Fine Art Images of Hawaii by Thomas Upton

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  • Thomas Upton

Koai’a Tree Sanctuary - Precious trees and fabulous views

Updated: Jul 6

On an island with large amounts of privately held land, it is a pleasure to find places like the Koai’a Tree Sanctuary, a tree-filled oasis amid vast acres of pasture land that welcomes hikers and is devoted to the rare and special Koai'a tree. The Koai'a is a type of Acacia tree native to Hawaii, closely related to Koa but more rare and with much harder wood. Like Koa, wood from the Koai'a tree is highly prized (Read more about it here). The Koai’a Tree Sanctuary and the adjacent Koai’a Corridor lie on the flanks of the Kohala volcano and present both unusual trees and fabulous views.


A lush hillside in the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary with Mauna Kea in the distance
Mauna Kea through the clouds from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary

It is very easy to miss the Koai’a tree sanctuary as you drive the Kohala Mountain Road between Hawi and Waimea. We have driven this road countless times and only recently found the sanctuary, and even that required a good GPS and map. As it happens, it is very close to the huge Pu’u that dominates the makai (downhill) side of the road near the Waimea end:


The large Pu'u below the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary on the Kohala Mountain Road
Looking down at the large Pu'u below the Kohala Mountain Road from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary

and is about 3 miles from the junction of highways 250 and 19 below Waimea. There is a sign on the mauka (uphill) side of the road, announcing the tree sanctuary, but it is easy to miss:


The Entrance to the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary on the Kohala Mountain Road
The Entrance to the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary on the Kohala Mountain Road

The tree sanctuary is managed by the Kohala Watershed Project as is the Koai’a Corridor. You can park at a turnout across the road and enter through the well-marked gate with a map and information. There is a network of short trails within, and the entire area can be covered in about one hour.


The entry area is a bit unassuming, particularly during a dry summer period, as you enter into a grove of low, gnarly Koai’a trees. This changes quickly though as you soon come upon some steep and impressive gulches.


Looking upslope in the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary
Looking upslope into one of the lush gulches that rise out of the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary on Kohala

In fact, most of the trails involve at least some climbing up and down these gulch areas and may include a bit of boulder hopping amid the trees. The scenery is quite nice once you get underway:


Looking through a tree covered with bright red moss towards Hualalai from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary
Looking through a Koai'a tree covered with bright red lichen towards Hualalai from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary

The tree sanctuary sits within a massive cattle pasture area and the juxtaposition of a tree grove with vast pasture seems odd.


Pasture land on Kohala adjacent to the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary. Grasses, cactus, and telephone poles fill the scene
Pasture land on Kohala adjacent to the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary

The sanctuary information makes clear that cattle, if allowed, would have destroyed this tree area, so it was fenced in and preserved. The gulches themselves continue steeply up Kohala, beyond the fenced area and are beautiful in morning light:


Looking upslope into one of the steep hillside pasture areas fenced off from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary. There is a fence, rock filled pasture and sparse trees
Looking upslope into one of the steep hillside pasture areas fenced off from the Koai'a Tree Sanctuary

There are some gorgeous peek-a-boo views of Big Island volcanoes (see above) and the Kohala coast from within the trees throughout the hike:


A hillside of cactus blended with lush plants with grassland, ever-present Kohala clouds, and ocean beyond
A hillside of cactus blended with lush plants. Grassland, ever-present Kohala clouds, and ocean lie beyond

Nothing was in bloom during our visit, so we will have to return again in the proper season. If you are near Waimea or headed to Hawi, it’s well worth a one-hour stop.

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