Surfers consider Oahu's famous Banzai Pipeline with its mountainous waves the original Hawaiian rollercoaster ride. But for landlubbers, Maui's Route 360 is the ticket. Known to the world as the road to Hana, breathtaking vistas enliven the senses around every one of its 112 turns. Traveling east, spectacular waterfalls capture the passengers' side gaze, while rocky cliffs overhanging the deep blue Pacific can distract the driver. Around almost every bend, danger lurks as cars sometimes fishtail out of their lanes into oncoming traffic.
Weary of tourists stopping on blind curves to snap a few photos for the folks back home, we decided to take a road less traveled. In fact, my wife, two young daughters, and I found an unmarked Jeep trail somewhere beyond milepost three that (we thought) led to a secluded beach. Less than 50 yards off the Hana Highway, we were enveloped by lush jungle vegetation when the road narrowed to a tight trail that looked as if it doubled as a riverbed after heavy rains. The gravelly descent had us reaching for the security of the four-wheel-drive lever of our Grand Cherokee. We emerged from a tunnel of thick vines and native foliage, and I was a bit frazzled to see a sheer cliff and the ocean several hundred feet below. Up ahead was a clearing wide enough to turn around in and abort this excellent adventure. The only obstacles in our path were two boulders--one too wide to drive around, the other just barely too tall to straddle. I'd have to climb over them.
I turned to my wife (strictly an on-road sedan driver) and told her she'd have to get out and spot me. Her blank expression told me all I needed to know. She had no idea what I was talking about. I explained that she'd have to make absolutely sure my tires were where they had to be, as I had no desire to get stuck in a zone where I was uninsured and contractually forbidden to enter. Yes, not only was this excellent adventure ill-advised, it also was illegal.
"Most standard rental agreements don't let you take a rental vehicle of any kind onto an unpaved road," says Chris Payne, spokesperson for the Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. "This has been the standard in the industry for more than a decade and isn't exclusive to Hawaii."
Though hopping these volcanic rocks would be simple enough in our trail-rated rental, if my spotter and I weren't in sync, I could easily crease this new Jeep on the rocks or damage something underneath.
"The number-one reason for the off-roading restriction in the rental agreement is the potential for damage to the undercarriage of the vehicle," says Payne.
Caught up in the excitement, I took a deep breath, grasped the floor-mounted shifter, put our Jeep into low range, slowly moved into reverse, and crawled out to the highway.
On pavement, our short time off the beaten path left us longing for more alone time. After a pleasant lunch and an afternoon swim in Hana Bay, we continued our trek circling the entire island, sections of which were unpaved and required a shift from two-wheel drive back to the Jeep's full-time system. And though there wasn't a soul around for many miles, I later found out we may never have been completely alone. Many rental-car agencies use a company called Air IQ to track fleets via satellite and determine not only where you are, but where you were. Had we been tracked, we would've been charged a per-mile penalty for where we strayed, plus the entire length of our rental. That said, this section of Route 360, which was conveniently omitted from our map, is arguably one of the most beautiful drives on the island. In an instant, you drop out of a tropical mountain rainforest into cattle country. After a few miles, the scenery changes back to ocean views.
As we continued the search for trails leading to the sea, we made a surprising discovery--it seems "wilds" are off-limits. Jeep trails, which are easy to find, are either chained off or posted closed. Kapu (the Hawaiian word for Keep Out) signs are posted for tourists as well as locals.
We eventually discovered what appeared to be a user-friendly road at the end of Kings Trail on the south side of the island, near Nukuele Point. Further down this road, we found something more ominous than chains or the posted closure signs. Two words that strike fear in the heart of even the most experienced off-road trekkers: "Road impassable." For a moment, I thought about ignoring the warning, but the gargantuan volcanic rocks that line the side of this road made me err on the side of caution. I flagged down a local who was motoring past the warning signs in a late-model Jeep Cherokee.
"Is the road tough up ahead?" I asked.
"Nah, not a problem," he said in a thick pidgin-English accent. "I come here to fish almost every day and never get stuck. I don't even have four-wheel drive."
"Many roads on the island are being closed to SUVs," said another friendly local Hawaiian native, driving a 1987 Jeep Cherokee Laredo with a two-inch lift. "A lot of private construction companies are buying the land and closing the roads for private developments," he said. "You won't get stuck on this one. They put up these signs to keep the tourists out."
I knew exactly what I had to do. I took a deep breath and decided to venture down the trail to look for that empty beach. We took it slow and safe, and we made it.
Be Advised: The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
Editor's Note: Mud or snow on your windshield give you chills? Four-wheeling your weekends away? Got a good story to tell about it? Send us all the gear-popping, seatbelt-tightening, dust-kicking details in 500 words or less, along with your best photos (color slides, preferably), and we'll pay $300. Send to Truck Trend, c/o "On the Road," 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. We'll publish your adventures.