Monday, May 27, 2019

Big Island Hawaii: Final Thoughts and Tips

Big Island, Hawaii was fantastic. We are already planning another trip in 2020.

Here are a few final thoughts and tips...

  • Join Costco -- the only one on the island is in Kona. If you plan to rent a house/condo and cook, this is by far the most cost-effective way to go. Buy your gas and food there.
  • Buy and bring your own snorkeling equipment -- mask, snorkel, flippers -- or rent from Jack's Diving Locker in Kona (ask for multi-day rental price). Buy a rash guard shirt for snorkeling to protect against sunburn and abrasion on coral reefs.
  • We rented an 8-passenger Suburban; if just 2-4 of us I would rent a 4-wheel drive jeep.
  • I would re-visit all the places we visited and spend more time at Volcanoes National Park -- both units, more snorkeling, drive or hike to top of Mauna Kea, hike into rainforests at higher elevations. We missed North Kohala and the Puna District...I would spend time there.
  • Practice a bit of the Hawaiian language, it is helpful and fun.
  • If you stay in Kona, walk or drive to the Sheraton Hotel in the evening. You can sit on their outside deck and watch the sunset then look for manta rays as they are attracted to lights in the evening.

Night snorkeling to see manta rays. We watched from the Sheraton outdoor deck.

Below is a selection of the guides and brochures that we found most helpful. The book Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed is a must and the National Geographic map, likewise. The other brochures we picked up at the respective parks.

Big Island Wildlife

Native plants and animals in Hawaii have been displaced by an array of non-natives, often invasive and damaging species. In the neighborhood where we stayed, every plant and animal that we saw was non-native. Feral cats and mongooses were every where and in some cases people were feeding them as well as birds. That the birds are also non-native seemed fitting.

Our group of eight sought out as much native wildlife as possible. With more time to hike into the backcountry and reach more native rainforest, we would have done so. Even so, we saw some cool things.

The highlight were the sea turtles. These beautiful creatures are well-protected with signs not to disturb, and most people seem to oblige. We saw the most common - green sea turtle -- in many places. Some were basking on beaches, but mostly we saw them feeding on algae in shallow tidal areas.

A path in the sand made by a sea turtle.

 Nephew Sid recognized the turtle (in above two photos) was not the green sea turtle. This turtle had a dome shell. We didn't get a great look, but think it was an olive ridley turtle.

The Hawaiian goose, or nene, is the state bird. Once numbering 20,000 or more it was decimated by overhunting and the introduction of the mongoose. A captive breeding population begun in the 1950s has brought the wild population up to about 1,000. You can see nene in many state and national parks, often the birds have leg bands.

The sea life was extraordinary, mostly seen underwater while snorkeling, but we waded in at low tide to see crabs, snails, urchins, and other aquatic life that lives in the intertidal zone.

We looked for endemic birds during trail hikes. We saw and heard apapanes and amakihis, but the other honeycreepers eluded us. This interpretive sign at Volcanoes National Park provides a nice summary of the evolution of the honeycreepers/finches.

Our best birding sites included:

  • Kahuku Unit - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: honeycreepers, hawaiian hawk
  • Kipukapuaulu Trail, near main entrance to Volcanoes National Park
  • Chain of Craters Road -- at end look for black noddys on cliff faces
  • South Point -- skylark and white-tailed tropicbird
  • Kaloko-Honokohau Nat'l Historic Park - black-necked stilt, Hawaiian coot, and other waterbirds
  • Coastal areas - wandering tattler, ruddy turnstones
Click here for a link to Hawai'i Birding hotspots.

Although not-native, I do love the geckos.

Big Island National Historical Parks

In addition to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island is home to two National Historical Parks: Pu'uhonua o Honauna and Kaloko-Honokohua. Both are near Kona -- Kaloko is just north of downtown Kona-Kailua, before the turnoff for the airport. Pu'uhonua is south of Kona, about a 30-minute drive and is next to Two-Step, a great snorkeling spot.

The main entrance to Kaloko-Honokohua is off Highway 19, but is only open from 8:30 and to 4:00 pm. If you want to visit earlier or later, there is a nice accessible entrance off the Kealakehe Parkway, which leads to the boat harbor. You can park in the large gravel harbor parking area and walk in. The trail leads along the beach, where you can see sea turtles, shorebirds, fishponds, and enjoy an early morning stroll. You might want to stop at the visitor's center when it is open to pick up a park brochure, which has great information and a trail map.

A green sea turtle rests on the beach.
The islanders protect the sea turtles and are careful not to disturb them.

Pu'uhonua, "a place of refuge," has a wonderful interpretive trail. The 12-foot high Great Wall, constructed over 400 years ago, defines the sacred space of the Pu'uhonua, where those who broke kapu, the sacred laws and beliefs were safe if they made it to this place. The Hale o Keawe is a royal mausoleum housing bones of 23 ali'i (chiefs). Wooden images are of ki'i representing Hawaiian gods.

Kahuku Unit - Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Kahuku Unit of Volcanoes National Park is not well-advertised and is easy to miss. I discovered it by researching best birding sites on the Big Island. Kahuku is located on the north side of Highway 11 between Kona and the main entrance to the National Park. The entrance is a few miles west of the South Point Road. We visited on a Saturday by chance and learned later that it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The small visitors center has books, interpretive information, bottled water, bathrooms, and very friendly staff.  Click here for link to a trail map. If you are interested in birding get there early, although the park doesn't open until 9 am.

The park ranger suggested several of the trails, which turned out to be excellent choices. We drove to to the Pali o Ka'eo trailhead along the dirt road, which is easily drivable. Kahuku was a cattle ranch until 2003, when it was added to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The grassy, wooded landscape is a remnant of that land use history. Vistas along this trail extend to South Point and beyond.

The Pu'u Lokuana Trail is a not to miss hike. Buy the trail guide for $2 at the visitor's center and stop at each of the numbered interpretive spots. Lots of great natural and human history to see and learn about on this 2-mile hike.

Olivine crystals remain after the surrounding rock from a Mauna Loa lava flow has eroded. 

A stone wall made of lava rock is a remnant of the cattle ranching days.

The trails are marked by lava rock cairns (or ahu, meaning stacked rocks) in some places,
although these are not to be disturbed or new ones built due to cultural significance.

A lava fissure.

 The Pu'u o Lokuana cinder cone was quarried for its crimson cinders.

 After a picnic lunch at the visitor's center we drove south on South Point Road. This is the southernmost point on the island as well as in all of the United States. The road is paved all the way, although is narrow in spots. It passes only a few houses and a handful of cattle grazing in fields with incredible views. The paved road ends at the "boat joists" where people jump off into the ocean and climb back up a rickety metal ladder. As this was Saturday, it was a little crazy and of course people were jumping despite the warning sign.

A network of gravel/sandy roads leads from this spot...a 4-wheel drive jeep would be ideal or time to hike about, although it is hot, dry, and windy here. If we had time we would have hiked the 2.5 miles to green sands beach. Instead, we snapped a few pictures of South Point and a selfie then headed back to Kona.

Lava Tubes, Tree Molds, and Kipukas

Millions of people apparently visited the Big Island during the past decade to see the active lava flows from Mauna Kilauea. Now that the volcano has gone silent, the crowds may be less, which is a nice outcome if you like less crowd (like me).

Although we did not see hot lava flows, the cold lava and the many formations, colors, shapes, and textures created over thousands of years is equally fascinating.

Lava tubes form when molten lava flows beneath a harden surface of lava. When the hot lava drains away it leaves a hollow tunnel, cave, or arch. We stumbled on this lava tube at a scenic pull-off along Highway 190 between Waimea and Kona.

Kaumana Caves State Park in Hilo offers a short walk into a cave-like lava tube. Across the street from the parking lot, a metal staircase descends to the entrance to the caves that were created by an 1881 Mauna Loa lava flow that threatened Hilo. Ferns, philodendrons, and other moisture-loving plants shroud the entrance. Bring a flashlight as it is dark inside and the rocks are slippery. Look up at the ceiling at white, gold, and bronze crystals embedded in the lava.

Tree molds are another interesting formation in lava flows. These form when hot blobs of lava harden around a living tree (often a ohi'a). The tree is incinerated and when the hot molten lava drains away, the remaining hole shows the shape of the once live trunk.

A kipuka forms when new lava flows surround a hill or slight rise, leaving an island or refuge for plants, animals, and people. The following pictures are of a kipuka in the Kahuku unit of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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