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. Naturally, 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 Kealia Ponds 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 Kawaiele Waterbird Sanctuary (former gravel pits) for birds.