A risky road to Hana

Taking the road less traveled: Trouble follows some who venture off the beaten path

Cars cruise along the road to Hana. The Hana Highway Regulation, an initiative by a group of concerned East Maui residents, is trying to promote safety and raise awareness of hiking on private property. People venturing to remote, private and dangerous places have led to rescues and sometimes death. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Among the recent ocean-related fatalities around Maui, one stands out to Keanae resident Napua Hueu — the death of a 38-year-old Lahaina man who hiked the Puka Maui trail and became unresponsive while swimming in the cove at the bottom of the cliff.

“The Sunday (Feb. 11) accident wasn’t a tourist as it so often is; it was a Maui resident,” said Hueu, committee chairwoman of Hana Highway Regulation, an initiative by East Maui residents concerned about safety and traffic congestion. “It was a somber realization that trekking on private properties should be avoided by all.”

In light of constant traffic, frequent rescues and the occasional tragedy, Hueu and other East Maui residents have been working to increase safety and awareness along the road to Hana. Hueu is general manager of Platinum Tours and is especially concerned about popular sites that draw hikers to private property, including the Puka Maui hike, Bamboo Forest, Red Sand Beach and Waioka Pond, also known as Venus Pools.

Some trespass knowingly; others simply aren’t aware. And while the problem isn’t new, the East Maui community is trying to step up its response, from clamping down on illegal tour operators to spreading the word on how to safely enjoy the island’s beauty.

Rescue and enforcement

A car drives up a steep curve along Hana Highway. Among the ways that the Hana Highway Regulation promotes safety is by encouraging tour companies to adopt its code of conduct. It’s also asking state officials to place delineators along places where cars often park illegally. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Rescues and injuries in East Maui are not uncommon.

On Feb. 11, 38-year-old Kevin Grealish and six friends set out along the Puka Maui trail, which takes hikers down the mountainside to a series of tide pools and a cove. There, people swim across to view a large “puka” in the rocky coastline. Grealish became unresponsive while swimming in the cove. By the time friends got back to the road to get cell reception and call for help, too much time had passed for first responders to revive him, officials said.

That same day, a 60-year-old Alaska visitor injured his leg trying to climb over a fence on a hiking trail above the Garden of Eden Arboretum and was airlifted out.

On Oct. 6, a 29-year-old Utah visitor was flown to the hospital after falling about 20 feet into a dry streambed, about 150 yards beyond a washed-out bridge on Nahiku Road.

And, in three separate instances in July, August and September, four people were airlifted to safety after falling from the cliff ledge on the trail leading to Kaihalulu Beach, commonly known as Red Sand Beach, which sits on Hana Ranch Partners property.

“It’s such a popular spot, and it’s so widely publicized that everybody thinks it’s just like a state park,” said police Lt. William Hankins, commander of the Hana Patrol Division. “It’s probably the worst one in Hana where we do have a good portion of the rescues.”

The Hana Patrol Division has eight officers, two sergeants and one commander who cover a large chunk of East Maui, from Kaumahina State Wayside Park along Hana Highway down to Manawainui Gulch along Piilani Highway. (Bamboo Forest at Milepost 6 and the Puka Maui hike at Milepost 7 are under Wailuku jurisdiction.)

Police drive the highway every day, “but because of the logistics, we just can’t be everywhere,” Hankins said. If officers are in Kipahulu and the station gets a trespassing call in Keanae, it’s likely the people will be gone by the time officers arrive.

“We don’t have enough manpower to dedicate to illegal hiking, and most of the time it’s done on private property, so we need the private property owner to complain,” Hankins said. “A lot of times they just don’t know they’re trespassing, and it’s because of all the bad information that’s being put out there.”

Police either have to catch people in the act or have proof from landowners; then they have to prove that people knowingly trespassed. That’s difficult because not all private land is marked as such, and the complicated property lines of rural East Maui make it difficult for police in the field to know where one boundary ends and another begins.

When asked if social media, illegal tour operators or another factor contributed to trespassing hikers, Hankins said it’s “a little bit of everything.” Some hostels and bed-and-breakfast places will offer tours as part of the stay, where “six or seven people jump in a van and take a private tour to Hana.”

“They invest money in a van and all of a sudden they’re a tour company,” Hankins said.

That’s another problem that relies on community complaints, since the state Public Utilities Commission regulates vehicle tour operators. The community has played a role in spotting unlicensed tours and trespassing hikers. Sometimes residents will photograph license plates and, if possible, police will contact drivers and explain where they should and shouldn’t go.

Hikers can ask landowners for permission, but it’s not guaranteed.

“Generally speaking, we don’t grant permission for public hiking on our private property,” said Darren Pai, spokesman for Alexander & Baldwin, whose subsidiary East Maui Irrigation controls land frequently traversed by hikers. “We do allow two hiking clubs to access state lands through our lands, the Mauna Ala Hiking Club and The Sierra Club. Collectively, those groups hike across our property four or five times per year.”

‘We saw it in a book’

Fire Services Chief Edward Taomoto said that the vast majority of East Maui rescues take place on private land. Emergency crews often share that information with the people they rescue.

“Some people said they’d seen it in a book and didn’t realize it,” Taomoto said. “Whether they’re telling a white lie or not, we don’t know. The other half would say, yeah, they’d seen it in a book and heard it was private property, but when they came by they saw . . . all the cars, so they just figured they’d tag along.”

Pai said many EMI areas are fenced and have signage. However, trespassing laws are hard to enforce, and Pai said the company has “seen trespassing increase significantly in the last several years” due to social media, websites and various publications.

“Illegal hikers can create unsafe conditions for themselves and our employees, especially if we are conducting maintenance activity in the area and are utilizing heavy equipment or power tools,” Pai said. “In addition, we periodically assist with rescue efforts for hikers trapped by inclement weather, potentially putting our employees in dangerous situations.”

From time to time, an exasperated landowner will put up a fence or sign that sometimes curbs traffic or makes people think twice. At the access point to Red Sand Beach, Hana Ranch posted a sign advising people that the trail is dangerous and that the landowner is not liable for injury under state law.

Guidebooks and travel sites have taken to listing popular, dangerous spots with warnings and disclaimers. “Maui Revealed” is part of a series of guidebooks that angered residents by sharing what many considered to be secret, remote and dangerous locations.

George Thompson, director of public relations with Wizard Publications, which publishes the series, said that the company won’t include things it deems unsafe or illegal. The 2016 Maui edition states that “under no circumstances are we suggesting that you trespass” and advises people to get permission.

“We’ve made mistakes in the past with stuff that we thought was legal and accessible, and it turns out it’s not,” Thompson said. “We’ve been very cautious to verify whether it’s accessible or not. Some things we just don’t put in any of our publications because they’re dangerous. A great example is the Commando Trail.”

Thompson said the company has updated its books and app in response to public input. He said the company has given copies to fire and county officials for suggestions on promoting safety. Alongside the warnings, however, are detailed descriptions of getting to places, like Bamboo Forest, that sit on private property. Thompson argues that correct information is better than none.

“We made a decision a long time ago that if something was already out there, that we would just put out the right information,” Thompson said. “We would rather give them the warnings and be accurate about something than to not tell them and have them get the information someplace else.”

Other publications vary — Fodor’s Maui 2016 guide, for example, doesn’t mention Bamboo Forest but lists Red Sand Beach as a potentially dangerous site on private property to be reached “at your own risk.”

Are disclaimers enough?

“I think the disclaimers are enough for local residents,” Hueu said. “They’re a little bit more acquainted with our island, the landscape and the kind of ocean tides. So that kind of eliminates some liability for the property owner and the person who’s suggesting that they go visit this site. But it’s not enough for our visitor industry, and for those that are soliciting access and charging for access on these private properties.”

It’s not just the books and websites, but the advertising, Hueu said. Hawaiian Airlines once posted a seemingly harmless photo of Red Sand Beach on its social media accounts. After the community explained its concerns over promoting the beach, the airline was quick to remove the photo and even had a conference call with residents about the issue.

‘Hana Pono’

A seventh-generation Keanae resident, Hueu also has “faced a lot of scrutiny that my motives come from a place of competition seeing as I am a manager of a tour operation.”

“Before I was a tour operator, I was a resident of Keanae,” she said. “All of these initiatives to fix the problem come from my resident perspective first.”

In August 2016, the Hana Community Association created the Hana Highway Regulation, an initiative to promote safety and improved traffic measures on Hana Highway. In June, the association published a 29-point “Road to Hana” code of conduct that included avoiding the road during storms, cleaning footwear and vehicles to curb the spread of invasive species and not stopping or stalling on bridges.

The group’s website, hanahighwayregulation.com, contains the full code of conduct, as well as a section that allows people to report illegal parking, private property trespassing and unlicensed commercial activities.

One step the state took to prevent illegal parking was by installing 75 delineators along the highway near Waikani Falls in December.

The Hana Highway Regulation is also pushing unlicensed operators to get certified. Hueu said there are more than 20 illegal operators in East Maui and about 30 licensed ones. With Haleakala National Park cutting down the number of operators in its Summit District, she expects even more to transition to East Maui.

The group has started a database to keep track of licensed and unlicensed operators and the kinds of tours they offer, with evidence collected from inquiries and tips from community members, like “the aunty across the street from Venus Pools” who takes notes of the cars that come and go. A handful of operators got certified within the past year, and the number of illegal tours is “slowly but surely” coming down.

“We’re applying pressure so we can really get a handle on what’s going on around here,” Hueu said.

Tour operators also can apply for “Hana Pono” certification with the community association if they meet a set of criteria that covers industry compliance, environmental management, staffing and marketing.

Along the Road to Hana, Twin Falls is one example of a place that’s tried to manage its visitors. The popular stop along Hana Highway always has a monitor on site and allows only one commercial operator — Hike Maui — to bring in tours, said Ramana Sawyer, who manages the site and is the son of one of the landowners.

When the weather is stormy, half the valley is shut down so people can’t cross the river. Sawyer said having a physical on-site presence has helped limit trespassing and injuries.

“Just having somebody there that can watch and monitor the trail and access, and keep people who don’t necessarily listen to the sign or to the gate . . . from crossing,” he said.

That’s been the key to Twin Falls staying open, Sawyer said. However, that’s not always feasible at some of the more secluded sites.

“If there was an easy solution, that would be great,” Sawyer said. “I think that the combination of education for people would be the first step . . . an education campaign for freshwater (places), and specifically for the east side of Maui.”

If people want to visit places off the beaten path, Sawyer suggested they find a reputable tour company that can safely and legally take them places. A number of places that Sawyer used to go as a kid are now off limits — the East Maui ditches and Swinging Bridges in Waihee, for example.

Taomoto said the Fire Department used to get calls at Swinging Bridges just about every week, but ever since the fence went up, they hardly ever get called there.

“It’s not going to stop. The biggest thing that’s going to change is education,” Hankins said. “And a lot of these folks that are coming out here, they don’t mean any disrespect. They just don’t know.

“Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, you need to understand your surroundings and understand that things change,” Hankins said.

To learn more about off-limits East Maui sites, email admin@HanaHighwayRegulation.com. For safety tips, go to www.gohawaii.com/trip-planning/travel-smart/safety-tips.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today