Top 7 Reasons for Conservationists to Visit the Big Island

Mention island getaways and most people would think of the sand, sea and sun. But there are more of the Big Island, Hawai’i than the multi-colored (white, yellow, black, red and green) beaches, wide ocean activity assortment and perfect weather including the aloha spirit of its people, vibrant culture, rich history, diverse ethnic cuisine and souvenirs shops selling both cheap and high end items with the price tag being influenced by the small or Big Island rentals paid by stall owners. There is such a group of 7 protected areas scattered throughout the island which are recognized internationally as places set aside primarily for nature and biodiversity conservation. Through the years, the spots serve as popular destination for tourists like you who are not only interested in traveling for fun but in studying how protected areas serve as a major tool in managing species and ecosystems and the way it provide a range of goods and services essential to sustainable use of natural resources as well.

3 out of the 6 regions of Big Island play as host to the 7 protected areas, as follows:

A. Kohala Region:

1. Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail

Ala Kahakai, which means “shoreline trail” in the Hawaiian Language, is a 175-mile (282 km) long trail along the coastline of Kohala Region which was established on 14 November 2000 as a National Historic Trail purposely to access the traditional Ancient Hawaiian culture along with the natural geology of the island. Managed by the National Park Service, guests on a guided tour shall be ushered for a walk on the ancient fishermen’s trails through over 200 ahupuaʻa, the traditional sea to mountain land divisions. Trekking from the Northern end of the trail in Upolu Point in the North Kohala District at the Moʻokini Heiau until the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, you can truly experience how fishermen in ancient times travel by land and sea and feel the thrill as you pass by both public and private lands and gain access on the process to numerous beaches and resorts.

Ala Kahakai Districts in Big Island

The Trail Map of the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service – Comprehensive Management Plan prepared by National Park Service 1, Public Domain.

2. Kohala Historical Sites State Monument

Situated in the remote North Kohala Region of the Big Island, the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument encompasses the National Historic Landmark Moʻokini Heiau and the birthplace of Kamehameha I. The Heiau was declared a National Historic Landmark on December 29, 1962 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

Ranked as among the oldest and most sacred historical sites in Hawaiʻi, the spot derives its name from the large reptile goddess “Mo’o” being honored by Hawaiians since before the time of Paʻao. Moʻokini means “many lineages” or “many Moʻo” in the Hawaiian Language.

The attraction is not just an historic artifact of the Hawaiian culture but a living spiritual temple as well. By listening to oral histories handed down from generation to generation, you would learn that the original temple on the site dates back 1,500 years ago. By examining the genealogy chant of the heiau’s kahuna, you would know the story about the arrival in the place of Kuamo’o Mo’okini in 480 from the Persian Gulf of the Middle East and not from Samoa or Tahiti. By looking at the evidence, you can conclude that the current temple was built on the site of this smaller older one by Paʻao, who brought the Hawaiian Religion to the islands sometime between 1100 and 1300 A.D.

Interestingly, the spot includes the remains of the heiau measuring 250’ x 130’ with an open stone paved court enclosed by 20’-high stone walls, and the sacrificial stone. It is made of stones that are believed to have been passed from hand to hand from the Pololū Valley, over 12 miles (19 km) away. If you are curious enough, you can hear stories from the locals that the heiau was constructed by the menehune (mythical Hawai’ian little people) in just one night.

A further inquiry would reveal a story that for hundreds of years, a strict set of rules dubbed “kapu” were enforced at the heiau such that it was closed and reserved exclusively for the highest chiefs known as the Aliʻi Nui for the sole purpose of praying and offering human sacrifices to the war god Kū. Thanks to the decision made in November 1978 by Kahuna Nui Leimomi Moʻokini, whose family has been taking care of the temple for centuries, lifting the restrictive rules. It is now safe for persons like you to enter the heiau and discover yourself the Hawaiian’s past.

But what makes the site more interesting is the presence of Kamehameha Akahi ʻĀina Hānau, the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, the revered founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii who reigned from July 1782 to May 8 or 14, 1819. Stories abound that Kamehameha I was born right on the precise place marked by a rock in 1758 as Halley’s Comet passed overhead.

It is highly recommended that you travel to the place via a four-wheel drive vehicle especially if it is raining. From Upoli Airport, you can reach the attraction by about 1½ miles travel by a dirt road off the Akoni Pule Highway.

Mo'okini in Big Island

Photo of Mookini Heiau. Courtesy of Mailseth – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Website .

3. Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site

Puʻukoholā Heiau National Historic Site is a national historic site that preserves the National Historic Landmark ruins of the last major Ancient Hawaiian temple and other historic sites. It was made a National Historic Landmark on December 29, 1962 and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.

On board a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can visit the site by turning makai (toward the sea) from Akoni Pule Highway, just north of the intersection of Kawaihae Road (route 19) and Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway, which is part of the Hawaii Belt Road.

You would really feel emotional once you join the interpretative trail which begins at the visitor center being operated by the National Park Service and leads to Puʻukoholā Heiau. While on the trail, your thoughts would be transported back to the time when Kamehameha I was in full control of western and northern Hawaiʻi Island known as the Kona and Kohala districts in 1782. You would also find interest in knowing that in the ensuing eight years, he fought a number of inconclusive battles and was even attacked in 1790 by no less than his cousin Keōua Kuahuʻula who ruled the East side of the Big Island. Lending your ears some more would lead you to the story that upon the advice of a respected priest named Kapoukahi, the king built in 1791 a luakini heiau (sacrificial temple) to appease the war god Kūkaʻilimoku. Dubbed as the Puʻukoholā Heiau meaning “Temple on the Hill of the Whale,” the massive structure measuring about 224 by 100 feet was built entirely by hand with no mortar in less than a year with the red stones being transported by a human chain extending about 14 miles long from Pololū Valley to the East. The capture and eventual death of Keōua Kuahuʻula and his men and the offering of their bodies had officially dedicated the new temple and signaled the start of the eventual ascension of Kamehameha I of the throne as the first king of a unified Hawai’i in 1810.

Pu'ukohola Heiau temple in Big Island

Ruins of Pu’ukoholā Heiau By Bamse – Own work, GFDL, Wikimedia Website .

B. Kona Region:

4. Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1985, the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is envisioned to protect and manage endangered Hawaiian forest birds and their rain forest habitat. The 32,733-acre Hakalau Forest Unit, which is situated on the windward slope of Mauna Kea, Kona Region, Island of Hawai‘i, supports a diversity of native birds and plants. Together with the Kona Forest National Wildlife Refuge, the site is managed as part of the Big Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Due to the presence of several endangered species, notably the ‘alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), the Hawai‘i ‘ākepa, (Loxops coccineus), Hawai‘i creeper (Oreomystis mana), ‘akiapōlā‘au (Hemignathus munroi), ‘io (Hawaiian hawk), and ‘ōpe‘ape‘a (Hawaiian hoary bat), as well as, several endangered plants and an insect, access to the Kona Forest is restricted.

Nevertheless, the Upper Maulua Unit of Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge is open for hiking, bird watching and photography aficionados like you. You can have access to the site only on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays but strictly in between sunrise and sunset only. But don’t miss to make a reservation by calling the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge office at least one week prior to entry. As a peace of advice for persons who find pleasure at gate crashing: “Walk-in guests are strictly not allowed at Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge!”

Upper Maulua Unit in Big Island

The signage leading to the Upper Upper Maulua Unit of Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of the mutualconcepts Website .

5. Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a 420 acre (1.7 km2) site originally established as the City of Refuge National Historical Park in 1955.

Up until 1819, ancient Hawaiians were strict adherents to religious laws known as kapu. Mention everything in the life of a Hawaiian- from what clothes you were allowed to wear and what fish you could eat in a particular season- was covered by hundreds, if not thousands, of religious laws that carried harsh penalties to breakers. If you failed to kneel while the chief was eating, it was a broken kapu punishable by death as you had shown disrespect to the will of the gods.

If you happen to break a kapu, the only way for you to escape the stiff penalty was to find a city of refuge dubbed as puuhonua where a priest or elder could cleanse you of the sin and be exonerated of your crime. However, should you be caught up before your arrival to the puuhonua you would be meted with the maximum death penalty.

Nevertheless, while it is true that Puuhonua were popular spots in the ancient Hawaiian times but only a few remain as popular tourist destinations in the present day Hawaii. Hence, the entire complex of the Puuhonua o Honaunau on the region of Koana in the Big Island has been restored to show its original sacred environment.

While on a self-guided tour of the complex, you can walk around a lava rock wall reaching a maximum of 17 feet wide and be amazed at the massive wood-carved tiki, locally termed kii, serving as guard to the sacred temple. Capping your visit to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park is a snorkeling session at one of the finest the black sand beaches in Hawaii.

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau in Big Island

Thatched Structure with Carvings at Sea Shore at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. Photo courtesy of Carol Highsmith – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain .

6. Honokōhau Settlement and Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park

Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park is located in the Kona District on the Big island of Hawaiʻi. Established on November 10, 1978 to preserve, protect and interpret the traditional native Hawaiian activities and culture, it includes the National Historic Landmarked archaeological site known as the Honokōhau Settlement located just south of Kona International Airport.

Exploring this coastal park is discovering yourself how an early Hawaiian settlement survived on the rugged Kona coast. You can hike to see four different ahupuaa (traditional mountain to sea land divisions), as well as heiau (sacred temples) and kii pohaku (petroglyphs). A further walk at the park would lead you to two wonderful Hawaiian fishponds that show the engineering acuity of Native Hawaiians. You can also look for local wildlife including native birds as well as honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles). If you are lucky enough, you can find a Hawaiian monk seal sunning on the shore.

Honokohau Halau in Big Island

A reconstructed ancient Hawaiian beach shelter (Halau) at Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. Near Kailua-Kona, Big island of Hawaiʻi. Photo courtesy of W Nowicki – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Website .

C. Kau Region:

7. Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, established on August 1, 1916, is located 45 miles southwest of the City of Hilo in the Kau Region of Big Island, Hawai’i. It covers two active volcanoes including Kīlauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth and oftentimes called “the world’s only drive-in volcano,” and Mauna Loa, the world’s most massive shield volcano.

If you want to witness the primal process of creation and destruction, then the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park is a must visit attraction while you are in Hawai’i. You can discover 150 miles of hiking trails through volcanic craters, rainforests and scalded deserts, as well as petroglyphs, museum, a walk-in lava tube and two active volcanoes: Maunaloa, which last erupted in 1984 and Kilauea which has been erupting since January 3, 1983. The chance to witness Kilauea’s blistering lava flows meet the sea is a sight not to be missed during your visit to the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

The Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park in Big Island, Hawai’i was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980 and a World Heritage Site in 1987 in recognition of its outstanding natural values. Eventually, the park was honored on the 14th quarter of the America the Beautiful Quarters series in 2012.

kilaeau in Big Island

Kilauea volcano lava flowing into the ocean. Photo source slworking2.

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