Kaulana Manu Kipuka - A Flora and Fauna Oasis
On the Big Island Saddle Road, between Hilo and Mauna Kea, there is a relatively new parking lot and visitor facility on the north side of the road. You’ve probably driven by it and wondered what it was and whether it was worth a stop. We wondered, and so made the stop, and are very glad we did.
This is the Kaulana Manu Kipuka Nature Walk. A Kipuka is a small, usually forested oasis in the midst of a lava field. It is an area the lava flow spared, allowing it to become a home for birds, plants, and small animals amid the volcanic devastation. There are many Kipukas on the Island (the nearby Huluhulu Pu’u is another), and this one has been known to bird lovers for a long time. It is at mile 21 of the Saddle Road (hence it’s former name as Kipuka 21) or about 6.9 miles past the Mauna Kea service road turnoff when driving towards Hilo.
The new facility opened in late 2020 and include bathrooms, parking and a very well-marked 0.6 mile long loop trail that winds through the kipuka. You can watch a short video tour, or better yet, walk the trail yourself. There are many informational signs in the park, beginning with this one:
which provides a few historical facts about the kipuka. Following the white footprints out of the parking lot leads around an old, abandoned road for a short distance
before entering the forest through a metal gate.
There are Ohia trees along this initial stretch, along with signs warning of Rapid Ohia Death (or ROD) and urging you to clean your shoes before entering the forest. Once past the gate, the trail descends into a dense and ancient forest. It is a remarkable transition from the lava fields you crossed to get here. The signage advertises the many birds that skilled birders will find here, but even if you know little about birds (like me) you will enjoy this short hike. There are numerous different tree and plant species, many of them identified with small information signs:
Look carefully and you will see lots of small lava tubes and caves all through the forest.
These, and the old tree trunks and stumps, help create beautiful small tableaux to view as you walk along:
As helpful as the existing signs are, there are many plants and trees that I could not identify, leaving me wishing for even more markers. Someone could create a great little guidebook for this trail (a better solution than more markers) and I hope this happens.
A short side trail takes you to a deck that will elevate you just enough to see over the low trees and reveal a nice view of Mauna Kea in the distance.
But for me, meandering along the path was enough. Here are a few more views of the trail and sights seen along the way:
I don't think of Hawaii when I am looking for fall colors, but quite a few plants along the trail showed off brilliant reds. We have returned to this kipuka a few times in different "seasons", and the colors are the same.
It should be apparent that this trail is very photogenic! I could post more photos here but you get the point. We regularly take our visitors on a tour around the northern half of the island (essentially an “around Mauna Kea” tour) and this Kipuka is now a regular stop. Check it out!