When it comes to the Road to Hana on Maui; second to only one other question, 'Is the Road to Hana Worth it?' we hear one other question on a very consistent basis, 'Can I make it the Gulch and back in a single day?' YES, you can!
In fact, Road to Hana tour companies do every day; you can find our personal tour recommendations on that page.
If you want visit 'Ohe'o Gulch on your own but don't want to allocate 2 or 3 days for exploring the Hana Highway, below are our recommendations on how to maximize your time on the Road to Hana and beyond.
A lot of folks especially want to hike the Pipiwai Trail at the 'Ohe'o Gulch, so we're assuming anyone reading this article is interested in that as well. If you're not, then ignore that part of our time budget. As a general rule, we're assuming most of you are also coming from either south or northwest Maui (like Ka'anapali) or from south Maui (like Kihei). Again, if you're starting in Kahului, you'll need to adjust your time budget (in your favor).
The general rule of thumb, regardless of where you're coming from or what you want to see, is this - GET UP EARLY! We cannot stress this enough. Starting the drive at 9 a.m. is not early. Starting at 7 a.m. is getting close and if you're already on your way when the sun comes over the horizon, you're going to be very pleased with yourself for beating the crowd.
Since we've written a Hana Highway guidebook, we'll use our ratings there as a reference of importance. If we've given anything 4 or higher stars, then we tell you to consider stopping for that spot; though Nahiku Landing could probably be skipped since it is a lengthy detour. Most of the best stops actually on the Hana Highway, in our opinion, are towards the start, which is also good news. Waikamoi Forest, the Garden of Eden, Kaumahina Wayside, etc are worth a stop. You could skip Pua'a Ka'a Wayside later on. We'd also recommend you not overdo it at Wai'anapanapa Wayside. The black sand beach is nice, but compared to white sand Hamoa Beach beyond Hana, it leaves a lot to be desired. We'd also say skip most of the small falls along the way since Wailua Falls and the Gulch falls are both more impressive beyond Hana.
In general, some of the best sights along the Hana highway are actually beyond Hana itself. We wouldn't recommend you spend too much time actually in Hana - if you stop at all. All said and done you should try to be at the Gulch no later than noon or 1pm. You'll need about 2-3 hours to hike Pipiwai at a relaxing pace and get back again (or continue around the Pi'ilani Highway, which re-opened October 4, 2008). If you do choose to return the way you came, driving the Hana Highway at dark isn't something you want to do, trust us. Plus you'll likely be tired and daytime driving is much easier on the mind, especially since you have to make it all the way back to Ka'anapali, Kihei, or thereabouts.
As you begin your drive along the highway just budget your time. Lots of folks make it to the Gulch and back in one day, they just have to keep an eye on the clock and use good judgment about how long to spend at each location. You'll have to skip a lot, and perhaps bypass more than you'd like - but ultimately the experience will still be worth it and you should have a great time. Just remember... the earlier, the better. Don't waste your precious time sitting in traffic by leaving too late.