Reminders of Home in a World Away: the Rougher Side of Maui
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

The Maui most tourists picture is a land of big waves and beaches, but a transplant finds that the northern interior presents a much more rugged landscape.

Maui Hawaii travel story

As the sun was preparing to set, my partner-in-crime pulled off the winding, narrow paved road. Wearing my University of Wisconsin-Madison hat, long johns, thick gloves, and an outer layer of rain gear to keep me warm, I took out two folding chairs that are always in the back of our van for a picnic or tailgate. I carried them into the pasture beside the road, carefully stepping to avoid the cowpies. With quickly dropping temperatures, clouds coming in, and the playlist of mooing cows, was I in small-town Wisconsin?

Nope, we were about to witness the Geminids meteor shower on the slopes of Haleakala in Maui.

Although the combination made me feel that I was back in the Midwest, I was only a half-hour drive from the swaying palm trees and surf break of Pa'ia or the sunset-blessed shores of Kihei. As a repeat and current resident of Hawaii, I've come to love its lush tropical, waterfall-filled hikes as well as the contrast of its dramatic coastline with its pristine Pacific waters. With limited travel options off the island over the last year, however, I was in search of how to travel close to home, off-the-beaten-path for another perspective of Maui.

Upcountry Maui in a Four-wheel Drive

I found my change of scenery in Upcountry Maui. This unique area is comprised of higher elevation towns and parks such as Kula, Polipoli Spring State Reserve, and Haleakala National Park. This niche pocket of Maui isn't a parents' Hawaiian honeymoon locale with the typical aloha shirts, leis, and sunburns. Upcountry's microclimate has cattle ranches, vineyards, and forests of eucalyptus and redwoods. By simply taking a drive to Upcountry, we broke away from the well-beaten Road to Hana and Lahaina's Front Street.

4WD truck Hawaii

Although most of our island adventures only require our mini-campervan or our two feet, in order to go a bit farther than most, we rented a 4WD truck to explore Polipoli Spring State Reserve. The road to Polipoli is paved the majority of the way. To reach most hiking trails, the cabin we had rented, and the Haleakala summit however, we would need to traverse a one-way, steep, gravel road with no shoulder. The exact route changes frequently because of rain. Thus, the Polipoli rangers require anyone daring the route to drive 4WD vehicles. Even if it sounds like a hassle to rent a four-wheel-drive truck close to home, it turned out that the transportation was the easiest part of this adventure.

The hardest part was reserving the one cabin in Polipoli. It was a logistical nightmare. I thought I might need to call a travel agent just to navigate through the combination of state-run websites to check not only availability, thirty days in advance, but Covid-19 protocols on top. Then, when I found a just-released, available date, I set my alarm the next morning to call the state office right at 8 a.m. After numerous calls to the busy line, I got through and hit the jackpot. I scored a reservation and the keys to the cabin for one night.

We left our swimsuits, slippas (a.k.a. flipflops), and tropical attire at home. Where we were going we would need to pull out thermals, rain gear, hats, gloves, and puffy down jackets. Polipoli Spring State Reserve is at about 6,000 feet—a shade under 2,000 meters. As a rough estimate, for every thousand feet you gain, you drop approximately five degrees Fahrenheit. Plus, the probability of rain is more likely than not in this area. We left prepared for Maui winter conditions, 40 to 60 degrees F minus windchill. This was in contrast to our regular home. There we didn't need a weather report: year-round it was mid-80s daytime and high 60s at night.

Cattle in Maui

Off on a Maui Adventure Close to Home

Away we drove across the dry Central Valley, past old sugar mills of Maui's past. We left the warm air and hibiscuses behind us as we snaked up a narrow road of switchbacks through the charming Upcountry town of Kula. Without hopping a plane or crossing state lines, we were in another place very different than the Maui travel guidebook highlights. With pastures of cows bordered by eucalyptus and redwoods forests, if felt more like Northern California than Hawaii.

I was quickly reminded when we stopped for a short hike that we hadn't left Hawaii for the Mainland. Within the first mile of the trail, a man with a neon orange jacket approached us with a rifle and a bird dog. We politely greeted him with a local pidgin, "Howzit." We cautiously moved to the side of the trail to let them pass by and I asked, "Did you have any luck?"

He said, "Nah. I saw two funny hens. Didn't get none." We continued hiking, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife: wild pigs, goats, axis deer, or pheasants (a.k.a. funny hens) as well as the common and yummy wild lilikoi (passion fruit) that grow thick in the reserve.

After we completed our two-hour loop hike, we hopped in the truck to drive another ten minutes, this time along a narrow, gravel road to the Polipoli cabin. Alone stood a quaint, evergreen cabin, a little rough around the edges but surrounded by tall redwoods. For a short while, it would be our home away from home. Most Maui residents and visitors alike would consider this cabin rustic. It doesn't have electricity. It does have running water with a gas water heater, however, as well as a gas range. Most importantly, the cabin has a full bathroom with a toilet and shower and a wood-fired stove for heat. Since we often tent camp or camp in our van, this was a glamping experience for us, a real step up.

Maui cabin Hawaii

Taking advantage of daylight, we unpacked the truck and moved into the cabin. We arranged the kindling and firewood for our return, then grabbed a cooler with snacks and drinks for a well-deserved happy hour somewhere along the road to the summit. Everyone knows Maui's famous Road to Hana and its countless turns. Well, the road to the backside of Haleakala from the Polipoli Reserve is not for the faint of heart. If there is a more narrow, bumpy road on this island, I haven't found it. Those prone to carsickness or with a history of concussions would be in for a wild ride. In preparation for what we suspected to be coming, we tied everything in the vehicle down and buckled our seatbelts. I coupled this by grabbing onto the ceiling handle, feeling like a rodeo rider preparing to leave the gate. Yeehaw!

From the shaded forests, we wound up—or better said bounced up—the heavily rutted road, climbing in elevation. Soon we were above the tree line amongst a more arid, moonscape-like Haleakala Summit, requiring multiple photo stops. The views of West Maui and both the coasts are breathtaking from here on a clear day. However, it was the vista of Big Island and its two towering volcanoes—Mauna Loa and Kilauea, some twenty miles away—that were really spectacular.

Maui sunrise overlooking the big island

Although this adventure felt really off-the-beaten-path, we were not alone in our approach of the summit. We needed to pull off en route, precariously, for various Toyota Tacomas with local families out for a weekend drive as well as a few adventurous mountain bikers on their way down the hill. We approached the end of the road, which was marked with yellow gates, which meant we had a decision to make. If we wanted to reach the true summit with the telescopes in Haleakala National Park, we needed to hike for several hours. For lack of time as well as priorities, we decided to chase the fast-approaching sunset. We drove back down in search of the perfect pull-off for a picnic-style happy hour with a bottle of local, Upcountry wine—Lokelani rosé from Maui Wine—and cheddar cheese. (One can only take the girl out of Wisconsin, not the Wisconsin out of the girl.)

With the temperatures dropping as quickly as the sun over Kaho`olawe, the Molokini Crater, and Lanai, we decided to head to the cabin to start the fire and dinner. However, we would be back early in the morning to witness the sunrise over Hawaii.

Geminids Shower at the Feet of Haleakala: the Sun Gate Maui

We got wind of the best night for witnessing the Geminids Shower, a meteor highlight of each December, from a personal friend who is also a University of Wisconsin alumna living in Maui. Packed with winter clothes and tailgating supplies, we zigzagged our way up the Haleakala Park Road. The temperatures were dropping quickly as we approached the cloud line. Green pastures bordered both sides of the road, the hillside peppered with cows. We found an ideal spot to pull off the road before the park as daylight began to dwindle. Within moments the sun began to set, quickly disappearing beneath the clouds. It was as if a theater's stage curtain closed and another cast of characters came to play. The night sky little by little started to twinkle.

Maui Geminids Shower
© Yash Chhajed

Armed with two lounge chairs and blankets, we set up for the nightly entertainment. Having been disappointed by chasing the Northern Lights through Alaska and Iceland before, I didn't have any expectations for the Geminids. In fact, I could count on one hand the amount of shooting stars I had witnessed before in my life. However, it didn't take long before I lost count of the majestic fireworks streaming across the night sky.

At first, we would point out our meteor sightings and utter ooh, aah, and wow. However, it quickly became apparent that we couldn't keep up. With the New Moon and Maui's epic night sky conditions, we scored a one-of-a-kind glimpse of another world or universe only a half-hour drive from home.

Returning Home from Another World

In this year of limited travel, we escaped from our Maui norm to microclimates that provided us an experience like traveling to another state, country, or world. Without crossing state lines or packing our passports, we discovered a different home away from home. One to return to when in need of a change of pace or perspective. This year and for however many years we call Maui home, we will be passing happy cows en route to chase beautiful sunsets behind clouds and oohing and aahing over meteors and the otherworldly night sky in Maui's Upcountry.

Heidi SiefkasHeidi Siefkas is an author, TEDx speaker, and adventurer. Her books include Cubicle to Cuba, With New Eyes, and When All Balls Drop. You can learn more about Heidi's adventures and books at

Related Features:
Paddling Home in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota - Heidi Siefkas
Hula is Life: The Legacy of Hawaii - Michele Bigley
An Apocalyptic Vision on the Hippy Side of Hawaii - Camille Cusumano
Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of "Hidden Hawaii" - Michele Bigley

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