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Fine Art Images of Hawaii by Thomas Upton

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  • Thomas Upton

Kalopa State Park - The Big Island's Muir Woods?

Updated: Apr 6

If you’ve seen all the amazing waterfalls, beaches, and volcanoes on the Big Island and crave a walk in the forest, then Kalopa State Park is for you! Kalopa is a well-hidden but spectacular forested park with well-marked trails near Honoka’a on the Big Island. I call it "Hawaii’s Muir Woods". What makes it so special? It's a blend of grand trees, ferns, lush undergrowth, and brilliant green moss. Lots of green! But more than anything it is the feeling of peace you get as you wander along the trails with the only sound being wind in the tall trees. Just go slow and let the forest drive worries from your mind. It’s an amazing and serene place to get lost in (literally!) and I know of no other quite like it on the Big Island.

Amazing dense tropical foliage in Kalopa State Park on the Big Island
Lush foliage along the "Jeep" trail

Finding the park can be a bit of a challenge without GPS routing. It sits about 5 miles inland on a winding road and is rarely busy. You're not likely to encounter a lot of fellow hikers on the network of trails.

Kalopa is a marvelous photo destination, but I find it to be challenging to capture the beauty surrounding me when I'm there. The forest is dense and it looks busy and two-dimensional in a lot of my photos. It can be a challenge to isolate nice vignettes that make for well-composed shots. The forest is dark, and at 2000+ feet, it is sometimes in the clouds as well. The light can be very flat as a result (another thing in common with Muir Woods). All that said, you will be enchanted as you walk the trails, whether you take photos or not. I find that I get a sense of the place after hiking a while, and begin to better see simple scenes within all the wildness of the forest. It’s the Zen of Kalopa.

There are two parts to the park. A small loop trail near the center of the park is well-marked with plant species. It is described in a brochure available at the park

(the blue one):

Picture of Kalopa Park trail guide
Picture of Kalopa Park Nature Trail guide


There is a much larger area a short walk away that contains a network of trails and is surrounded by a perimeter trail (“the horseback trail”) that’s about 2.5 miles long with about 500 ft elevation gain from the parking lot. There’s a great brochure for this area too with a trail map on the front (the yellow one). Note: The brochures are old, but an excellent intro to the park plant life. They are well worth reading before you set out.

I strongly recommend having a GPS-enabled map (e.g. from Alltrails). The trails are well-marked, but it is very easy to get directionally disoriented while walking. Aside from the overall elevation range of about 500 feet, there are some deep gulches and riverbeds, some with treacherous slopes. Trails meander around and through all this. Makes it interesting!

The photos in this post are mostly from a recent walk where we took the east half of the perimeter trail and returned on the jeep trail that runs down the middle of the park. The perimeter trail climbs steadily from the starting to the northeast corner of the park. You will see tree-sized ferns giving the forest a Jurassic Park feel:

Giant ferns, as big as trees, in Kalopa State Park
Giant ferns along the Horseback Trail

as well as numerous different types of trees. The park was created in 1962 by a group of dedicated locals who wanted to preserve this forest as they saw the surrounding land being converted to sugarcane. Some of the original trails were cut and many trees were planted at that time (and after) and are now mature. There are many endemic Hawaiian plants in the park. I could not identify most of them (even with the brochures), but you will see massive trees like this:

Giant trees in Kalopa State Park appear woven together as one and create a huge canopy

with trunks seemingly woven from smaller trunks and vines over the decades. The trail can be muddy, and it is damp in the forest, so downed trees and limbs are soon consumed by moss:

Moss covered trees and stumps in Kalopa State Park
Moss covered downed trees and stumps are everywhere

Near the north end of the park, there is a clearing that originally separated the forest from the sugarcane. Ironically, the sugarcane is now long gone, and the clearing separates the Park forest from eucalyptus groves that replaced the sugarcane. There are some stunningly beautiful and serene views of the grassy meadow and surrounding forest:

Beautiful meadow with dappled sunlight just outside of Kalopa State Park
Gorgeous meadow views between Kalopa State Park and surrounding forest reserve

Beautiful meadow near Kalopa State Park

Ferns have taken root on tree trunks much like air plants:

Ferns have sprouted from an old tree in Kalopa State Park
Ferns have overtaken and sprout everywhere from this old tree

Huge burls have formed on some of the trees, with this one being the largest we saw:

Massive burl and ferns growing on tree in Kalopa State Park

Trust me, the combination of green ferns growing from it and the red-orange gnarly wood are an arresting scene when you come across it!

I found the "jeep trail" (no jeeps can travel this trail anymore) to be an easier source of photo opps than the perimeter trail (but it also has more hikers on it). The trail is a bit more open, so more light enters and the scenery is easier to compose. The trail itself is a nice “leading line” in your photos.

View down the Jeep trail in Kalopa State Park

Various side trails branch off the Jeep trail and are well-marked:

Woman looking at trail signs in Kalopa State Park

Picnic spread in meadow in Kalopa State Park

We finished our walk this time with a picnic near the visitor center and recommend you do the same. You will leave feeling refreshed by the serenity of the entire experience.

There's much more to see on this website! See other blog posts for more adventure ideas and check out the extensive galleries of scenic photos searchable by location and subject as you plan your visit to the Big Island! 🔼

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