Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Three Places to Reclaim Wildness on Hawaii's Big Island

Of all the Hawaiian Islands, the Big Island is the only one whose adventures I never completely exhaust, not even when I lived there. But like on Oahu, Maui and Kauai, the tides of tourist development seem impossible to turn back or even slow down. That's why it made me overjoyed recently to find both old and new spots on the Big Island where wildness still rules. Here's how you can visit them yourself while practicing malama aina (love, respect and care for the land), a Native Hawaiian cultural tradition.

In the jet-black lava rock desert of the Kau district, Ka Lae (check out my Instagram photo, above) is the southernmost point in the USA. It's said that the first Polynesian voyagers to reach Hawaii landed their canoes here, and for centuries afterward, return trips to Tahiti often launched from this sacred ground. Today you can drive here via local ranch lands (my travel companion couldn't resist pointing out "The southernmost cows in the USA!") and a high-tech wind farm. Park your car at the end of the rutted dirt road, then walk out to the ancient point, flayed by strong winds and high surf that crashes chaotically into the rocky shoreline. There's not a resort hotel or tiki bar in sight, I promise.

Less than an hour's drive away is the Kahuku Unit wilderness addition to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Although the park has owned this historic ranch since 2003, the unit has only been open on a limited basis to the public for the past few years. Across tranquil pasture land, through native forest and atop lava flows on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, several hikes let you escape the crowds over on North Kona and South Kohala beaches. Most varied of all, the Puu o Lokuana Trail barrels over an abandoned airstrip and climbs a cinder cone for views over dramatic lava all the way to the Pacific. The Kahuku Unit gates are currently only open between 9am and 3pm on Saturday and Sunday. Helpful rangers and volunteers at the entrance hand out hiking maps and give valuable tips and advice. 

As a travel writer, I've rarely witnessed hotels being torn down, only built up (except for casino implosions in Las Vegas). Never before have I heard of a resort in Hawaii being demolished to make way for the restoration of ancient temples and cultural sites. But that's exactly what is supposed to happen in Keauhou, south of Kailua-Kona. The Outrigger resort hotel here has closed and may be demolished as soon as 2015. Sponsored by Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian heiau (temples) have already been restored, and plans call for building an outdoor education complex and community cultural center. In the interim, you can still visit these sacred Hawaiian sites by asking permission at the security guard shack. When I was there alone last week, hookupu (offering bundles) already lay atop the lava-rock altar and ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs were peeking out at low tide along the beach.

Where are your favorite wild spots in Hawaii? Tell everyone by leaving a comment below. Mahalo!

Want more travel stories & advice? Click below.
Tips for Epic One-Way Hikes in Hawaii
Maui's Best Walks for Wildlife Watching
I Am a Park Ranger: Video from Behind the Federal Shutdown's Locked NPS Gates

Photo credits: Big Island of Hawaii (Sara J. Benson)

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