Hiking Pipiwai Trail, Maui

It’s common for muscles to be sore after hiking—but usually your neck isn’t one of them.

That’s what tends to happen, however, when hiking the Pipiwai Trail, since the end of the hike is a neck-craning view of 400 ft. Waimoku Falls. Standing here, at the base of the falls, where water lands on slippery black rocks surrounded by clusters of ferns, it’s easy to stand with your mouth agape for 15 minutes or more, and watch in silent reverence of nature as rainbows form in the mist.

To only highlight the falls, however, would do the trail an injustice; what gives the falls their aura of drama is not their staggering height, but the fact that reaching them calls for a journey that ranks as Maui’s best hike. Much like the infamous Road to Hana, the joy of hiking the Pipiwai Trail is found in the journey itself, and Waimoku Falls wouldn’t seem so dramatic if not for the rugged and scenic trail that’s first required for viewing.

Considering the trail’s remote location about 30 minutes from Hana, any visitor who tackles the trail has first endured enough sitting in a car to warrant a leg-stretching hike. At 1.75 miles one-way, the trail is a moderate, accessible distance the average visitor can manage, with enough challenging uphill sections to break a bit of a sweat.

The first challenge of hiking, however, is finding the narrow trailhead, which requires paying to park inside Haleakala National Park. If you’ve visited the summit section of the park within the past three days, your entry fee should still be valid for visiting the Kipahulu section, and the trail begins across the street from the lot at the National Park.

At the outset, it can seem like the Pipiwai Trail could end up being a bit too challenging, but rest assured the steepest sections are mostly found in the beginning. The sound of water in Palikea Stream is a soft but noticeable soundtrack, as it splashes in pools and sloshes against rocks in a valley not far below. Cattle, too, are often heard on the lower section of trail, where pastures laden with guava trees round out the rural feel.

For the first half mile the hike is scenic, but nothing overly special, though that all changes the moment you stop and rest in the shade of the banyan.

Known throughout the island community for its long, serpentine branches, the banyan tree on the Pipiwai Trail is rumored to be the second largest banyan tree on Maui. Unlike the one in Lahaina, however, that sits in a manicured setting, here the branches burst from the forest and twist through a wild green jungle, where branches and boughs erupt from the trunk in a frozen wooden explosion.

Not long after leaving the banyan you come to a short metal bridge, where island youth (illegally) jump to waterfall pools down below. Because the height from bridge to water is easily 50 feet, it’s very unsafe and very unwise to follow their foolish lead and better to simply continue on to the grove of creaking bamboo.

It’s here your sneaking suspicions are confirmed this isn’t your everyday hike, as a thin wooden boardwalk snakes through a sea of bamboo so dense, so wide, and so tall it literally blocks out the sun. When standing inside the grove of bamboo, stop and listen just for a moment to nature’s marvelous choir, where high pitched creaks and baritone moans accompany each gust of wind, all while backed by a steady rhythm of waterfalls crashing on rocks.

Finally, past the banyan tree, the bamboo tunnel, the guavas, bridges, and cows, and hidden deep in the East Maui rainforest amidst a moss-covered cliff, the vertical river that’s Waimoku Falls begins to come into view. Had it simply been on the side of the road, accessible solely by driving, it wouldn’t have the grandiose splendor that’s felt by visiting on foot. Just remember to stretch your neck on the hike leading up to this final reward, so it’s limber, loose, and ready to handle the falls spilling down from the clouds.

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