Hiking Polipoli Trail
Polipoli Spring State Park is not a place one unexpectedly stumbles upon. It’s so high up a lone, quiet road above the beautiful town of Kula, in Maui, that the rare sighting of another car is mystifying. Who else would be up here, in the middle of nowhere? The road follows a series of 20 or so razor switchbacks as it climbs the mountainside right into a pocket of mist. Up here, forest groves loom amorphously in the fog, transforming the landscape into a Salvador Dali wonderland. Turning a switchback, the cloud bank opens, allowing a glimpse of Maui’s verdant flatlands far below. Yes, up here in high Kula, a UFO could hover by and in these mystical mountains, it might be less surprising than happening upon fellow humanoids.
At the outskirts of Polipoli Spring State Recreation Area, signs indicate that only 4-wheel drive vehicles are allowed for the final stretch to the trailhead at the park. The dirt road begins dipping deeply and rising, like folds of a ribbon, and without a guardrail, stretches of road are bordered by precipitous cliffs. All the while, tree branches silhouetted in the mist, pop up here and there along the road, hovering, a million arms reaching to the sky. Pulling into the parking area at the trailhead, beyond a grassy meadow, spindly trunks rise toward the clouds, small tufts of green at their tips, denuded of lower branches by wind, fire or saw.
A pieced-together two-mile loop is the shortest option in this web of 30-plus miles of trails that crisscross through the mountain slope. The first half-mile is along Polipoli Trail. Shrouded in a veil of white, sprays of yellow and magenta flowers on the forest floor make for a surprise burst of color. Early on, messy piles of dead wood rise overhead on both sides of the path, adding to nature’s surreal canvas. Piles of brown, jurassic debris — giant logs and sticks strewn in heaps — give way to a gentle forest path where trees hang overhead and sunlight dapples through the leaves onto the ground.
At a marked junction, turning left onto a half-mile section of Haleakala Ridge Trail leads to sunny overlooks where cheery blue skies meet an expanse of forest. Down below, a swarm of clouds rests deep in the valley. To look out on the postcard-perfect vision is to breathe in a lung swell of health and heartiness. This degree of open-air expansiveness comes with a blood-rushing sense of being on top of the world.
The path climbs to a narrow dirt road. Heading down Ballpark Road is more like walking along tractor ruts left on a farm road. A thick strip of grass grows right down the middle of the road, with lushness covering the hillside on the right and trees rising up all bushy green on the left. The half-mile stretch connects to Polipoli Road. Turning left at Polipoli is another half-mile walk that feels like a lazy, no-cares-in-the-world country stroll back to the original trailhead and Polipoli Park.
“Kula … Kula!” Those calls come from a wholesome young man with a hint of a beard, looking like he was born and bred in these hillsides. Kula comes darting out of the bushes, stick perched dutifully in the canine’s jaw. The man takes the stick and throws it. Kula leaps away to fetch. The man points to a picture perfect cabin off in the distance, says he’s staying there for the weekend to enjoy the quietude. I make a mental note of the cabin. One day I’ll return for some of my own prolonged quiet communion with the misty wilderness of magical Polipoli.
TRAIL: Polipoli Trail
LENGTH: 2-mile loop
HOW TO GET THERE: From Kahului, take Highway 37 heading south. Turn left on Kekaulike Avenue/Highway 377, then right on Waipoli Road. The road follows a long series of switchbacks as it climbs up the mountain. As the pavement ends, posted signs state that 4-wheel drive is required to continue along the dirt road the final couple of miles to Polipoli Springs State Park.
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