Hike Back in Time

By Grady Timmons

The best hike you've never heard of is the Pēpē‘ōpae boardwalk trail at Kamakou, a Nature Conservancy preserve located high in the mountains of East Moloka‘i.  Kamakou is a primeval Hawaiian rain forest that remains much the same today as it did a thousand years ago. When asked by friends to describe it, I often say it’s Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs.  From its tall overhanging canopy to its moss-covered forest floor, it looks like something only ethereal hands could have designed.

I made my first visit to Kamakou sixteen years ago and have been back many times since.  It’s an easy hike — barely three miles round-trip — but it is not an easy place to get to. From the local highway, it's an hour-long, 10-mile drive to the trail head on a steep, winding, unpaved road. The road is rugged, even treacherous in spots, and visitors shouldn’t attempt it without a four-wheel drive and an experienced guide.

A Changing Landscape

What makes the drive worthwhile is seeing how the landscape changes, and what those changes tell you about the ecological history of the land.  The lower portion of the road takes you through a parched landscape of kiawe scrub and alien grasses.  Much of this land was once used for ranching and agriculture, and when those uses were abandoned, they were replaced by alien weeds and scrub trees that are now prone to fire.

About three miles up the road, you enter the Molokaʻi Forest Reserve, notable for its tall stands of ironwood, eucalyptus and pine that were planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to restore the forested watershed that had been denuded by cattle and goats in the previous century.

Going higher still, you pass the lua moku ‘iliahi, or sandalwood measuring pit. In the early 1800s, before it was harvested to near extinction, native Hawaiian sandalwood was exported to China for its fragrant aroma. On Moloka‘i, the felled sandalwood was piled into the pit, which was dug in the shape of a ship’s hull. When the pit was full, the wood was hauled down the mountain to waiting vessels bound for the Orient.

Not until you reach the Waikolu Overlook a little further up do you get a taste of what lies ahead. Waikolu is one of the remote valleys along Molokai’s spectacular windward coast, normally accessible only by boat or helicopter. From the overlook, you can peer down into the valley. Waterfalls plunge from its green canyon walls, which are narrow and steep and tunnel down to the sea.

Beyond Waikolu, it is 2.2 miles to the Pēpē‘ōpae trailhead. The road is deeply rutted and treacherous when wet, and by the time you arrive the forest has changed again. You are in rain forest country now, at an elevation of some 3,500 feet, and all around grows ‘ōhi‘a lehua, the signature tree of the Hawaiian forest.

Realm of the Gods

A narrow boardwalk built to protect the fragile native vegetation takes you through the preserve. Once underway, you hear only the wind and the occasional trill of native honeycreepers darting among the trees. The plant life is astonishing: creeping ground cover, spiraling aerial roots, tubular flowers and colorful fruits and berries. Ferns grow in profusion, sprouting from the forest floor and from the trunks and limbs of knotted, moss-covered trees.

Less than a mile in, the forest ends abruptly and you emerge into a clearing. This is Pēpē‘ōpae Bog, a strange miniature landscape of low-growing sedges and stunted ‘ōhi‘a lehua trees. With peat deposits dating back 10,000 years, Pēpē‘ōpae is one of Hawaii’s oldest bogs. In its accumulated plant material is the record of forests long gone and one of the finest gauges of the Islands’ climatic history. Leave a footprint in this delicate ecosystem and it can last for decades.

Once through the bog, you reenter the forest and continue on for another half mile before arriving at a spectacular overlook of Pelekunu Valley, another Nature Conservancy preserve flanked by the world’s tallest sea cliffs. The overlook is the climax of the hike, but when there is cloud cover, the view is often obscured.

That was the case during my most recent visit. I was accompanying friends, and as we sat and ate lunch on a grassy ledge that marks the trail’s end, lamenting our bad luck, the clouds suddenly parted and we were able to glimpse the long sweep of the valley below, extending 3,700 feet down to the sea.

As we made our way back along the boardwalk that day, I was reminded that most visitors to Hawaii never see its native forests, which are rare and endangered and survive only at higher elevations. Early Hawaiians referred to these upland forests as wao akua — the realm of the gods. Walking through Kamakou, it is easy to see why.