft white sand. Whether you are looking for great dining, wonderful shopping, or simply soaking up the sunshine, Kapalua is the place to see and be seen.
One of Hawaii’s most gorgeous golf courses is Kapalua Golf’s Plantation Course where the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions is held each January. For the avid golfer, Hawaii offers some spectacular courses; visit our Hawaiian golf course review to set your tee times to the best island views.
5. Slaughterhouse Beach
Named after the Old Honolua Ranch Slaughterhouse that was strategically perched on the cliff, Slaughterhouse Beach is a sandy spot to spend the day. Also known as Mokule’ia Bay, it is part of the Marine Life Conservation District which prohibits taking any natural resources from the bay. This includes fishing, collecting shells, pocketing rocks, etc.
If you visit during the summer months, the beach is known for gentle waves making it a good spot for beginner surfers. Not ready to hang 10 with the big boys? Grab a boogie board and enjoy the gorgeous blue water.
6. Honolua Bay
The gorgeous Honolua Bay is also part of the Marine Life Conservation District like its neighbor Slaughterhouse Beach. So don’t walk away with any souvenirs.
Surfing and snorkeling are the two biggest attractions at Honolua Bay. It is well loved by snorkelers and divers during the summer months. The beach is not conducive to swimming and requires water babies to migrate away from the shore for clear water snorkeling.
Don’t try to snorkel during the winter, the tides are notoriously rough. When you see the surfers out, you know it’s time to stash your snorkeling gear and find an overlook to watch the surfers’ wave-running expertise.
7. Nakalele Blowhole
The Nakalele Blowhole is a must stop along your route. When the ocean waves are crashing, the blowhole can shoot water high in the air, it is a magnificent site. Be careful not to get too close. The strong waves have been known to wash people out to sea — be safe.
The Nakalele Blowhole Trail has an AllTrails moderate rating and the distance for this out-and-back trail is 1.2 miles. You can get a good view of the blowhole with a short and moderately even 200-yard hike. It will require a good amount of rock scrambling to get all the way down.
8. Ohai Trail
The Ohai Trail is an easy 30-minute hike. The 1.2-mile loop offers stunning cliff views. The trail is named for the Ohai plant, an endangered plant endemic in Hawaii. The soft red-orange blossoms resemble sweet peas and cover the pretty, low growing plant.
Narrow viewing spots to pull off the winding coastal Kahekili Highway offer the best look of Kahakuloa Head. This stunning mountain jutting into the Pacific is also known as Kaheliki’s Leap. A legendary and favorite cliff-diving point for King Kahekili, Maui’s mid-1700s adventurous ruler.
If you are getting hungry, Kahakuloa is a good spot to stop for a snack. Julia’s Best Banana Bread, Lorraine’s Shaved Ice, or Bruddah Chic in Wailuku are good for grabbing a bite.
10. ‘Īao Valley State Monument
‘Īao Valley State Monument is an idyllic spot for a picnic, a dip in the chilly mountain stream, and a stroll through their manicured gardens. The ‘Īao Valley was the 1790 site of the Battle of Kepaniwai where King Kamehameah I defeated Maui’s soldiers fighting to unify the Hawaiian islands.
It is also home to the impressive ‘Īao Needle, a 1,200-foot lava outcrop. From the viewing area, the lushly covered needle in its tropical setting is a spectacular photo opportunity. The ‘Īao Needle is known in Hawaiian culture as the phallic stone of Kanaloa, god of the sea and long distance voyages.
There is a parking and entry fee, but that includes convenient and clean restrooms.
The Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu offers guests verdant vistas of Hawaii agriculture. Hop on their tour train for a ride out to the fields and see the abundant fruit trees. After your tour, grab a snack at their cafe or stop at the gift shop. The more intrepid traveler will enjoy five side-by-side zip lines over the plantation.
One of the largest cities on the island, Kahului is home to Maui’s primary airport. You will enjoy some sensational island cuisine at restaurants like Tin Roof where there is always a line out the door, Mama’s Fish House in nearby Paia, and the Ogo for a bite of the Hawaiian food truck scene.
The harbor is a docking point for cruise ships and working ships. It transports Kahului into a bustling center.
At the Maui Ocean Center, you can explore the 3D-Sphere experience and learn about the life of a humpback whale. Weighing up to 40 tons, these behemoths are graceful in their underwater home. You won’t see whales at the Ocean Center, though. The County of Maui prohibits the exhibit of cetaceans (marine mammals). The center is, however, home to a living reef displaying over 40 Hawaiian coral species in all their colorful glory.
You will love driving through the panoramic West Maui Mountains. There are many breathtakingly beautiful stops along this rugged coast. Choosing where to stop and for how long will be the difficult part of the trip. The West Maui Mountains offer dramatic vistas, perches to observe whales up close, snorkeling, hiking, and simply enjoying the mountain ride.
Pro Tip: Be sure to check your gas tank before heading into the mountains. Fill up your water bottle and pack a snack for the drive. Bring along your swimming and snorkeling gear; you never know when an opportunity will be compell you into the water. Mostly, enjoy the island of Maui, it is a little slice of heaven on earth.