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Photo courtesy of  HVCB/Kirk Aeder

Fall for the Nature of Hawaii: New Land is Born, Old Tales are Told in Hawaii’s National Parks

The best advice for a fall (or anytime) visit to the Hawaiian Islands? Park it! Not sit on the beach and watch the waves “park it.” Not a wander the great green gardens kind of “park it.” This kind of “park it” is an invitation to visit the eight, count them - eight - national parks in the State of Hawaii.
To offer a bit of historical perspective, Washington D.C. was declared a national historic site in 1790. Yellowstone became a national park in 1872. The African Burial Ground was named a National Monument in New York in 2006. Over the years, the National Park System has honored, set aside and named hundreds of amazing places; battlefields, islands, lake and seashores, rivers, home sites, monuments, trails and preserves across the country and the Pacific. Hawaii’s first national park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, was founded in 1916.

Fall is the perfect time for a Hawaii park adventure. The days are cooler and the trails less crowded than the busy summer family vacation months. Parks can be reached by air, rental car and mule rides. In Hawaii, the National Park Service has named some of its most unique, accessible parks, honoring pre-recorded-to-modern history.

Hawaii has the only national park with a twenty-plus year continuous molten lava flow. Hawaii’s park sites date to a time long before a voyager named Captain Cook took word of the islands to his western world. Hawaii’s national parks, trails and preserves celebrate the temples, cities and fishponds of ancient peoples. They are adorned with the earliest recorded Pacific history, petroglyphs. They top a 10,000-foot mountain with a crater large enough to hold Manhattan. They honor the human history and inhuman treatment of a people suffering a dreaded disease and celebrate the brave warriors who protected America.

Begin on the Big Island

Hawaii’s Big Island has four of the state’s national parks and one National Historic Trail. The parks on this island are drive up and drive in, with easy walking trails, museums, and spectacular sights to see.

 Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park -- guardian deity-- Photo courtesy of HVCB/HTJ Three major parks are located on the Kona side of the Big Island. Puuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, a place of refuge for warriors and commors who arrived there, is protected by the “great wall” 1,000 feet long, 10 feet high and 17 feet thick, constructed entirely without mortar. Trails here are easy to walk. Cultural specialists share legends. Green sea turtles nibble the limu (seaweed) along the rocky shore. They are protected but often “pose” for photos.

Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park is the site of Hawaiian settlements. The park’s massive fishponds, built before the arrival of European explorers, are an amazing example of successful aquaculture. The goal of the park restoration is to rehabilitate and restore the fishponds so they will again function, providing fish harvest for the community. Centuries of storm damage have caused movement of stones in the original walls. Richard Boston, manager and archaeologist at the site says, “we have reached a milestone in restoration at this park, even using divers to move and replace underwater stones in their original wall locations.” This historic park also contains petroglyphs including a carving of Captain Cook’s ship.

The Puukohola Heiau National Historic Site is a sacred stone heiau (place of worship) known as the Temple of the Hill of the Whale, built over 200 years ago by Kamehameha the Great. The sacred temple measures 224 feet long by 100 feet wide. It is 16 to 20 feet high on the landward side. Workers lived on the surrounding hills for years as they gathered and fitted the massive stone structure.

The Big Island’s Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail is a 175-mile preservation corridor filled with cultural significance, including hundreds of early Hawaiian settlement sites.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has America’s only active, continuously erupting, volcano. The park features ancient petroglyphs, tree-fern forests, miles of hiking trails and extraordinary museums. According to Dr. Dieter Mueller-Dombois, one of the foremost botanists in the Pacific, “this park is the only ecosystem on the planet where just a few steps from the road visitors can stand atop a live volcano, at the edge of a 200 year-old lava flow, and see a new-growth forest sprouting from soil blown into the crevices.” Equally amazing is that the site is only a 30-minute drive down the mountain to the place were fresh lava pours into the ocean. Mueller-Dombois’ book, “Life From the Ashes,” soon will be published by Mutual Publishing, tells a Stephen Spielberg-worthy tale from 1959 of the 36-day eruption of Kilauea Iki, the 400-foot deep lava lake that devastated the rainforest and of the new growth forest returning in only 50 years.

In the park, Crater Rim Drive runs in every direction, leading to steam vents and sulfur banks that feel like a sauna for the face. Deep in the vent, wild orchids thrive surrounded by silver lava mounds. A walk through the 450-foot long Thurston Lava Tube is a truly Jurassic experience. Well-marked trails are everywhere. The Jaggar Museum is a technophile’s delight, filled with seismometers, computers, videos and how-to-be-a-volcanologist displays.

According to the volcanologists at the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory, great fountains of lava have and may again shoot skyward in the ultimate fireworks show. The Kilauea Visitors Center offers a visual “master’s degree” in volcanoes. At the Volcano Art Center, island artists show and sell international quality works of art, inspired by Pele, goddess of the volcano. On the way down Chain of Craters Road, to view the moving lava show, the trail leads to thousands of petroglyphs, carved in the ancient lava fields.

Kilauea appears to be a “civilized” volcano, sending lava through tunnels and tubes from deep in the heart of the mountain, creating hundreds of acres of new land as it flows into the sea. At the bottom of the Chain of Craters Road, a well-marked trail leads hardy hikers to a view of the ocean-side lava action. Safety signs and warnings must be observed, but on a clear day the photo op beats any other vacation snapshot.

Volcano House, originally built in 1846, is the park’s hotel, perched on the edge of Kilauea Caldera. The flames in the lobby fireplace are said to carry the image of Pele. The “new” hotel was completed in 1941. Lobby windows look directly into the caldera. Photos taken here tend to look like the moon.

Manhattan on Maui

No rumbling can be felt on the island of Maui, but it was a short two centuries ago that the volcano that formed East Maui erupted. At 10,000 feet, Haleakala National Park, the House of the Sun, is the entire top of a dormant volcano. That’s dormant, not extinct, meaning it could become active again. The crater at the top, 3,000 feet deep, 21-miles around, could easily hold Manhattan. Thousand-foot high cinder cones rise from the bottom of the crater. Some life forms here are among the rarest on earth, including the strange silversword plant that grows for 20 years, shoots up a 9-foot high bloom and dies. Here the nene (Hawaiian goose) runs wild, rescued from near extinction.

The most spectacular moment in a day on Haleakala is watching the light of the rising sun spill into the crater. Standing at the observatory railing, it is easy to imagine the demi-god, Maui, throwing a giant rope around the sun to slow it and make Maui days last longer. Across the summit, visitors can watch as the shadow of a 10,023-foot mountain recedes, bringing dawn to the West Maui mountains. The experience is equally as impressive at dusk as the sun goes down.

There are 36 miles of hiking trails in the crater. One- to three- day hikes are advised for strong hikers only. The high altitude requires moving slow. The “sliding sands” trail, much like the surface of the moon, was used for training by U.S. astronauts. Areas of the park are dry forest zones with 10 inches of rain per year. The other side of the mountain is lush rainforest with 400 or more inches of rain. The park stretches down the mountainside to the ocean.

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Molokai Memorial

The Kalaupapa National Historical Park on the island of Molokai contains the site of the Hansen’s Disease settlement where Father Damien de Veuster dedicated his life, ministering to the sufferers of leprosy. More than 8,000 persons in Hawaii were taken away from family and delivered to this remote point of land, separated from the world by thousands of feet of steep cliffs. Damien’s grave and his church, St. Philomena, are the most visited sites. A cure for the disease was found in 1946, but the residents of the colony still live in the tiny community at the base of the world’s tallest sea cliffs.

The settlement was once home to Hawaiian royalty. Deep valleys allowed abundant game hunting. Fish were plentiful. The park now easily claims the most unusual mode of arrival and departure travel, a mule ride down the 2,000- to 3,000-foot steep switchback trail. For the non-riders, tour planes can land at the tiny airport. No roads connect this hauntingly beautiful location to the rest of the island of Molokai.

Oahu Honors

 USS Arizona Memorial - Photo courtesy of HVCB/Joe Solem It’s a fact, Elvis Presley and Hawaii are connected far beyond his famous movie, “Blue Hawaii.” Funds were needed to construct a gracefully arched memorial over the USS Arizona, the final resting place for 1,177 United States military crewmen who lost their lives in the World Ward II attack on December 7, 1941. Elvis volunteered a fund-raising concert. The USS Arizona Memorial, built by private contributions, is owned by the U.S. Navy and administered by the National Park Service. It is free, and open to the public, every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.

Visitors can tour the museum, view a 20-minute documentary on the Pearl Harbor attack and board a Navy shuttle out to the Memorial. Inside, a solemn roster of names carved in marble stretches skyward. Everyday for the past 55 years, tiny oil droplets have risen to the surface, reinforcing the reality of this monument to our country’s brave warriors.

Kauai for Wildlife

Kauai, known as the Garden Isle and the most verdant of the islands, offers three National Wildlife Refuge experiences unlike anywhere else in the world. Two of these lush open spaces have rivers running through them, which offer the only kayaking adventures in Hawaii on navigable rivers.

Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, encircled by Hanalei Valley’s dramatic waterfall-draped mountains, is a 917-acre refuge on the north shore established to provide habitat for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds. Outdoor enthusiasts can take a leisurely kayak journey down the beautiful Hanalei River, one of 14 nationally recognized American Heritage Designated Rivers by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, which offers impressive views of the islands flora, fauna, and natural landscape, including famous Bali Hai (Makana Peak).

On the southeast side of the island, kayak expeditions on the Huleia River take adventurers through the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge located next to the ancient Menehune Fish Pond, a registered National Historic Landmark. The refuge is approximately 241 acres and was established to provide open, productive wetlands for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds. Thirty-one species of birds, including the endangered aeo (Hawaiian stilt), alae keokeo (Hawaiian coot), alae ula (Hawaiian mud hen), and koloa maoli (Hawaiian duck) can be found here.

The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public and known as one of the best bird watching destination in Hawaii spanning 203 acres. Located on northernmost tip of the island, migratory birds such as the Pacific golden plover, Laysan albatross, and the nene goose (Hawaii’s state bird) are some of the wildlife that call this refuge home. The Kilauea Lighthouse, found on the refuge, was built in 1913 as a navigational aid for commercial shipping between Hawaii and the Orient. For 62 years, it guided ships and boats safely along Kauai’s north shore. Humpback whales, Hawaiian monk seals, and spinner dolphins can also be observed here.

For More Information
For park visits, camping, days and hours of operations, and park regulations, visit the National Park Service website at NPS.gov/Hawaii

Information about Hawaii’s National Wildlife Refuges, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website at FWS.gov/Pacific

For information about planning your next vacation to Hawaii – The Islands of Aloha – visit HVCB’s website at GoHawaii.com or call toll-free 1-800-GOHAWAII.


This article has been prepared by Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau

Photos courtesy of National Park Service and Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau