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Hawaii Road Trip: Kalopa Native Forest State Park on the Big Island

I go to the Hilo orchid show each year. There's hardly any more room for orchids in my house but I can’t help myself from getting more!

The enchanted forest

The enchanted forest

Hawaii's Kalopa Native Forest State Park

At an elevation of 2,000 feet on the windward slopes of Mauna Kea volcano, Kalopa Native Forest State Park is a hidden gem! The 100-acre rainforest contains many native species of trees and shrubs. Some of them are classified as rare and/or endangered.

A network of hiking and horseback riding trails, as well as picnic areas, overnight lodging, and camping, make this park a wonderful place to visit whether you’re with a group of friends, family, or just by yourself. Outdoor enthusiasts, botanists, photographers, and bird watchers may also find this park a perfect place to practice their hobby and enjoy the beauty of nature. Several species of tropical songbirds make this peaceful forest their home. If you’re lucky, you might spot a native Hawaiian hawk—a federally listed endangered species of raptor—perching on a high tree branch.

Because of its off-the-beaten-path location, not too many tourists—or even local island residents—come to visit this park. You can spend a whole day here and may only see a few people if any, though weekends and holidays may be more popular!

Nature Hike

A 3/4 mile loop trail takes you through an old growth forest of native trees. Most predominant are ohi’a (Metrosideros polymorpha) and kopiko (Psychotria sp.) trees. Some of them are more than 100 feet tall, forming a dense upper canopy that keeps sunlight from reaching smaller trees and shrubs underneath. Whimsical, oddly shaped tree branches twist their way across the trail. Some trees appear to grow sideways, and others look like they’re upside down! Strangler figs (Ficus aurea) wrap their monstrous roots around the trunk of some of the giant ohi’a trees, all the way to the top! Various types of fern and moss cover the forest floor. The endemic hapu’u pulu tree fern (Cibotium glaucum) with its long upward-reaching fronds thrive in this environment. Another fern that grows in thick patches along the trail is the palapalai fern (Mircopelia strigosa). The leaves of this beautiful fern have such an intense fluorescent green color that they seem to glow in the shade of the forest.

It takes a good hour or two to complete the nature hike, depending on your pace and how many stops you make. A guide booklet (in a box at the start of the trail) will list the key highlights of the trail helping you to identify the trees (clearly posted with numbers along the trail) and provide additional information about the native plant, animal and bird species found in this forest.

One of the several magnificent old ohi'a trees in the forest!

One of the several magnificent old ohi'a trees in the forest!

Arboretum of Rare Plants

The park also has a large and well-maintained arboretum that boasts an impressive collection of native flowering trees, including the ohi’a, with its exquisite red or yellow lehua flowers and the rare small white hibiscus. These plants exist nowhere else in world, only here in Hawaii!

Awapuhi ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) is one of the "canoe plants" species

Awapuhi ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) is one of the "canoe plants" species

Polynesian Garden

Located near the picnic pavilion, is a special garden planted with many plants that are important to the Hawaiian culture and used as food, medicine, or clothing. These plants are referred to as “canoe plants” because they were brought to Hawaii many centuries ago by Polynesian settlers on their voyaging canoes across the Pacific Ocean. Banana (Musa sp.), sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), ti (Cordyline fruticosa), and taro (Alocasia sp.), are some of the plants you will find in this fascinating garden.

Take the guide book inside the box and put it back after your hike

Take the guide book inside the box and put it back after your hike

To Get Here

This park is on the mauka side (toward the mountain) of the scenic Hamakua Coast Highway (Highway 19), about 18 miles southeast of Waimea and approximately 40 miles northwest of Hilo. The park is part of the much larger adjoining Hamakua Forest Reserve.

Whether coming from the north or south end of the island, just look for the “Kalopa State Park” sign while driving on Hwy 19, make a turn, then follow more signs (with pointing arrow) as you drive uphill along the paved Kalopa Mauka road. You will go past several picturesque farms and horse ranches. The park is at the end of this road. I have included a map at the bottom of this article for reference.

Park Visit Tips

  • Kalopa Native Forest State Park and Recreation Area are open year-round and during daylight hours. No entrance fee.
  • Drive slowly on the uphill narrow road that leads to the park. Look out for horses, goats, and other farm animals. Enjoy the amazing panoramic view of the blue Pacific at the horizon!
  • Dress warmly, as it is cooler at the park. Unpredictable rainy, wet, and cloudy conditions may happen anytime at this high elevation.
  • Bring water, a hat, a camera, binoculars, and mosquito repellant.
  • There are no snakes in Hawaii, so don’t worry!
  • Pets are NOT allowed in the park, except for service dogs.
  • A trail guide booklet is available inside the wooden stand located at the trailhead. Please return the booklet to the stand after using it on your hike.
  • A camping permit is required and there’s a fee to rent the overnight lodging cabins.
  • Please dispose of trash properly to help keep the trails and park clean.
Lodging cabins are available in the park

Lodging cabins are available in the park

Palapalai fern (Mircopelia strigosa) grows everywhere in this forest

Palapalai fern (Mircopelia strigosa) grows everywhere in this forest

Warm Aloha

When you visit the Kalopa Native Forest State Park on the Big Island, or anywhere else in Hawaii on your dream vacation, please have respect for the kama'aina (people) and the aina (land).

This author, Viet Doan, likes to explore this park with a group of friends but also enjoys a solitude walk on the trail.

© 2012 Viet Doan

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