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Gems of the Pacific: a visit to the volcano-rich Hawaiian Islands offers hiking, birdwatching, and history. (Excursions).

The Hawaiian Islands adorn the continental United States with a slice of tropical paradise. The verdant archipelago 2,400 miles off the coast of California is among the most geographically isolated places on Earth. More than 90 percent of the native flora and fauna is found nowhere else in the world. The islands' human culture is also remarkable. Only seven of the islands are inhabited, but many of them preserve timeless pockets of traditional Polynesian culture and customs.

With six protected sites on the islands, the National Park Service cares for a broad spectrum of Hawai'i's rich traditional history and natural wonders. At any time of the year, a well-planned trip and a spirit of adventure will reward visitors with vividly colored bird species, lush rainforests and sparkling waterfalls, sacred temples and coastal villages, moon-like volcanic craters, animated marine life, and gleaming sunsets bathed by gentle ocean breezes.

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

Some of the Earth's most powerful creative and destructive forces are on display at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park on "the Big Island" of Hawai'i. With each eruption, Kilauea and Mauna Loa--two of the world's largest volcanoes--add to the island's overall landmass. Mauna Loa, for instance, rises nearly 56,000 feet from the ocean floor and surpasses Mount Everest's elevation above sea level. For more than 80 million years, these two volcanoes have oozed forth molten rivers of lava, which, when cooled, formed the foundation for an explosion of biodiversity.

Because of its layers of captivating cultural history and outstanding habitat diversity, the park has been recognized as an international Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Many of Hawai'i's thousands of plant, animal, fungi, and insect species originated from only a handful of hardy newcomers. Today, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts can expect to spot the scarlet-colored Hawaiian honeycreeper, endangered goose called "nene," King Kamehameha butterflies, or even elusive Hawaiian hawks.

With more than 150 miles of trails, this rugged park is best explored on foot. Heart-healthy visitors may wish to tackle the 19-mile backpacking trail to the summit of Mauna Loa--usually a three-to four-day trip. Hikers should pay serious attention to warnings about volcanic eruptions: fumes and fallout make breathing difficult and are especially hazardous to people with heart and lung problems, small children, and pregnant women. Visitors should heed the instructions of rangers and obey all signs on roads and trails.

Those with less rugged inclinations can pursue one of several short drives or hikes. A good driving option is Crater Rim Drive, which circles Kilauea's steaming caldera and Halema'uma'u Crater for 11 miles. This drive passes through wind-swept desert and steamy rainforests and offers drivers opportunities to pull off the road and take photos or roam shorter trails. The 20-mile (one way) Chain of Craters Road offers a more comprehensive passage through the park. Descending 3,700 feet to the coast, this road passes the Holei Sea Arch, where motorists can see the results of a massive lava flow.

Friendly Park Service staff at the Kilauea Visitor Center can advise visitors about road and hiking conditions, safety precautions, and activities such as ranger-led walks, films, and lava flow watching. Accommodations are available at the Volcano House Hotel (808-967-7321)--perched on the rim of the Kilauea caldera--or in the cabins at the Namakani Paio campground, both of which require reservations. The campground also offers drive-in tent sites on a first-come, first-served basis. Check out for more information, or call 808-985-6000.

Haleakala National Park

The eastern end of the island of Maui is shaped by Haleakala, a shield volcano, whose sides have, over time, been gradually worn into valleys. Haleakala National Park, which includes the volcano, encompasses a variety of ecosystems on which the island's diverse and highly sensitive species depend for survival. The hinahina--a plant commonly referred to as silversword--thrives in the desolate, rocky conditions of the volcano's upper slopes and summit. The dense, silvery hairs that line its leaves help the plant conserve moisture and reflect the sun's harsh rays.

The wilderness area of the park contains 27 miles of hiking trails: Halemau'u and Sliding Sands trails enter the wilderness from Haleakala's summit, and a third course takes hikers to the coast through Kaupo Gap and private property, which park visitors are allowed to cross as a courtesy. All hikers should stop at one of the two visitor centers for the latest weather and trail conditions. Motorists can visit park headquarters before beginning the twisting ascent up the volcano from Route 378. From the resort areas of Kihei and Ka'anapali, the summit of Haleakala can be reached in about two hours by car.

The only other road that enters the park--and very briefly--is Route 360, which rings the eastern end of the island and takes visitors to the Kipahulu Visitor Center, three to four hours by car from the resorts. At this end of the park, a 184-foot waterfall cascades through the Maui rainforest at Makahiku. The Kuloa Point Loop trail takes a half-mile circuit past a cultural demonstration area where thatched-roof long houses, fishing shrines, temples, canoe ramps, and retaining walls stand as reminders of the areas early inhabitants. Trail-weary hikers can take a refreshing dip in the pools and waterfalls that line the lower stretches of the stream at Kuloa Point. Be sure to heed swimming safety precautions.

Visitors can bunk for the night at one of two park campgrounds or in a remote wilderness cabin. Ranger programs include scheduled hikes and talks on the park's natural and cultural significance. For more information, call 808-572-9306 or log on to

Kalaupapa National Historic Park

Part of the tiny island of Molokai is the Kalaupapa Peninsula, a monument to seclusion where endangered Hawaiian monk seals whelp, sea cliffs defy the Pacific surf, and lava tubes form intricate mazes. Yet this breathtaking spot also endured a tragic period in Polynesian history when the U.S. government forced native people to relocate beginning in 1865, and a year later Kalaupapa became an isolation area for people afflicted with Hansen's disease, formerly known as leprosy. The forced removal of Hawaiian people from where they had lived for more than 900 years irreparably severed ancestral ties among families, friends, and the fertile land.

The park was established in 1980 to recognize this sorrowful period in Hawaiian history, educate visitors about the now-curable disease, and honor survivors and their families by teaching tolerance and respect for privacy. On the leeward side of the peninsula, which is still home to Hansen's disease patients, the park has implemented specific visitation rules to preserve tranquility.

No one can visit the park without prior authorization, which can be arranged through tours. Individuals cannot choose to visit independently of the tours. Visitors should begin their tour in Kalaupapa at the Americans of Japanese Ancestry Hall, where interpretive materials and peninsula artifacts are on display. A guided tour through the settlements of Kalaupapa and Kalawao can be arranged with Damien Tours (808-567-6171). Visitors also can arrange for a mule ride down the steep Kalaupapa Trail (800-567-7550) or view the peninsula from the overlook in adjacent Pala'au State Park, where camping is allowed.

There are no accommodations within park boundaries and no vehicular access. In addition to the activities mentioned here, visitors may also get to Kalaupapa by air. Visit for more information, or call 808-567-6802. For detailed information on getting to Hawaii and around once there, call the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 808-923-1811.


Other Notable Historic Sites

Other notable sites on the islands to consider visiting during your trip are the following:

* Kaloko-Honokohau National Historical Park on the Kono Coast of the island of Hawai'i. A traditional Hawaiian settlement, the park encompasses 1,160 acres and has preserved a variety of agricultural, residential, and spiritual structures, including the Kaloko fishpond and a massive seawall that demonstrate how native people once subsisted on the ocean and bordering wetlands. Bird life is abundant, and the fishponds are essential for protecting the habitat of such endangered species as the Hawaiian black-necked stilt and the Hawaiian coot, both endemic to the Big Island. Visit for more information, or call the park at 808-329-6881.

* At Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park on Hawai'i, visitors can see how ancient Hawaiians who committed crimes against the gods were dealt with. The 182-acre park includes a spiritual sanctuary, where priests absolved offenders of their misdeeds, and defeated warriors took shelter during times of battle. The grounds were also home to the ruling chief and his palace. Royal Hawaiian chiefs were believed to possess special power, or mana, in their bodies, belongings, and in the ground they walked upon. After death, these powers were locked away forever with their bones in the sacred temples called heiaus. Check out for additional details, or call 808-328-2288 for visitor information.

* The USS Arizona Memorial honors the 1,100 sailors who died aboard the ship when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941--a swift and traumatic blow that caused the United States to formally enter World War II. Resting above the sunken hull of the battleship, the memorial allows visitors to reflect on that day as they gaze into the still waters where the remains of the battleship still rest.

The National Park Service offers interpretive programs, including a brief talk by a ranger or a Pearl Harbor survivor and a documentary film about the attack, followed by a boat trip to the memorial site. For details about how to get to the park and transportation recommendations, visit, or call 808-422-0561.

KATURAH MACKAY lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and is former news editor of National Parks.
COPYRIGHT 2002 National Parks Conservation Association
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mackay, Katurah
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1U9HI
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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