Kaupo & Maui’s Backside
Dry, Dusty, Windy and Full of Rich Hawaiian History
Rough, arid terrain is what you’ll see upon arriving into the Kaupo area. The lush rainforest seems to disappear in an instant. Withered grasslands appear to be overtaken by the basalt (volcanic) rock. It’s an illusion created by Haleakala’s rain shadow, which prevents moisture from accumulating often enough to sustain the area’s plant life year round. It’s “paniolo” (cowboy) country out here and you may see cows grazing but not much else.
Out past Kaupo village the lovely paved road disappears and the dusty dirt road quickly becomes rough and difficult to navigate. It’s a potholed, patchworked, neglected pathway that becomes more challenging than any video game. Hit a few of those craters and you’re stuck, literally. Without a couple of extra tires, some great shocks, and preferably a 4WD, it may be a long, rough trip back. Also, there are no businesses and very few residents out there so it may be futile to even try to get help. It truly is the “flip-side” of the wet, lush environment we experienced earlier in the day on the Hana Highway, along Maui’s northern coast.
Also, it is not uncommon for this route to be closed due to events like unpredictable rock slides and crazy gale force winds. It is important to note that most car rental companies forbid you to take their rentals down this route. You should expect that you will have to sign a release stating that either you will be directly responsible for any and all damage or you simply will not drive that route on the island. If you don’t sign this waiver, they won’t rent to you. They’ve simply had too many cars badly damaged to allow their rentals to go here.
It’s not a problem with VIE’s specially-designed Comfort Cruisers! (We only travel this road when weather and safety conditions allow.) We made sure that these custom vans were designed with durability and comfort in mind. It’s a pleasure to ride on the bumpy back side of Haleakala because we’ve got a great shock/suspension system and with our extra large viewing windows you won’t miss a thing! Some have even said that it’s like a “nice chair massage”. It’s because our seats are so big and comfy. VIE takes every opportunity to show you Maui – in style and comfort!
We had the most amazing time, this was a great day out and we seen such breathtaking scenery – my favourite was on the “Road past Hana”
There were multiple points in the tour where either we couldn’t even bring ourselves to take pictures because we were so captivated by the beauty.
Very knowledgeable about all facets of Hawaiʻi, culture, history, land and anything you could possibly ask.
The area is rich in ancient history as told by Hawaiian mythology and archaeological evidence. It is believed that the first Polynesians to arrive in Maui landed in this part of the island. There a two districts (moku) along this 21 mile stretch of the island: the Kaupo moku (district) and the Kahikinui moku — the latter being partly located in ‘Ulupalakua ranch lands. The name Kaupo means: “Rain that makes one hide behind rocks.” It is this rain which floods out the road periodically throughout the year. The downpours can be intense on this seemingly dry landscape, especially on the upper slopes of the mountain.
In ancient times, it was said to be the most populated area of Maui, as described by Captain La Perouse. This French captain was the first to land on Maui in 1789 and while sailing around from the lush Hana side was greeted by hundreds of canoes at Kaupo. The canoes that came alongside his two ships were loaded with trade goods of hogs, banana, taro root and water for trading with the French frigate. This led Captain La Perouse to consider that they were not the first Europeans to encounter the Hawaiians. In fact, the map used by Captain Cook some 10 years earlier to explore the South Pacific were of Spanish origin. It is possible the Spanish had landed in Hawaiʻi many times and kept it secret from marauding pirates. These are just some of the fascinating bits of history you can learn on our road to Hana tour!
The Kaupo Trail is the polar opposite to the Oheo Gulch hike. Kaupo’s steep trail has no lushness, waterfalls or spots like the Pools at Oheo Gulch. The Kaupo Trail is raw and exposed so if you’re going to attempt it on a return trip, be sure to pack accordingly. It intersects with other trails once in the crater. Don’t kid yourself, going up into the gap is a challenging climb. As a matter of fact, it’s so demanding that most people make the smart choice and decide to start at the summit and hike their way down. It takes at least a full two days to complete the entire hike. Cabins are available in the crater but they must be booked well in advance (a year or more). You’ll make your way through an ancient Koa forest and be awed by the jaw dropping panoramas when looking at the Big Island.
The Kaupo Gap is located high up on Haleakala. For a long time many believed the Gap was caused by a volcanic eruption similar to what happened at Mount St. Helens in Washington. However, scientists have recently determined that the gap on Haleakala’s crater wall was the result of erosion, thanks to the powerful wind and rain on this side of the island.
And, the Gap has a special resident. It is home to a small, fancy moth (hyposmocoma auropurpurea) which is found throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, but only at about the 3,400 foot level. These moths rely on live lichens, which grow on the rocks in the Kaupo Gap area. Their size is quite minute with a wingspan only millimeters in length, but what they’re missing in size they make up for in artistic expression. Their colorful feather-like wings are a beautiful metallic bluish-purple, highlighted by orange bands.
The Kaupo store is located on the southern end of Kaupo along the road towards Kula. It’s quaint, has a good choice of snacks, cold drinks, unique antiques, chachkies and a mini-museum. The locals are pretty friendly and enjoy a good conversation. If you’re willing they will probably invite you to have a sit on the porch, eat and “talk story”. And, don’t be surprised to see a Paniolo (cowboy), ride up and hitch up a horse to the post in front of this quirky little store. It doesn’t just “feel” as if time has slowed down here, it has, because this is a throwback to old Maui. They are truly on “Maui time”.
The Kaupo section of our Road to Hana tour really gives an up-close point of view of Maui’s back side. It is very comparable to parts of the western United States. The Kaupo area has been used for cattle farming for the last 100+ years, and still is today. Cattle wander onto the road quite often so caution should be used, especially if it’s dark. Kaupo could very well be the last bastion of Maui’s unspoiled paniolo country (AKA: “cowboy country”). Just close your eyes and you can easily imagine the paniolos roaming these wiley, wind swept ranges.
Being directly exposed to the trade winds coming from the northeast, Kaupo is perhaps the strongest and most consistent zephyr on Maui. If you’ve decided to take the back side home, it’s certainly worth a stop just to experience the harsh conditions that are considered “normal” for this region. It’s surprising how many guests request that the back side be explored so they can feel the power of the howling, gusting winds. Get ready for a “wild” ride on the east slopes of Haleakala!
Kaupo is perhaps the last bastion of ancient Hawaiian ruins and archeological evidence of Hawaiʻi’s ancient civilization is still intact here. This evidence suggests there were thousands of people living in this area and the adjacent expanse known as Kahikinui. From the fishing villages along the coast to the terraced sweet potato and dry land taro fields high up on the slopes, this was once the most populated part of Maui!
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