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Hike of the Month: Hiking on the Big Island of Hawai'i

The Trail Companion

March/April 1996

Hike of the Month: Hiking on the Big Island of Hawai'i

     by Matt Noall

I enjoy the good fortune of having relatives in Hilo, which is located on the northeast side of the island of Hawai'i (also known as the Big Island). I visit Hawai'i often, and love to hike in the island's Volcanoes National Park. One favorite trail is Kipuka Puaulu, which literally means "Bird Park" in English. A kipuka is an ecological oasis, a piece of land which started out as barren lava and eventually cooled enough to harbor plant life and, ultimately, animal life. Subsequent lava flows augmented the land around the kipuka and at the same time destroyed all living things in its path. The park and the island itself represent mixed stages of ecological succession. Bird Park is now a mixed forest of acacia (particularly a variety called koa) and other trees, rising out of an ohia (also known as Malay apple) forest. The effects of the lava flows on the forest are evident near the beginning of the trail, in the area most recently covered by lava: hot lava surrounds the trees, burning them away completely, but the lava cools so quickly that impressions of the trees remain. These holes eventually fill with other organic matter.
      The one-mile long hike begins at an elevation of about 5000 ft., from a parking area along the Mauna Loa road. Further up the road lies the Kilauea summit area, which includes the caldera and the somewhat famous Halemaumau, the fire pit of the Kilauea crater. The last time I was there, the ongoing eruption continued on the slopes below, venting volcanic gases into the air, but here, on Kipuka Puaulu, sweet, unfamiliar scents always fill the cool air. The trail climbs gradually, the ohia trees giving way to the great numbers of koa trees of the later stages of succession. The larger trees, including the ohia, are old enough that this one portion of the island is still similar to the island the old Hawaiians knew. The ohia were logged very heavily in the previous century because the wood has a marvelous color and grain; it is a hardwood and very suitable for making furniture or other items. The climax of the trail for me was seeing a very old giant koa tree--perhaps the largest koa tree left standing in the state.
      A wide variety of birds make their homes in the park, but they keep out of sight and only their songs can be heard. The birds of the Hawaiian forests are very different from those on the mainland, and if I do spot them, the sight is always rewarding. I've never seen the state bird known as the nene, although it may be viewed at other locations inside the park. The nene is related to a Canada goose, but genetic drift separated the population living on the Hawaiian islands into a different species from their mainland relatives.
      Few kipukas remain in Hawai'i. In the last century, they represented prime sites for exploitation; most were logged over and converted into pasture for cattle grazing. For me, their scarcity makes the experience of Kipuka Puaulu much more precious. The hike provides a rare glimpse into a small and isolated ecosystem, different from everything around it. I enjoy the sense of peace and isolation. The area offers many other hikes, but none can match the smells, sounds and sights of Kipuka Puaulu.

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