Summary of where to go, what to see

Our opinions of where to visit

After visiting the three islands of Hawaii, Kauai and Maui we formed some definite opinions on what might be most productive for nature tourists.  Our first choice to visit is the Big Island, followed by Maui and then Kauai.  This is based mostly on the nature and condition of the natural vegetation and the opportunities for walks.  But there are caveats to this statement.  We discuss the different islands below.  As we did not visit Oahu on this most recent trip (MD has, but almost 40 years ago!) we do not discuss nature observing possibilities on Oahu.

The lower elevation moist forests near sea level on all of the Hawaiian Islands have been greatly modified by humans as they are most suitable lands for agriculture.  However, on Maui, Hawaii and Kauai there are large tracts of moist forest that are nominally protected – mostly in State forests or other watershed protection areas.  However, few of the natural forest tracts are easily accessible, and some are closed to public entrance.   Large tracts of higher altitude land on the Big Island and Maui have been converted to cattle pasture, replacing the original moist or dry forests.  Attempts are being made to promote regeneration of the natural forests to help support the recovery of endangered native bird species.  This will be discussed below under each island.

Personal comment by Mike: I first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1981 during a stop-over on return from India, to visit a friend in the Navy.  We flew from Oahu to the Big Island to explore for one day, and this was my first exposure to the Big Island.  I returned for a specific trip to the Big Island and Maui after Christmas 1982, and was there for the beginning of the longest-lasting (in recent history) eruptive phase of Kilauea that started on January 3 1983.  I also hiked to the top of Mauna Loa and spent New Year’s Eve on the Park Service cabin on the eastern rim.  Since that experience I had wanted to return, remembering the unique view of the caldera with frost in the early morning and the sky glow from the 1982 El Chichon volcanic eruption in southern Mexico 8 months earlier.

In my opinion, the main reason for visiting the Big Island is to see the landforms associated with fluid, basaltic volcanic eruptions.  Such eruptions produce relatively low-slope lava shields and a host of associated volcanic features like lava tubes, pit craters, fissures and spatter cones.  These are not associated with the continental volcanoes with more viscous lava that produce steeper volcanic cones.  Fluid basaltic lava flows are found in many continental areas, such as the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and Valley of Fires Recreation Area in New Mexico, but the very recent nature of the eruptions in Hawaii makes seeing the volcanic features easier, as they are less eroded by weather elements.  And there is nothing elsewhere in the world quite comparable in size to Mauna Loa.  There are similar oceanic shield volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands, the Comoros Islands of the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere, but these are not nearly as accessible as those in Hawaii.

Of course, as we discuss below, the Hawaiian Islands do have unique flora and fauna.  Of course, this comes far down the list of attractions that are advertised by the Hawaiian tourism authorities or commercial websites.

Main attractions on Hawaii

The various trails in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The road to the Mauna Loa climate observatory

The Mauna Kea road (if open)

The Mauna Kea Paila Trail

The Saddle Road and hiking trails off the western side of the highway

Main attractions on Maui

Haleakala National Park and its various trails

For birders the Hosmer Grove trail

For hikers the trails leading down into the Haleakala Crater

The National Wildlife Refuge

Main attractions on Kauai

The Kilauea NWR for birds

The state parks along the Waimea Canyon Road, especially trails leading off the road.

The Alakai Swamp trail (but likely very wet)

The former gravel pit for birds.

Our opinions of where to visit

After visiting the three islands of Hawaii, Kauai and Maui we formed some definite opinions on what might be most productive for nature tourists.  Our first choice to visit is the Big Island, followed by Maui and then Kauai.  This is based mostly on the nature and condition of the natural vegetation and the opportunities for walks.  But there caveats to this statement.  We discuss the different islands below.  As we did not visit Oahu on this most recent trip (MD has, but almost 40 years ago!) we do not discuss nature observing possibilities on Oahu.

The lower elevation moist forests near sea level on all of the Hawaiian Islands have been greatly modified by humans as they are most suitable for agriculture.  However, on Maui, Hawaii and Kauai there are large tracts of moist forest that are nominally protected – mostly in State forests or other watershed protection areas.  However, few of the natural forest tracts are easily accessible, and some are closed to entrance.   Large tracts of higher altitude land on the Big Island and Maui have been converted to cattle pasture, replacing the original moist or dry forests.  Attempts are being made to promote regeneration of the natural forests to help support the endangered bird species.  This will be discussed below under each island.

Personal comment by Mike: I first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1981 during a stop-over on return from India, to visit a friend in the Navy.  We flew from Oahu to the Big Island to explore for one day, and this was my first exposure to the Big Island.  I returned for a specific trip to the Big Island and Maui after Christmas 1982, and was there for the beginning of the longest-lasting (in recent history) eruptive phase of Kilauea that started on January 3 1983.  I also hiked to the top of Mauna Loa and spent New Year’s Eve on the Park Service cabin on the eastern rim.  Since that experience I had wanted to return, remembering the unique view of the caldera with frost in the early morning and the sky glow from the 1982 El Chichon volcanic eruption in southern Mexico 8 months earlier.

In my opinion, the main reason for visiting the Big Island is to see the landforms associated with fluid, basaltic volcanic eruptions.  Such eruptions produce relatively low-slope shields and a host of associated volcanic features like lava tubes, pit craters, fissures and spatter cones.  These are not associated with the continental volcanoes with more viscous lava that produce steeper volcanic cones.  Fluid basaltic lava flows are found in many continental areas, such as the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and Valley of Fires Recreation Area in New Mexico, but the very recent nature of the eruptions in Hawaii makes seeing the volcanic features easier, as they are less eroded by weather elements.  And there is nothing elsewhere in the world quite comparable in size to Mauna Loa.  There are similar oceanic shield volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands, the Comoros Islands of the Indian Ocean, and elsewhere, but these are not nearly as accessible as those in Hawaii.

Of course, as we discuss below, the Hawaiian Islands do have unique flora and fauna.  Of course, this comes far down the list of attractions that are advertised by the Hawaiian tourism authorities or commercial websites.

The Big Island (Hawaii)

We spent 7 nights on the Big Island – all in the small community of Volcano – at the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  This small town/village area is at about 3500 ft elevation so it is cool compared with coastal locations.  In addition the trade wind flow ascends this side of the Big Island and it is very frequently cloudy with light rain.  Annual precipitation is near 140 inches per year, resulting in verdant landscapes.

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The Big Island showing historical lava flows from Mauna Loa (only) and some of the times it took for various flows to reach the ocean or their maximum extent.  One flow had a flow rate of 12 million cubic meters per day (about 400 million cubic ft per day)!  The reddish color indicates the slope; note that Mauna Loa has shallow slope compared with Mauna Kea or Hualalai.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is our favorite area in the Hawaiian Islands to experience natural environments.  The combination of extensive trails through volcanic landscapes and sharp transitions between moist and dry forests, along with coastal and high mountain environments, allows for one to experience relatively natural and relatively uncrowded environments.  Because the Park’s attractions are quite distant (at least 80-90 miles) from the main touristic resorts on the Kona coast (west side) of the Big Island, fewer tourists visit the park, and those that do visit mostly as day trips or as part of tours.  The lack of current volcanic activity (ending in late 2018) also may have reduced visitation.

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Current map of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park provided at the entrance gate upon arrival.  Click for detailed view.
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Hawaii Volcanoes National Park “backcountry” trail map.  Click on map for larger view.  NOTE: some trails are closed due to the 2018 eruptions and earthquakes.

Maui

After the Big Island, Haleakala National Park on Maui is our next favorite area for observation of natural Hawaiian environments.  While there are fewer trails at Haleakala, they are more strenuous and they pass through relatively natural high-altitude landscapes.  Most people who make long walks do so starting at the top (almost 10,000 ft elevation) and walk downhill, ending near 8000 ft.  However, there is a nearly 1000 ft climb near the end (from about 7,000 to 8,000 ft) near the trail’s end, making this hike a long 11 mile day trip or an overnight hike.  While there are parking lots at both ends of the hike, unless your group has two vehicles you must hitch-hike back up to your vehicle (this is one park where this is allowed).

Other than the above mentioned downhill hike, most other hikes are not loops, so you walk out and back on the same trail.  Some of the trails are very rocky and require sure footing, while trails in the crater tend to be on ash and cinders and are smooth.  Vegetation is more dense at lower elevations, with many interesting berries.

Haleakala National Park is a long drive from the resort areas on Maui.  It is about 40 miles to reach the main visitor center that is at 7000 ft elevation.  It is another 3000 ft altitude gain to the upper visitor center and entrance trail into the main “crater” of Haleakala.  The road is very winding, with many curves – especially before reaching the national park.

We did not extensively explore Maui, especially the moist areas on the eastern part of the island – the “infamous” road to Hana.  Nor did we visit the West Maui mountains (Io’s Needle).  However, finding natural moist forests on Maui (or on any of the islands) is not simple.  All Hawaiian Islands have forest reserves managed by the state of Hawaii.  These reserves may include introduced trees and are not managed to be natural landscapes.  Hunting is allowed on weekends.  The relatively recent Hawaiian State Natural Areas are attempting to protect natural landscapes but these are often closed to public entry.

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Trail map for Haleakala National Park.   Click for larger image.

Kauai

We only spent 3 days on Kauai, so we could not sample all interesting natural areas.  However, the Alakai Swamp trail at 4000 ft elevation, known as the best birding location on the island and with unique wet bog plants, was not feasible to access due to the condition of the trail (muddy).  And the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, while mostly known for its historic lighthouse, is known among birders for being the best spot in all of the (main) islands for seeing seabirds.  These include Laysan Albatross, White-tailed Tropicbirds, several species of Boobies and Frigatebirds.  The Nene is also conveniently seen here.

Oahu

We did not visit Oahu – other than a short stop to transfer planes on our flight from Hilo on the Big Island to Lihue (Kauai).  However, more tourists visit Oahu than any other island.   As such, it has more visitor facilities, including botanical gardens, than the other islands.

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