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Ramble the Molokai Wilderness

Article about exploring the wilderness areas of Molokai. Information about rlambling on two feet or four.

On Moloka‘i, people don’t spend a lot of time indoors. You can tell this just by looking out the window of your commuter plane, flying low over this rather tough-looking volcanic mountain ridge. Moloka‘i simply doesn’t have very much "indoors."

The least developed of Hawai‘i’s major islands, this one’s still rural and wild. Moloka‘i has an excellent road system - but it basically consists of just two lanes that run east to west. Farming, fishing, and hunting are pillars of the economy. Residents feel a fierce devotion to the land itself, a personal relationship.

As one locally written anthem puts it: "My mother, sweet Moloka‘i - makes you more of who you are."

This devotion suggests that the island has a distinct personality - which it does, full of grandeur and surprise. Moloka‘i includes a national park, a Nature Conservancy forest preserve, a national natural landscape, and great places to hike and ride horses. Travelers whose idea of a vacation is Zion or the Grand Canyon will be inspired by a week on Moloka‘i.

Although this is a small place - less than forty miles long and only ten wide - a week will not exhaust its potential for outdoor exploring. It will, however, provide a solid, thorough introduction to the whole personality of the island, which is certainly one of Planet Earth’s most exuberant creations.

In terms of natural wonders, Moloka‘i’s chief attraction is its north shore. This whole side of the island is sealed off by a series of gigantic cliffs that plunge - some more than three thousand feet - straight into the shimmering sea. At intervals this imposing wall is sliced by blade-thin canyons or draped by some of the tallest waterfalls in Hawai‘i. It looks as though half the island simply ripped off and fell into the sea.

In fact, geologists believe something of that magnitude did occur in past eons, sending out a tidal wave that literally rocked the Pacific. Afterwards, a small volcanic outburst created a flat peninsula, Kalaupapa, which seems to float forlornly at the base of the tallest sea cliffs on Earth.

These vertical slopes and the flatlands above them support native forests, including some of the most endangered plant and animal species in the world.

Obviously, it isn’t easy to explore such a tilted landscape on foot. But it’s doable by means of three distinct one-day adventures.

For example, the trail to Kalaupapa Peninsula begins at the top of the cliff, right next to where you park, and it drops nearly two thousand feet to the sea by means of twenty-six switchbacks. It’s a wide, safe trail often shaded by forest, the air full of bird song and roaring surf, the views wonderfully shocking.

You can make the four-mile trek by foot or by mule. Both choices are about equally strenuous, but mule-back provides greater opportunity to enjoy the shock. Moloka‘i Mule Ride has been offering this four-footed service since 1973. Why mules? Says head muleskinner Buzzy Sproat: "Mules are a heck of a lot smarter than horses. In fact they’re smarter than most people." Whereas horses can be skittish and easily startled, mules take a calm, methodical approach to the cliff-side trail. According to Sproat, whose family has been training and working these beasts in Hawai‘i for a hundred years, the mules know the route so well that they place their hoofs in the exact same spots every time they make the trip.

Whether you make it on two feet or four, the trip always includes an educational component -- a narrated drive around the peninsula in the old yellow schoolbus of Damien Tours. Access to Kalaupapa National Historical Park is restricted to its forty-or-so residents and their guests. So even if you hike down, you must become a guest by calling Damien Tours first and buying a seat on the daily bus. (You must also be at least sixteen years old.)

The tour itself is fascinating, sometimes even comic (if your driver is the opinionated "sheriff of Kalaupapa," Richard Marks), and in the end -- especially after a visit to the church hand-built by Father Damien -- quite inspiring. And there’s something perfect about the timing of that old schoolbus. By the time you reach it, you’re eager to sit down. And by the time you’ve finished driving around those rocky roads, you’re more than happy to get back on a mule.

Even if you don’t plan a day for the trail, you can walk to an overlook and do some easy hiking in the woods at Pala‘au State Park.

Another way to approach "backside Moloka‘i" is through Kamakou Preserve. This patch of rare undisturbed mountain forest contains over two hundred fifty kinds of native plants -- ninety percent of them live nowhere else but Hawai‘i. The Nature Conservancy has built a boardwalk that runs through several miles of the preserve, including a bog inhabited by closely crowded, dwarf versions of endemic plants. The boardwalk keeps hiking shoes from sinking into the bog or treading on the plants. This and other trails run between two overlooks -- top-side views of two valleys that slice steeply down to the sea. These viewpoints are exhilarating. Cool, sweet-scented wind rushes up from below, and rainbows hang on long waterfalls.

You need four-wheel-drive to get to Kamakou. (All the island’s rental companies provide such cars.) And you need to stop ahead of time at the office of The Nature Conservancy, just outside of Kaunakakai. This nonprofit environmental group manages the preserve, and they need to keep track of its visitors. By the way, The Nature Conservancy offers guided hikes once a month -- usually they’re booked four months in advance -- and sometimes their work parties will give hikers a lift. They also lead monthly hikes to Mo‘omomi Preserve, a remote beach and dune area.

Lacking four-wheel-drive, you can hike to Kamakou Preserve. This is a vigorous trek, a full day of silence and solitude. You start at sea level on the south shore and cross the width of the island, rising the whole way until you stand at the top of the north shore. There are three trailheads: one across the road from One Ali‘i Beach Park, another at the top of a subdivision called Kawela Plantation I, the third at the top of Kawela Plantation III. These are unmarked and unsupervised jeep trails. Hikers travel at their own risk in the spirit of wild independence.

A third and easier way to experience "backside" Moloka‘i is to drive around the east end of the island. The road stops at beautiful Halawa Valley, the first of the north shore’s small, steep-walled canyons. The hike up the valley is a Hawaiian classic - through lush forest and past ancient settlement sites to two-hundred-fifty-foot Moa‘ula Falls, where you can swim in the pools. Valley residents don’t want people just traipsing through, but they don’t mind if you’re led by a guide. To book the hike, you need to call the hike guide’s house after five pm - very Moloka‘i. (The Moloka‘i Visitors Association can help you with this, too.)

You can reach the top part of the falls, and swim in natural pools, by riding on the wonderful sorrel horses of Pu‘u O Hoku Ranch. This 14,000-acre ranch and organic farm acts as a benevolent steward of the rugged east end. The ranch offers a wide range of horseback experiences, including a sunrise ride, a romantic sunset ride with champagne dinner in a wild setting, and a coastal ride past a humpback whale playground. The coastal ride culminates, if you like, with a plunge into the sea, horse and all.

The opposite end of Moloka‘i, the dry west end with its huge beaches, still bears the signs of its ancient life as a getaway spot for the Hawaiian royal class. Quiet, sunny coastal trails lead to the remains of an old village, an adze quarry, and a road paved by pre-discovery natives. Historical Hikes West Moloka‘i helps people explore this area by means of outings -- ranging in challenge from easy to advanced - that emphasize stories of Hawai‘i’s culture and lore.

Also at the west end, Sheraton Moloka‘i operates a remote seaside Beach Village that transforms tent living into the height of luxury - or at least of convenience. Ingeniously designed compounds of canvas and wood provide hot showers and electricity (all solar), privacy and comfortable beds. Meals are served in an open-air restaurant next to the wild beach. While they stay here, campers can choose from a number of outing options -- cultural hikes, horse riding on the ranch’s vast grazing lands, as well as biking, kayaking, sailing, surfing, paintball games, skeet shooting, and target practice with air rifles and with archery.

Campers with more modest ambitions and tighter budgets can pitch tents at a couple of county-run campgrounds. The choicest of these is west-end Papohaku Beach Park, a grassy campsite with showers, restrooms, drinking water, and - best of all - the near presence of the largest beach in Hawai’i. One Ali‘i Park near Kaunakakai offers similar facilities along the quiet, reef-protected south shore. Also, the State of Hawai’i permits free camping at a couple of mountain sites - at Pala‘au State Park near the Kalaupapa trailhead, and in a meadow near the Waikolu Lookout at the entrance of Kamakou Preserve.

As the Hawaiian islands go, Moloka‘i has definitely followed a different drummer. It has resisted the lure of commerce, happy to miss out on what Mark Twain called "all the modern inconveniences." As a result, it’s a treasure for those independent travelers who prefer the solace of outdoor beauty over the clamor of indoor attractions. For people who love the Earth, unadorned, Moloka‘i’s distinctive personality stamps itself indelibly in the heart.

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Article Courtesy of the Molokai Visitors Association


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