Landing on the island of Maui is a transcendent experience. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll have yourself a window seat facing the indomitable Haleakala Volcano, and you’ll marvel at how its massive slopes consume the entire horizon. It’s as if the earth is simply bending up towards the heavens.
Staring at the impressive 10,000-foot volcano is a great way to orient yourself on the island, and you can do so even if you don’t have the proper window seat. Simply step outside the airport and look towards the southeast.
If you pull up a map of Maui, you’ll notice something a bit odd about the island. It looks as if it is made up of two islands fused right in the middle. Haleakala sits right in the center of the larger eastern island while the western island is much smaller. And the airport sits right in the middle of both fused islands on the northern side of a conjoining bit of land.
The larger eastern side of Maui is dominated by the volcano and its crowning national park. The Road to Hana famously wraps itself around the volcano along Maui’s east coast. And while the Road to Hana and Haleakala are truly unforgettable, the smaller western side of Maui has its own hidden gems. This is where you’ll find the Kapalua Coastal Trail.
The smaller western side of Maui is where you’ll find former whaling stations that have turned into romantic little resort towns. These resorts dot a coastline of some of Hawaii’s most beautiful beaches, and the west coast of Maui is where you’ll find some of the best whale watching in the state.
Humpback whales journey for weeks from the cold waters of Alaska to the warm breeding grounds of Hawaii. They begin to arrive in January and the friendly krill-eating creatures can stay as late as March. And they seem to celebrate the breeding season by breaching through the azure blue waters with a spectacular splash to the delight of tourists.
That’s why it’s best to take this breathtaking coastal trail during whale season. You just might see a pod of dancing whales off in the distance while you enjoy your leisurely stroll.
You’ll have to drive up to the northwestern side of Maui to find the Kapalua Coastal Trail. The trail connects three difference crescent beaches -- Kapalua, Onelao and DT Fleming Beach -- and you can park at any of the three beaches to catch the trail. The first parking lot for Kapalua Beach is at Napili Kai Resort about 30 minutes north of Lahaina off of Route 30.
This family-friendly trail runs for 1.74 miles along Maui’s northwest coast. Some of the trails are paved, a bit of it is dirt and short sections of the trail are board walked. But the trail is flat and easy, so it’s suitable for the entire family. In fact, it’s a great place for a jog during sunset.
You’ll find restrooms at the bookends of the trail at Kapalua Beach and DT Fleming Beach, but you’ll want to load up on the sunscreen and water. There is very little shade on the trail and much of it is made up of volcanic rock which can reflect the tropical sun upwards. A hat, pants and long sleeves simply won’t prevent sunburn.
Wind likes to whip across the exposed trail, so make sure to bring a light jacket or sweater if you’re going to enjoy the sunset or sunrise on the trail. And parts of the trail feature some jagged rocks poking through the dirt. Bring some sturdy shoes.
This easy hike isn’t about conquering elevation or even getting to the end. Instead, it’s about the coastal views across the channel towards Molokai. Keep your eyes peeled for breaching whales, sea turtles and spinner dolphins. You can’t miss them. They like to jump out of the water to spin like a football.
The trail’s landscape will change dramatically near Oneloa Bay. The paved trail will give way to rocky ground, and you’ll find yourself walking through an open field of volcanic rock. The rock itself is fairly old, so it’s not shiny and black like the volcanic rocks fields found on the Big Island, but it will still give you a sense of the lifecycle of the Hawaiian islands.
The trail will then take you to rocky cliffs that are perpetually being pounded by the open ocean. This is where you’ll find sharp stacks of aging volcanic rock that form Dragon’s Teeth. This is the most stunning stretch of the hike where impossibly blue water juxtaposes the sharp blacks of the rocky coastline.
Park at the southern end of the trail at Kapalua Beach and walk north. The southernmost two-thirds of the trail is where you’ll find most of the beauty. In fact, you might want to turn around before you complete the loop because the northernmost part of the trail is largely forgettable. It simply weaves its way through resorts before ending at DT Fleming Beach.